Sprint Backlogs in Practice

First published in The Agile Zone, 5 July 2013

"A whole leisure day before you, a good novel in hand, and the backlog only just beginning to kindle..."- Backlog Studies, by Charles Dudley Warner

A Recap on Backlogs

A few weeks ago we took a critical look at Product Backlogs. We considered their purpose, how they are meant to be used, and why the aspirations they represent can so easily fall into a state of "Lost Remembrance". We also saw that a Product Backlog is an ordered list of requirements that are in scope, and if a project is to deliver value, then certain portions of that scope must be delivered in a timely manner.

The Product Backlog is an instrument for managing this process. In short it is a queue, and one that is constantly tended and revised by a Product Owner. It is an artifact of diligent curation in which some requirements are determined to be more important than others, and which therefore ought to be delivered first. On the other hand some requirements will be observed to depend upon others, and must therefore be delivered afterwards.

Introducing the Sprint Backlog

In a very simple agile process - such as an elementary Kanban implementation - there will only be one backlog. Team members will action each item from the backlog in turn. They will be careful to draw only from the top of the queue, in order of priority. More sophisticated methods can include refinements such as “fast track” lanes in which the Quality of Service will be varied. We've already seen how this approach works in the context of managing critical incidents, and also in the context of hybrid agile methods such as Scrumban.

Yet when we consider Scrum itself, we see that the Product Backlog is complemented by another of these queues...the Sprint Backlog. The idea is that if the team deliver something of value at regular intervals then the risks of the project can be better managed, and metrics can be generated that show progress towards its completion. Those regular intervals are known as Sprints. The chunk of requirements that the team agrees to work on during Sprint Planning is the Sprint Backlog.

All of this is well known to agile developers, and the chances are that most of you reading this will have been working along these lines for years. So now let's challenge some common assumptions that are made about Sprint Backlogs and how a Scrum team is meant to handle them. Have any of these assumptions been made by your team?

Assumption: The Sprint Backlog is a subset of the Product Backlog

During Sprint Planning, a team will agree with the Product Owner which requirements from the Product Backlog will be worked on and met by the end of the forthcoming iteration. This has lead to the widespread practice of placing corresponding index cards into the Sprint Backlog on the Scrum board. In effect, it's a subset of the Product Backlog. What many teams fail to realize is that although the identification of an appropriate subset of Product Backlog requirements may be fine as a statement of intent, it can hardly be said to represent an actual plan for delivery.

Admittedly a suitable plan doesn't have to be documented; it can live entirely in the developers' heads. A Scrum board's Sprint Backlog may indeed only show that subset of Product Backlog requirements which have been chosen for the Sprint. In fact the whole thing may look very like a Kanban board, even to the point that a casual observer might not be able to tell whether Scrum or Kanban rules are in force just by looking at it. The important thing is that a Sprint plan is agreed upon, shared, and understood by the team.

Alternatively a task board may be used. Each selected requirement will be planned into tasks, and these will in turn be transcribed onto index cards or sticky notes. The tasks will move across the board in horizontal swim lanes that align each one to its parent requirement. In this model the Sprint Backlog is not represented by a subset of the Product Backlog, but rather by the corresponding tasks that have been planned for delivery.

Assumption: A Sprint Backlog consists of tasks

If we can see that each User Story has been broken down into tasks, it implies that some attempt has been made at Sprint Planning. It doesn't prove it of course. For all we know, each one of those tasks could have been identified by one person in the back of the pub last night. In other words, the tasks themselves do not amount to a plan. They merely infer by their presence that a team planning session is likely to have occurred, and that a team understanding regarding the delivery of the Sprint Goal has been reached.

This means that a Sprint Backlog doesn't have to consist of tasks. It could be that “clean subset” of the Product Backlog we mentioned earlier, and therefore it might consist of User Stories. What matters is whether or not the team have a plan. While tasks imply that such a plan may have been formulated, they are not conclusive evidence of this, and they are certainly not the only way to compose a Sprint Backlog.

Assumption: The Sprint Backlog is the Sprint Goal

Identifying a meaningful Sprint Goal is usually the hardest part of Sprint Planning. Deciding how many User Stories can be accommodated, and what they should be, is comparatively straightforward. After all the team should know their budget. Time and again, Sprint Planning will boil down to horse-trading with the Product Owner over how many story points can be absorbed.

“We've got 13 points left”, is a common refrain in Planning Poker. “We can't do that 20 pointer”.

“OK”, says the Product Owner. “I'll bring forward a 5 and an 8 from the next Sprint”.

