From chaos to clarity: A step-by-step guide to tidying up your software backlog

Headshot for author Scott Wittrock

Scott Wittrock

Fractional CPO/CTO - Head for Product

July 28, 2023

min read

Cleaning up a software product development backlog is essential to maintain focus and efficiency in your development process. Whether you’re using Jira or Linear as your project management tool, the following tips will help you streamline and organize your backlog effectively:

Define your ticket types and size

Most backlogs contain a broad spectrum of tasks to get done. One ticket might include a small copy change, while another might be a month or year-long multi-team project. It’s impossible to prioritize a backlog when your tickets vary in effort and scope. Before you begin any backlog cleanup process, you should propose and agree on how you visualize and track different types of effort. I’ll go into depth about issue sizing in another post, but here are the basics.

Level Effort Linear Jira
Sub-task 1-2 days Sub-task Sub-tasks
Sprint Task 1-10 days (less than a sprint cycle) Issue Story, technical task, spike
Feature 1-3 months Project Epic
Theme 1-4 quarters Not supported Initiative

I provided examples of how Linear and Jira visualize these ticket types. What they are called doesn’t matter as much as you agree on rough sizing for each level.

Use backlog filtering and searching capabilities

Both Jira and Linear offer powerful filtering and searching features. Utilize these capabilities to quickly find specific items based on criteria such as labels, assignees, due dates, or status. Filtering lets you focus on relevant tasks and quickly identify high-priority tickets needing immediate attention. I’ll give some examples of queries that are useful for each organizational task.

Eliminate or archive irrelevant items

Over time, the backlog can become cluttered with outdated or irrelevant tasks. Evaluate each item and determine if it aligns with the project’s goals and requirements. If specific tasks are no longer relevant, remove them from the backlog entirely or archive them for future reference. This will help maintain a focused and relevant backlog.

  • Sort by last updated ascending
  • By viewing the tickets that haven’t been updated recently, you will find many ones you can remove without hesitation. If it’s been in the backlog for 6-12 months, odds are it’s a duplicate, not formatted right, or irrelevant.

Create the buckets of work

If you know your main features and themes, you should add those as projects or epics, depending on your tool. Work with your engineering leads and key stakeholders to capture the big tasks adequately. If the buckets are unclear, use labels or tags to start grouping things you know about.

Some typical buckets that usually exist in all companies:

  • Platform stability - Most bugs or scaling issues will land here. These solve immediate customer needs.
  • Developer experience - Most tech debt tickets will end up here. Examples would be setting up shared tooling, adding logging tools, refactoring old code, and switching to a new framework. These keep your developers working effectively so they can address issues faster.

If nobody has been actively managing your backlog, there is a good chance it’s become a dumping ground, and most will be irrelevant.

Filter tips

  • Use labels like #ask-engineering or #questions to tag tickets you aren’t sure about. Then set up a dashboard that includes those tickets.

Conduct regular backlog grooming sessions

Schedule regular backlog grooming sessions with your development team to review and refine the backlog. During these meetings, discuss the priority of items, check their status, and make any necessary adjustments. Keep the backlog up-to-date and ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding the current state of the project. If you are on a two week sprint cycle, I recommend using the off week to hold your grooming session. This gives your team a little break mid sprint to do some forward thinking.

Tidying up your software product development backlog is a vital step in maintaining focus and productivity. By defining ticket types and sizes, utilizing filtering capabilities, and conducting regular backlog grooming sessions, you can keep your backlog organized and relevant. Eliminating irrelevant items and creating buckets for major tasks will further enhance efficiency. Embrace these strategies in tools like Jira or Linear to transform your backlog from chaos to clarity, ultimately empowering your team to deliver successful software products with ease. Happy backlog cleaning!

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