Not Good Enough

“I put this story into the backlog two years ago and it still isn’t done!” You’ve probably heard a similar complaint about your product backlog.

Some people view a backlog as a collection point for work to be done. They put an item into the backlog and expect that it will get implemented sooner or later. Their job is to make well-formed and well-considered requests, and the implementation team’s job is to get them done.

When you look at a backlog this way, a work item lingering in a backlog indicates a problem with implementation. The teams doing the work aren’t efficient enough. Once the teams get their acts together and improve their development capacity, that big backlog will drain. Everything that goes into the backlog will be implemented, and life will be good!

This way of thinking frequently dominates at the start of an agile transformation. The focus is on implementation efficiency. One of the first jobs of a good agile coach is to challenge this thinking.

Ideas are always easier to generate than to implement. For that reason alone implementation always lags behind ideation. No matter how quickly teams complete backlog items, you will come up with new ideas faster. Ideation will outpace implementation, keeping the backlog full and probably growing.

Increasing implementation capacity may briefly tip the balance, but only until expectations change and ideation increases in response. People quickly adapt to the new implementation capacity, and begin adding new projects to the backlog at a higher rate. The balance tips back toward where it was before, and perhaps beyond. Once again the number of items in the backlog exceeds implementation capacity. And with higher capacity and the matching expectations, the previous problem arises again on a larger scale.

None of this is an argument against efficiency. Faster delivery and higher capacity are beneficial. But interpreting lingering items in a backlog as indicators of an efficiency problem overlooks one of the primary benefits of a backlog.

In the face of too many items to implement, prioritizing the backlog focuses efforts on the most important items. Items linger because they never achieve high enough priority to warrant implementation, not because they are bad ideas but because they are not good enough.

Keeping lingering items in the backlog means giving up focus on the highest priority items. Unless you work in a non-competitive industry, how can you afford to invest your efforts in the not good enough?

A backlog adds value by filtering out items that are not good enough to implement. Identify those items lingering in your backlog and ask yourself whether they will ever achieve priority next to the current and future high-priority items in the backlog. And when the answer is no, remove them.

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