Should you bother with a product backlog?

I recently started a conversation on the agile development group over at Yahoo Groups. My initial question was, should I ditch the product backlog? We tend to do a lot of just-in-time development, the requirements come in, sometimes mere hours before our sprint planning and as such, these stories are only on the product backlog for a very short period of time, if at all. Often they’ll just come in via email from the Technical Director and they get added to the sprint. The backlog, then, becomes ever growing and it seems that some of the stories on there will never be looked at again, let alone completed. It’s the fable of the ever-growing backlog.

So, do we even need it? Jack Milunksy of Agile Buddy fame said, if you’re not using it, then in pure lean fashion, ditch it and stick with the just in time. Others have said, if you’re not using a product backlog, how will you define a release strategy or be able to roadmap the product? Which is a good point. The answer then is that it depends. Why is this always the answer with anything scrum? 😉

If you’re using the product backlog as a place to store and prioritise stories, use as a release manager or roadmapper, then you should keep at it. If you’re using the product backlog as somewhere to store half-formed ideas of possible features of additions to your product, then maybe you should use a backlog. If you get your priorities minutes before the sprint starts, hastily written on the back of a beer mat, then maybe not. Or, maybe just use it to store high priority stories that are definitely going to be worked on but not yet.Above and beyond all this though, is grooming. If you don’t groom your product backlog, then you’re in a whole world of pain. Epics, which are at the bottom will suddenly become top priority and, without grooming, will still be Epics. Your team may even throw things at you, I wouldn’t be surprised. So groom the backlog regularly, get the team involved and make sure you’re breaking stuff down!

Update: Jack Milunksy over at the Agile Buddy blog even blogged about this:

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