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Which and How Many Product Backlogs?

When deciding on which and how many product backlogs to form, I start with a simple rule: one product, one product backlog, meaning that each product should have its own single product backlog that allows for a product-wide description and prioritization of the work to be done.

There are, however, some occasions when we need to exercise care when applying this rule to ensure that we end up with a practical, workable product backlog structure. For example, in some cases, it’s not always clear what constitutes a product; some products are very large; sometimes we have multiple teams that aren’t interchangeable; other times there are multiple products and a single team. Let’s examine each of these special instances to see how they affect our single-backlog rule.

What Is a Product?

An issue with the one-product-one-product-backlog rule is that it isn’t always clear exactly what constitutes a product. Is Microsoft Word the product, or is it simply one facet of a larger product called Microsoft Office? If we sell only the product suite, do we have a product backlog for the suite, or do we have a product backlog for each individual application in the suite (see Figure 6.13)?

Figure 6.13

Figure 6.13. The product backlog is associated with the product.

When I worked at IBM, the customer-facing answer to the question “What is a product?” was “Whatever has its own unique product ID (PID) number.” The beauty of that answer was its simplicity. IBM sold products from a catalog, so if you could put a PID on it, salespeople could include it on an order form and therefore it was a “product.” Although the IBM answer may seem overly simplistic, I suggest that we use it as our starting point. A product is something of value that a customer would be willing to pay for and something we’re willing to package up and sell.

Using this rule becomes more complicated if we form component teams whose purpose is to create one component of a larger product that a customer would buy (see Chapter 12 for a deeper discussion of component teams). For example, when I purchased my portable GPS, I didn’t buy the routing algorithm; I purchased a portable device that would give me accurate graphical and auditory turn-by-turn directions. The routing “component” was simply one of many that came together to create a device that a customer like me would be willing to buy.

If the GPS manufacturer created a routing team to develop the routing component, is there a product backlog for that component? Or is there just one product backlog corresponding to the entire GPS, with the routing features woven into that product backlog?

And to make things even more interesting, what if the same routing component could be placed into multiple GPS products (each with its own PID)? Would we be more inclined to create a separate product backlog for a component if it could be shared among various device products?

As you can see, once we start asking these questions, we can go a long way down the rabbit hole. To help extricate ourselves, it helps to remember that our goal is to minimize the number of component teams and therefore the need for component product backlogs. Think about what you create that is packaged, delivered, and adds end-customer value. Then align your product backlog with that offering.

Large Products—Hierarchical Backlogs

Whenever possible, I prefer one product backlog even for a large product like Microsoft Office. However, we need to be practical when applying this rule. On a large product development effort to create something like a cell phone, we can have many tens or hundreds of teams whose work must all come together to create a marketable device. Trying to put the PBIs from all of these teams into one manageable product backlog isn’t practical (or necessary).

To begin with, not all of these teams work in related areas. For example, we might have seven teams that work on the audiovisual player for the phone, and another eight teams that work on the web browser for the phone. Each of these areas delivers identifiable value to the customer, and the work in each area can be organized and prioritized at a detail level somewhat independent of the other areas.

Based on these characteristics, most organizations address the large-product problem by creating hierarchical backlogs (see Figure 6.14).

Figure 6.14

Figure 6.14. Hierarchical product backlogs

At the top of the hierarchy we still have the one product backlog that describes and prioritizes the large-scale features (perhaps epics) of the product. There would also be one chief product owner, as I will discuss in Chapter 9, at this level. Each of the related feature areas then has its own backlog. So the audiovisual player area has a backlog that contains the PBIs for the seven teams that work in that area. The PBIs at the feature-area level will likely be smaller in scale (feature or story size) than the corresponding items in the product backlog. In Chapter 12 I will discuss the release train concept that is based on a three-level enterprise backlog model: the portfolio backlog (containing epics), the program backlog (containing features), and the team backlogs (containing sprintable user stories).

Multiple Teams—One Product Backlog

The one-product-one-product-backlog rule is designed to allow all of the teams working on the product to share a product backlog. Aligning all of the teams to a single backlog enables us to optimize our economics at the full-product level. We get this benefit because we put all of the features into one backlog and make them compete for priority against all other features, ensuring that the highest-priority features from the full-product perspective are identified and prioritized to be worked on first.

If all of our teams are interchangeable, so that any team can work on any PBI in the one shared backlog, we actually get to realize the prioritization benefit enabled by the single product backlog. But what if the teams aren’t interchangeable? For example, a team that works on the Microsoft Word text-layout engine probably can’t be assigned to work on the Microsoft Excel calculation engine. While not ideal, in some cases, not every team can work on every item in the product backlog.

To work within this reality, we must know which items in the product backlog each team can work on. Conceptually, we need team-specific backlogs. In practice, however, we don’t actually create product backlogs at the team level. Instead, we have team-specific views of the shared backlog (see Figure 6.15).

Figure 6.15

Figure 6.15. Team-specific view of the product backlog

As shown in Figure 6.15, there is one backlog, but it is structured in such a way that teams see and choose from only the features that are relevant to their skill sets.

Notice, too, that in Figure 6.15 the highest-level item in the team C backlog is derived from an item that is not a very high priority in the product-level backlog. If the teams were interchangeable, team C’s backlog would correspond to much higher-priority product-level backlog items. This lack of flexibility is why many organizations strive for a high level of shared code ownership and more interchangeable teams, so that they too can reap the benefits that come from having teams that can work on multiple areas of the product.

One Team—Multiple Products

If an organization has multiple products, it will have multiple product backlogs. The best way to handle multiple product backlogs is to assign one or more teams to work exclusively on each product backlog (see the left side of Figure 6.16).

Figure 6.16

Figure 6.16. Scenarios for multiple product backlogs

In some instances, however, one team ends up working from multiple product backlogs (see the right side of Figure 6.16). As I will discuss in Chapter 11, our goal should be to minimize the amount of multi-projecting that teams or team members perform. The first, and often the best, solution is to have the team work on one product at a time. In each sprint the team works only on the items from one product backlog.

However, if organizational impediments force us to have the single team work on multiple products concurrently, we might consider merging the PBIs for all three products into one product backlog. This would require that the product owners for the three products come together and reach a single prioritization across all of the products.

Even if we choose to maintain three separate product backlogs, every sprint someone (presumably the product owner for the team) will need to assemble a prioritized set of PBIs from the three backlogs (perhaps based on a preallocation of the team’s time to each product during the sprint) and present those to the team for its consideration and commitment.

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