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Agile & Product Management

Sprint Backlogs: What Is a Sprint Backlog and What is Included in One

As an agile team, developing a productive workflow can be incredibly difficult. There are various tasks your entire team has to align on in order to get things done quickly, and as priorities change, it can be hard to stay focused on your overall goals.

Moving as one unit requires your entire team to be in agreement on what that goal is for each Sprint, what activities will help you achieve that goal, and which members of your team own the prioritization of your Product Backlog and Sprint Backlog.

At times, it can feel like a hail storm of activities with one new item piling on top of another. If you aren’t clear on what’s up next, you’ll either be scrambling to get it all finished or be sitting ducks waiting for a new task to come in.

Either way, if you don’t find that consistent flow, productivity will tank and your team simply will not meet its goals.

So how do you ensure things are in a constant flow, always moving forward at the right pace?

Short answer: keep your Sprint Backlog tight.

What is a Sprint Backlog?

According to The Scrum Guide, “The Sprint Backlog is a highly visible, real-time picture of the work that the Development Team plans to accomplish during the Sprint.”

Put simply – the Sprint Backlog is a subset of the Product Backlog (which is the entire list of items your team wants to accomplish in the product).

sprint backlog example in a Kanban board created through ZenHub

It is your Product Backlog Items (PBIs) that are forecasted specifically for that sprint. While the PM owns the Product Backlog, the development team is consulted when deciding 1) the goal of the sprint and 2) the specific PBIs that will help achieve that goal.

For example, let’s say a team wants to ship a new Roadmap feature. This is their main priority, but of course, they’ll have other work in the Product Backlog as well — technical debt, bugs, UI updates, and so on. The Product Backlog will be a mix of both Roadmap-related PBIs as well as other pieces of work.

For a sprint, the team may decide their Sprint Goal is to complete the main view of Roadmap. They’ll want to pull in PBIs that will help them achieve this main goal. This might be things like “Finish new dropdowns for Roadmap” and “Add ability to create Epics in Roadmap”. They may bring in critical bugs, but the main focus will be to select PBIs that contribute towards the Sprint Goal.

During the sprint, they may modify the Sprint Backlog if critical bugs come up, or if the scope of the Roadmap feature changes and they need to shift their priorities. They’ll also want to update the Sprint Backlog as items get completed.

When is the Sprint Backlog created?

Sprint Backlogs are created during sprint planning but their content can still change in time. This said, they’re not a definitive to-do list as they face constant changes, new requests, and potential risk/threat management.

Ideally, you’ll want to host a backlog grooming (also known as backlog refinement) meeting beforehand to get everything ready. Product owners use these to review if the tasks within the backlog are suited for the goals of the project and prioritize them before jumping to making time estimates.


What may be included in the Sprint Backlog?

The Sprint Backlog essentially fetches action items (tasks or bugs) from the product backlog.

Your team should have agreed to execute these during the sprint grooming and planning meetings based on their velocity and time estimates. These tasks are then listed in the Sprint Backlog according to their priorities so they act as a plan that shows each team member what’s next on their work tray.

The difference between a product backlog and Sprint Backlog

comparison between the purpose of a product backlog and a sprint backlog

Product backlog: A list of tasks to be completed (built with user feedback and data) and prioritized by the product manager. The goal of the product backlog is to list down all potential future tasks and categorize them by priority.

Sprint backlog: A subset of tasks to be completed during the sprint that are pulled from the Product Backlog. This list is decided by a collaborative effort by both the product manager and the development team. The main purpose of a Sprint Backlog is to ensure transparency when it comes to the tasks that need to be completed during a given sprint.

The reason it is so important to make this distinction is because oftentimes, if you treat the Product Backlog as the Sprint Backlog, you’ll find yourself knocking things down off the list without much clarity as to why you’re completing a feature.

In the case of our example, that Roadmap feature may never be completed if it wasn’t separated from the long list in the Product Backlog.

By discussing both your sprint goal and the items needed to achieve it, your team reaches alignment on the best way to deliver what the customers actually need. It gives your team an opportunity to check in and stay focused.

How to create the best Sprint Backlog

Now that you know the nitty-gritty of a Sprint Backlog as opposed to a Product Backlog, here are some Sprint Backlog management best practices tips on how to create the best Sprint Backlog:

Make it visible

Once your development team has decided what tasks will be included in the Sprint Backlog, it’s important to make sure that everyone on your team has visibility. A common approach is to mount a large monitor on the wall with the Sprint Backlog on display.

Every day, when your team comes in, they can see what’s moving (and what’s not). This works perfectly if you have a remote team. Bonus: ZenHub is tied to GitHub’s real-time data, and changes in the sprint are tracked live on the digital board.

Update the Agile Sprint Backlog often

Checking in and updating the status of items as they get completed the Sprint Backlog regularly will ensure that the flow is not being blocked by anything. It also helps you avoid surprises. A daily stand-up meeting is a common way to check-in and make sure everyone is on the same page.

Communicate regularly

Your team has to communicate regularly in order to realize any dependencies and make changes to their sprint tasks quickly. Transparency and frequent updates are key. Don’t wait until your next meeting to tell someone that you’re blocked.

If you’re a manager, encourage your team to speak up if they’re facing challenges or blockers. When one team member is stalled, they can slow everyone down by not speaking up.

Use the best tools to monitor progress

When organizing an entire team, you’re often only as strong as the tools you use. Today’s sprint and scrum software can help keep your team moving forward and allow you to measure success while getting things done. One way of doing this is to combine the power of GitHub with ZenHub’s Reporting Suite.

ZenHub offers a uniquely data-driven view into your software development process. Rather than relying on third-party tools that only show you when the project status was last updated, ZenHub is tied to code development inside GitHub to give you the most accurate view of what is really going on in your workflow. With ZenHub’s burndown charts, you can ensure that each progressive sprint is more and more efficient.

burndown chart example for sprint backlog planning with ZenHub

No matter what tools you use or how you prioritize your Sprint Backlog, it is essential to be clear on expectations. Always make sure you know who’s making the decision on what goes into the backlog. Align your team on the overall goal of the sprint and hold people accountable for communicating frequently to ensure there are no bottlenecks.

Between these clear expectations and a powerful, efficient system in place, your team will be cranking out highly valuable features in record time.

With ZenHub, each user benefits from the added transparency our platform provides, helping them create and ship high-quality software. Learn more about how to plan and execute a Sprint with ZenHub!


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