While this satisfies the brutal arithmetic of planning, it does little to help create an increment of value. When the Sprint Backlog consists of disjointed requirements that don't play together as part of a cohesive potential release, the business value you might expect from such a release can hardly be delivered. Product Owners who expect otherwise are doing themselves and the product a disservice, and team members should not be party to such shenanigans.

So, can each one of your team members articulate the goal for their current Sprint? Or is the “goal” just to deliver everything that's on the Sprint Backlog? A Sprint Goal is more than the sum of stories to be delivered or the tasks to be performed. It's about releasing business value incrementally and continually. Without that, the Product Owner probably has no idea when the project will reach completion. The common question “When will the project be done” is most often heard when incremental delivery is weak and the corresponding Sprint Goals are shoddy.

Assumption: The Product Owner puts the Sprint Backlog in order

This assumption is commonly held, but in Scrum terms it's plain wrong. The Development Team wholly own their Sprint Backlog, and it's up to them how they choose to order it. All the Product Owner should care about is whether or not the Sprint Goal is likely to be met by the end of the Sprint.

This assumption is commonly held because Scrum is sometimes conflated with Kanban practice. In Kanban, there will normally be just one backlog and a Product Owner might well put it in order, and thereby exercise fine control over what gets delivered and when. Scrum is a different agile method and a different deal. In Scrum, value will be released at the end of the Sprint, not at discrete or arbitrary points within it. Granted, the Development Team should engage with the Product Owner throughout the Sprint, including on such matters as review and signoff, but the schedule for this is up to them. They decide, by creating their Sprint Plan, how the Sprint Backlog will be structured and how the corresponding work will be actioned.

Assumption: Developers shouldn't cherry-pick from the Sprint Backlog

This is a very good rule, but it is also one that is subject to misunderstanding.

The underlying principle is a sound one. Agile teams should be fully cross-trained, and they should action work from a backlog as a team. Kanban team members, for example, should always take the next highest priority item from the backlog, assuming that there is no other work in progress or which is impeded and needs their attention. No team member should ever try and “pre-book” an item on the backlog, regardless of whether they simply want it or because they think they are best qualified to handle it. Each team member should go to where the work is, whatever that work is, and exactly when it needs doing.

Scrum fully supports this principle but there is a further consideration that has to be borne in mind...a Scrum Development Team will have a Sprint Plan. When formulating this plan, they will self-organize to meet the Sprint Goal. That means it's quite possible for the team to decide up front, during Sprint Planning and subsequently during each daily Stand-Up, who will do what.

It's important to be able to distinguish this behavior from cherry picking. It's also important for a Scrum Master to be able to smell a rat, and to sense when teams genuinely have a good plan or have started to cherry pick or to form undesirable skill silos.

Assumption: A team commits to deliver everything in the Sprint Backlog

This is a tricky assumption to deal with because until recently it was seen as being quite valid.

For a long time, commitment-based planning was pivotal to a Scrum based way of working. Then, in 2011, the Scrum Guide was revised and the Sprint Backlog was positioned as a forecast of what a team could reasonably be expected to deliver. Clearly, a “forecast” is a weaker use of language than “commitment”.

The rationale underlying this change is sensible. There are many things that can change during a Sprint, including requirements understanding or the perception of business value. Moreover, estimates are precisely that – estimates.

There's something else we have to remember. The Development Team wholly own their Sprint Backlog. Regardless of whether they forecast their deliverables or commit to them, the content of this backlog is up to them and they can revise it at any time. It's the Sprint Goal, and the concomitant potential release of functionality, that is either committed to or forecast for delivery.

Assumption: The Sprint Backlog cannot be changed once the Sprint has started

This assumption is incorrect, although it is true that the Product Owner can't change the Sprint Backlog unilaterally. Only the Development Team can make such a change, because they wholly own it. If a Product Owner wishes to change something on the Sprint Backlog then that must be negotiated with the team.

Now, let's also bear in mind that Scrum does not prescribe how the requirements within a Sprint Backlog are enumerated. User Stories, or the tasks to realize such stories, are the most common form of expression. Since User Stories do not document requirements exhaustively, but are placeholders for a future conversation, it follows that a change in understanding does not necessarily mean a change in the Sprint Backlog itself.


Sprint Backlogs mean different things to different teams. Some may populate them with tasks, while others may simply transfer over agreed User Stories from the Product Backlog. Either approach is acceptable given that the Development Team wholly own the Sprint Backlog.

The important thing is that the team should have a plan for meeting a well defined Sprint Goal that has been agreed with the Product Owner, and they should form their Sprint Backlog in accordance with that plan. The backlog itself should never be mistaken for, or used in lieu of, a coherent goal for delivering a potentially releasable increment of value.