The Product Manager's Guide to Backlog Grooming (Reboot)
As a product manager, you’re probably used to getting plenty of feature requests thrown your way. Let’s face it, wishlists are a pain and the hardest part is having to validate the various ideas, requests and suggestions. Do they solve a problem? Do they address a customer need? Do they align with the product mission? And yes, it’s your job to break the news when these feature requests don’t earn their spot on the roadmap and aren’t important enough to be prioritized.
But creating and maintaining a backlog, or what’s also called the parking lot containing the galaxy-of-every-feature-we-can-build, doesn’t have to be as difficult as you might think.
What is a Parking Lot?
First things first - what is a parking lot exactly? This is a gallery where you park feature ideas - a product manager’s best friend when it comes to keeping track of everything. It’s for every wishlist item and feature request you may get from customers, sales, marketing, engineers, etc. This is an excellent way to put all ideas somewhere without saying an outright ‘no’. It’s important to note that these ideas and requests do not have the green light to move onto execution (i.e. into the roadmap and eventually the engineering backlog).
The parking lot is step 1 of the product lifecycle management process. As a product manager, you’re responsible for grooming the parking lot tickets (i.e. wishlists and ideas) on a regular basis, making sure that items are relevant and discarding the ones that perhaps are no longer valid.
The parking lot is more than just a dumping zone for ideas, it’s also a place to add more data or details to these feature requests so as to increase their confidence score. This could include anecdotal evidence, market or user data, and results from A/B tests. Eventually, the goal is to ‘explore the problem space,’ to outline problems to be solved along with the data/metrics that provide evidence that the problem hurts enough to justify the need for the proposed solution. This process allows the product manager to identify which tickets in the parking lot are relevant for the short-term roadmap and move these into step 2 of the product lifecycle management process: Analysis.
How to Manage a Parking Lot
Now that you have a clear understanding of the concept of a parking lot, let’s dive into what it takes to create and manage one!
It’s okay to say no
Every successful product manager has to get used to saying ‘no’ to ideas, suggestions and urgent demands from customers and internal stakeholders. While saying ‘no’ can be one of the hardest things to do, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t have to be done confrontationally. You must learn to do so in a way that is strategic and constructive without completely shutting down the other person.
Listening and asking questions to give the other person some control shows that you respect their point of view. Giving an outright ‘no’ as a response and immediately shutting the other person down creates conflict and friction, leaving them feeling as though they have not been heard.
You can’t say ‘yes’ to every feature request in your parking lot, it’s impossible to do it all. Saying ‘no’ therefore helps to provide a focus on what is most important. Remind the person making the request that you must consider different factors before saying ‘yes’ to a feature/change because even the smallest features can have a large impact on a product.
Doing the right research, talking to customers to confirm relevance, and asking questions to collect more information are paramount. A lot of thought is put into the decision of giving a feature request the green light. It’s important to analyze the development cost, maintenance cost and whether or not the feature can be maintained, whether it fits in with the business model, if there is any technical debt as a result of building the feature and whether customers will be unhappy with the change.
With saying ‘no’, comes the fact that not everything that goes into your parking lot will become a feature. Each feature needs to be analysed to see if they are ready to be pushed through the roadmap via a prioritization process with the leadership team.
Share the product vision
A feature must always come down to a problem, which must be identified and validated for the feature to earn its spot in the parking lot. This is why it’s important to build a shared understanding of the product vision to avoid last-minute esoteric requests that contradict already established objectives and priorities and discredit the customer needs and personas. Involve key stakeholders and walk them through your decision-making process and articulate your product vision, strategy and roadmap.
Even if there are small changes to your product roadmap, convey the big picture and the paths you will take to fulfil your product vision. It is important to make sure all stakeholders feel included so that they feel they are part of the product vision and decision. This makes it easier to get buy-in from stakeholders and achieve real product outcomes.
Tag, organize and categorize your parking lot items
Now, what do you do with a parking lot full of features? A little triage, tagging, sorting and grooming! For example, if there are bugs in the parking lot, these can be divided up into blockers, critical, major, minor and trivial. Blockers, criticals and majors go directly into the engineering backlog. Minor and trivial bugs can stay in the parking lot for the future, as these don’t take priority and there’s an interruption cost for fixing every single bug.
Next, you can categorize and group parking lot item initiatives into themes or strategies, for example, improve satisfaction for a persona. You can also tag parking lot items to find a balance between different types of initiatives:
- New idea
- Iteration on shipped product (as a follow-up on customer feedback)
- Fix common customer problems (usability issue, feature request, bug)
- Improves quality
- Helps product scale (capacity, reliability, integrity)
- Helps product security and/or performance
Any items that have been waiting in your parking lot for more than 6 to 12 months should be sent back and re-evaluated. If they aren’t important enough to be actioned, then they definitely don’t belong on your roadmap and should be discarded. As a rule of thumb, it is recommended product managers groom the parking lot for 30 minutes every week to make sense of the ideas, suggestions and requests. Keep in mind that some tickets may need to be deleted as they are no longer relevant. Doing this task consistently every week helps to stay on top of the requests in the parking lot, keeping it organized and effectively groomed.
Use tools to help you manage your parking lot!
There are many tools at your disposal that you can use. Essentially, any tool that has a kanban board with tickets can hold and help you manage a parking lot. Check out these ones below:
ClickUp: Have all your work in one place - includes features such as task management, customization, team collaboration, automation, templates and more. Find out more here.
Coda: Built for product teams and brings together meeting notes, project specs, action items, and teammates into one organized place. Find out more here.
Remember, a parking lot isn’t meant to be a graveyard for ideas. It takes time and effort to organize and groom the tickets to determine the relevancy of each request, how well they align with the product vision and whether or not they are ready to be pushed through the product lifecycle management process. Not everything will get the green light on execution and that’s okay!
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