Half-Life For Your Backlog

This summer, I helped a team think about the important work that we wanted to tackle. Then vacations happened. Priorities shifted. The product finally went live to a bigger set of potential customers. And those stories we'd written remained in the backlog. When we opened one at refinement this week, a developer joked that the items in the backlog should have a half-life.

Everyone else laughed. I insisted they were on to something.

Backlogs are toxic

Every product team I've been on has items (user stories, bugs, even epics) that are old. Maybe the person who wrote them has since left the company. Maybe the bug doesn't have clear enough reproduction steps or impact statement to ever prioritize it. Maybe the dream feature from two years ago already exists but the earliest description of its possibilities remains.

Nobody needs this garbage. Nobody has the context anymore. And most importantly, nobody will notice if these items disappear from your backlog.

What would happen if, instead of treating every item ever logged in JIRA as a precious pearl, you treated it like the biohazard that it is? Get rid of it!

Evidence of a toxic backlog

I know a team's backlog needs a half-life when:

  • Comments appear on the JIRA items ahead of refinement asking "do we still need this?"
  • Items belong to an epic, sprint, or some other gathering place that is already closed.
  • Items belong to many sprints but have never been in progress.
  • People are scared to edit or remove items from the backlog.

Lean software development stress just-in-time refinement to prevent the decay, waste, and stress caused by building up a big backlog that never gets smaller.

Narrow it down

Start with a literal half-life on your backlog. Take the date the product began. Subtract it from today's date. Divide it in half. Any items older than that period: delete them. For a product that's been worked on for four years, that's any item older than two years.

Other strategies that have served me even better to achieve an even smaller, robust backlog:

  • Delete any feature requests filed by colleagues when they quit.
  • Delete any items that only contain a title (no details) for a feature that's already been released and not on the roadmap for the next three months.
  • Delete any items you wrote.

Then set new rules about how to add things to the backlog, and how realistic you want to be about what kind of clean-up (even just administrative) there is after a milestone is complete.

Embrace change

Present you knows so much more about what's important and how things will get prioritized than past you did! Let go of what you thought you knew and embrace what you know now!

Software doesn't live forever, and neither will you. Learning to let go of the dreams that will never come true leaves room for you to dream about a different future, one you can realize. I hope your backlog can reflect that.

What other toxic questions or narrowing criteria have you used? Does JIRA have a (free, please) plugin to delete anything beyond a certain date? Has anyone ever gotten upset that you deleted something from the backlog? Has anyone even noticed?

Photo by Kilian Karger on Unsplash