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How to Clean up a Big Messy Product Backlog

Posted by Janna Bastow
January 13, 2022

At some point in your career, you will have struggled with a messy product backlog. It can be one of the biggest problems that product managers face – maybe it’s currently the bane of your life!

Clean up a Big Messy Product Backlog and bring order out the chaos
Bringing order out of the chaos of a messy product backlog

At ProdPad we’ve seen and coached hundreds of companies through the process of cleaning up a messy product backlog. And our experience is that product managers are usually confronted with not only the problem of a huge backlog of things that could be done, they also have the problem of finding a way to prioritize and order what should be done.

We also find that most companies have a development board like Trello or Jira containing columns or sections for things to do, things that are being done, and the things that the development team says have been done. But the board typically ignores what happens after things are said to have been completed. What’s more, the to-do list becomes huge and full of bad ideas, because every tweet, customer comment, email, whatever, is dumped there. Product managers end up with that big messy backlog we’re always hearing about, half bugs and dev tickets and half ideas and specs.

Take the example of ProdPad client Tillo, a reward and gifting management platform. In this podcast, Tillo’s Chief Product Officer Eddie Sawyers runs through how he uses ProdPad to organize his product backlog. When he joined Tillo, all ideas and feedback were in disparate places – emails, Slack, spreadsheets, whiteboards, post-its, JIRA – there was no centralized place to visualize the company’s plans. Eddie has found that moving to ProdPad has allowed him to clean up the product backlog and given him a central place to see the company’s plans.

So how do you do it?

Gather the information

Before you can sort the backlog out, you need to bring it all together into a single list. The chances are that you have lists all over the place of things you could do. Get everything in one place in a CSV format (Excel, we love you!) and you’ll be well on the way to getting organized. 

Top tip – don’t bother worrying about the things that are already being done – you can leave them in your dev tool, unless you think they should be stopped. If that’s the case, you should speak up!

Get organized

Before you can really make progress, it’s best to separate the list into the following

  1. Things that definitely are approved and waiting for devs (no need for product manager intervention)
  2. Customer feedback
  3. Ideas that are definitely not ready for dev and need to be approved/specced
  4. Anything you don’t quite understand

Anything in list 1 belongs in your development tool and should be triaged as you go so that you can constantly pay back technical debt. List 2, customer feedback, is a great way to validate your solution ideas, so you need to separate that from list 3 (solution ideas). If you’re not sure whether something is feedback or an idea, don’t worry – it can be both, and should be in both lists.

For list 3 (solution ideas), scan the list and do a preliminary triage. Update or delete records as needed, perhaps even add a column and use it to tag or categorize right on the spot. 

We’re often asked, “what is the difference between feedback and ideas?”. In essence, ideas represent something you will do, make, change, remove or ideally test. They need to be spec’d out and defined in a way that the development team can understand and work on. Feedback is what was originally said by your customer. It usually is in their own words and represents evidence of the importance of the idea. We love to see a single idea linked to multiple pieces of feedback, with high levels of feedback identifying a greater need in the market. By separating feedback from ideas, you build a picture of the biggest demand from your customer base.

For list 4, you might want to run a brainstorming session or workshop with key team members, so you can decide what to do with those few items that don’t make sense. They should ideally belong in one of the other lists, but they can be worked out later if they’re not urgent.

Get it all in one place

The next step is to import your ideas and feedback into ProdPad! A shameless plug of course, but ProdPad was built to solve this exact problem. By using a tool which is designed to help you manage your backlog, you are able to manage the data in a way that lends itself to good prioritization practices and better outcomes.

One great benefit of this process is that you can go back and close off any old unstarted development tickets in Jira, Azure DevOps, Trello or whatever you use. Your development team will love you for it. If you want to make sure you have full traceability back to the original source, include the URL of the original ticket in your import so it’s easy to find later.

Make your product backlog actionable

You now have a product management database full of feedback and ideas. There’s no avoiding the fact that clean-up is required, but ProdPad will help you with this.

ProdPad’s smart AI helper, DotBot, will help you spot links and duplicates in your product backlog. As you use triage mode to work your way through your ideas, DotBot will appear if it spots potential links or duplication between ideas, or identifies that you have customer feedback supporting an idea. Make the relevant links as you go to do the cleanup without the grunt work.

Using the inline editing options on your feedback and ideas lists also helps – you can quickly scan each item and update the relevant information as you review. Sometimes this is easier in small groups – can you assign groups of ideas to others based on numerical order, product or area of interest? Bulk editing could be your friend here too – just select one or more items and add tags, personas or other information in one fell swoop.

It’s a good idea to do your backlog clean-up in batches, tackling (say) 10-20 ideas per day. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but you’ll quickly get to the point where you have reviewed all the ideas in your backlog and have the information you need to make good decisions at your fingertips.

Top tip – Use the unsorted/backlog tabs to differentiate between the items you’ve reviewed/updated and the ones you still have to do.

Create your Product Roadmap

Now we get to the fun part! Instead of a messy backlog, you have a structured product backlog full of ideas to consider, supported, and based upon a list of customer feedback. The next step is to create your product roadmap. 

This isn’t an overnight process, but you can start simply and create a roadmap outline which starts conversations about what to do next. Up to now, we’ve been working “bottom up” – we’ve looked at what we’re being asked for by our customers, and maybe the colleagues around us. It’s time to think “top down” to help us make decisions about what to tackle first. 

Think about the big picture first – vision, objectives, and problems to solve. Read our blog on working top down and bottom up to get a roadmap that meets the needs of your customers and your organization. You’ll soon see the fruits of your labor and feel that the big clean up operation was totally worthwhile.

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