The Product Manager's Guide to Backlog Grooming

Wish lists are a pain.

It looks like a small request – at best. It comes top down, it guts your strategy, it unbalances all the hard work you put in prioritising and forces you to make difficult trade-offs.

Great news: you need to validate that it’s actually useful and/or important,

Less-great news: If they clearly aren’t important enough to be done, then they don’t belong on the backlog. Your job is to break the news.

Some of my stakeholders have tried everything to eviscerate a backlog: Last minute esoteric requests with intense pressure on me to say "yes", contradicting established objectives and priorities, discrediting the customer need/personas, questioning prioritization techniques …they just end up forcing me to take measures to make the right hard call and say no (and I say it a lot)

Maintaining a backlog needn’t be so tricky. Allow me to present, your backlog grooming cheat sheet.

First Up? The Parking Lot
Every input, idea and feature request you get from the outside world (customers, executives, sales or marketing teams, etc.) should end up in some sort of a container. I keep a list called "The parking lot" — it is where I keep every suggestion, wish list item and feature request I get. It’s not considered to be part of the backlog.

Build a shared understanding of the product vision by making feature requests earn their spot in the backlog. Involve key stakeholder and get them to get through your decision-making process.

The Acid test/ decision-making framework
The solution to the bulk of your decision-making is simple, cheap and painless: a proper list of "yes or no" questions.

  • Does it fit your vision?
  • Can we scope it well?
  • Can we do it well?
  • Will everyone benefit from it?
  • Does it grow the business?
  • Will it generate new meaningful engagement?
  • Will it improve, complement or innovate on the existing workflow?
  • If it succeeds, can we support and afford it?
  • Can we design it so that reward is greater than effort?
  • Will it still matter in 5 years?

This framework built into your product decisions process gives you leverage with the team and focuses all available resources on meeting the company’s main strategic objectives.

Prioritization for Pirates: AARRR
How hard can that new feature be? Well, when you’re striving for quality, there are no small changes. You never have enough resources to work on everything everyone can come up with. Ask yourself "Where do we suck, and where does it matter?" To improve a product you focus on the parts that are both important and disappointing to customers.

Acquisition: Do customers find you?
Activation: Do they sign up?
Retention: Do they come back?
Revenue: Do they pay you?
Referral: Do they tell their friends?
So grab the feature request and try to see if it fits in an area with limited adoption.

Add, Improve or Kill
Making a simple product is about scoping down and choosing the smallest subset of the workflow where your product delivers value. Any given feature should fit in one of the following categories.

  • Core: Features to satisfy users’ basic needs.
  • Increase Adoption: get more people to use it.
  • Increase Engagement: get people to use it more often.
  • Give it an Upgrade: Make it quantifiably better for those who use it.
  • A Whole new way: New idea, innovation, new workflow (risky)
  • Kill: admit defeat, and start to remove it from your product.

Once again, ask yourself "Where do we suck, and where does it matter?"After you’ve validated that the feature requests actually matters and/or important, then go ahead and include it.

Strategic Importance
Brilliant. But do be sure to consider, before pulling the trigger – Is this a monetizable market opportunity?

The best product managers think strategically. Will the feature allow me to acquire new customers, speed time to market, etc. Product innovation is about creating monetizable customer value. Answer the revenue question first.

  • New Revenue: new income that is projected to be generated;
  • Incremental Revenue: additional income from existing customers by now being able to charge for an upgrade or additional services;
  • Retained Revenue: income that’s not lost because customer churn is reduced;
  • Cost Savings: any type of operational efficiency that is gained inside the company.

Then move on to secondary elements.

  • Saves support and engineering time
  • Expands usability
  • Keeps Data Secure
  • Simplifies experience
  • Provides helpful resources
  • Enables further custom integrations
  • Enhances user experience
  • Enhances speed and performance
  • Develops Strategy
  • Enhances Performance
  • Increases Customer Satisfaction
  • etc…

Also, any items that have been waiting in your backlog for more than 6 to 12 months, should be sent back the parking lot to be re-evaluated. If they clearly aren’t important enough to be done, then they definitely don’t belong on your roadmap.

Doesn’t matter what method you use. Doesn’t matter if you do it some other way. Getting the proper balance is your call. If you’ve been grooming, then everyone will see the value you bring. They’ll also think twice before sending you a wish list.

Originally published on
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Would you like our Product Management Premiere E-book? Visit our Download page
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

About Bain Public

Bain Public, acquired by X Machina-AI Inc. in January 2022, offers consistent roadmap planning processes & tools for business leaders and product managers organized around what motivates, inspires and improves growth. Bain Public offers a variety of articles, e-books and approaches designed to help organizations understand their digital strategies, introduce elements of roadmapping and establish product-led change amongst the senior leaders and managers. Our approach, product, expert advice and coaching helps entangle complex technology, people and roadmap dynamics.

About XMachina

X Machina-AI seeks to provide a platform for the acquisition of Artificial Intelligence ("AI") entities in North America. The company’s thesis is based on an aggregation strategy to acquire successful AI targets and make them better through the addition of growth capital, streamlining of corporate processes and human capital acquisitions. The current sector focus of the Company is on enhancing supply-chain efficiencies, logistics and manufacturing.