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Agile Backlog: Definition & Management

Instructor: Stephen Meyer

Stephen has worked as a Project Manager and is PMP certified, as well as certified by the Scrum Alliance.

Project requirements are most valuable when they are easy to understand and implement. In Agile, management of project requirements is done through the use of a backlog. Learn the definition and management of an Agile backlog.

Basis of Agile

Michael is responsible for contracting web developers for his software company. The company uses Agile for its approach to software development but the specific methodologies used varying between project teams. Many of the contractors with whom he interacts have a similar mindset: provide a requirements document and the work will be completed as requested. However, Michael has to help his contractors understand that this is not the way Agile handles project requirements or approaches projects in general.

Agile is an approach to managing projects that attempts to provide an alternative to traditional methodologies. While these can be document-heavy and process-driven, Agile looks to place the emphasis on the product of the project and the individuals involved, while providing flexibility to respond to change. It is based on the Agile Manifesto (agilemanifesto.org), which details the following values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Within the Manifesto, it is explicitly stated that each of the items referenced is valuable, but the items on the left, such as individuals and interactions, or working software, are more valuable than the items on the right, like processes and tools, or comprehensive documentation. In general, the emphasis in Agile is on making something that is valuable. This is best defined by individuals engaging with each other and collaborating and is maintained by doing this throughout the project and embracing change as needed.

Definition of Agile Backlog

Once Michael helps his contractors understand the Agile approach to projects, he then moves on to a discussion on how project requirements are handled. Traditional methodologies dictate that a project sponsor or decision-maker establish all project requirements at the beginning of the project, compile them into a requirements document or specification, and then measure results against the original request. Agile deviates from traditional methodologies.

Project requirements are kept in an Agile backlog, which is a prioritized grouping of project work yet to be completed. The form of the project work can vary. In order for the work to be taken on, it must be in the form of user stories, which are high-level descriptions of functionality for specific end-users. This helps provide the definition that is necessary for project work. However, rather than establishing all requirements and creating a rigid list of tasks to complete, it generates discussion and engages the various individuals involved with the project who are able to give input on what work is completed and how it is accomplished.

While most of the items in the backlog are in user story form, this is not the case for all. Items in the backlog have not yet been taken on so they can be in a less-defined form than a user story until they need to be completed. These are referred to as epics, which are similar to user stories but are larger and more complex, needing to be refined. Rather than forcing these items to be defined up front, they can be documented and allowed to evolve as the project progresses. This allows placeholders for the overall vision of what the project should produce.

Beyond the makeup of an Agile backlog, the format is important as well. The format is specifically based on the makeup, which consists of high-level items at varying levels of definition for the purpose of discussion. For this purpose, the backlog should be in a visual form that is accessible to individuals engaging with it. Often, it is a physical board that has user stories and epics written on cards. It can be created virtually with project management software, but the display is relatively the same.

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