My Personal Backlog:

Backlog Basics and Initial Prioritization


Introduction and Purpose

The purpose of this document is to provide an understanding of how organizing tasks into a backlog is beneficial by defining what a backlog is, what tools are needed to create one, how to get started and prioritize your work so that you can be more effective in focusing on the most important work first.

What is a backlog?

A backlog is a central place to collect all work that needs to be completed. That’s it. Sounds pretty obvious but we are generally not good at it. We have to-dos in our head, on our phones, on backs of envelopes . . . . . . . you get the idea.

So step one is to gather all that stuff and put it in one place. As you do this, do not worry about the size, complexity and importance of the things you are putting in the backlog - just focus on getting what you need to do in one place.

Why have a backlog?

The importance of a central backlog is that it gets things out of your head, off of the envelopes and into one place where you can visualize, organize, analyze, and prioritize your work.

Where do I start?

What tools do I need?

All you need to create a backlog is a piece of paper and a pen to be honest. But, let’s use the tools no agilist can live without, sticky notes and a Sharpie . . . . .

Why do we recommend using sticky notes? Because they are small and easy to move around. This is key because you will move these notes multiple times as you prioritize and then start moving things from to-do to done.

So get yourself a sticky pad (color doesn’t matter) and a marker and let’s get to work.

A quick note to our paperless friends - there are many apps available that can be used to manage your backlog. We will, in due course, tell you about our favorites and the pros and cons of each. However, if you are new to this, we highly recommend using good old-fashioned pen and paper.

The initial brain dump

Okay, so you have your sticky pad and marker, now what do you do? Well, start writing down your to-dos/tasks/obligations. Only put one item on each sticky. Do not worry at this point about the size of the task or the importance. At this point, you only want to get what is in your head down on paper so you can visualize it. When finished you should have something that looks like this

So, let’s take a look at this. There are some things on here that seem fairly easy - simple errands and there are others that look a lot more complex - what exactly is “Sophie’s birthday party” for example? Well, in this case it is planning and hosting a birthday sleepover for your 14 year old daughter and 5 of her nearest and dearest friends, so that “story” will have to be broken down into more manageable pieces - but we’ll worry about that in a bit. For now, we have a view of our work and from here we can make a quick pass at priorities. . . . . .

Making sense of chaos - Initial Prioritization

Defining what is important

Just like doctors in a busy Emergency Room, we need to triage our list to determine what needs our focus right now. This should not be a long, laborious exercise but a quick assessment of what is most important right now.

So looking at our example above, you could say:

Based upon the above information your backlog could now look like this

We still need to further define some of the work - the party, closets and vacation can, and should, be broken down further - but, as they are not our top priorities we can hold off on doing that for now.

This should give you enough to get started. Remember, the important thing here is to get all the stuff you have to do out of your head, off the back of envelopes, and anywhere else you may have stashed a list, into one backlog that you can prioritize and refine.

Our next installment of My Backlog will be all about how to break your backlog down into manageable components as well as discuss what “user stories” are and how to write good really good ones.

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