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How do you balance the level of detail in the backlog?

Finding the Intricate Balance of Backlog Detail

I’ve recently had an insightful reflection on a topic close to every Agile practitioner’s heart, which is, “How would you balance the level of detail in a product backlog?.” πŸ“š

I’ve seen this question make even seasoned pros scratch their heads, and let’s be honest. It did get a chuckle out of me, not out of humour but out of the sheer complexity of the topic.

Here’s my two cents on the matter.

So, let’s unpack this using my own musings and experiences! πŸ€”

Ever-Changing Landscape of a Backlog

Right off the bat, let’s establish that a product backlog is not just a list – it’s a dynamic list. It’s where ideas, features, or functionalities that “anybody involved in this product” thinks of are compiled and then curated by the product owner.

The caveat? πŸ”

It’s fluid, and with that, the challenge emerges and so with all these inputs, there’s an obvious challenge, “How detailed should each item be?”

Position Dictates the Precision

Here’s the issue: an item’s level of detail heavily depends on its position in the backlog. For items potentially months away, they might just be placeholders – “a vague idea”, just enough to spark a discussion when the time comes.

However, as these items become prominent, they naturally accrue more detail.


Because “from that initial placeholder, the team have…explored the space of what’s the need”. As items move closer to the top, their granularity increases. πŸ“œ

Evolutionary Nature of Backlog Items

A beautiful thing about backlog items is their evolutionary journey.

Each backlog item embarks on its own evolutionary journey, starting from being “just a word or two” to becoming a well-discussed concept. πŸ“ˆ

As teams grapple with these ideas, details get added, enriched by conversations and realizations. It’s a dance of sorts – the team plays with the idea, breaks it down, learns from it, and refines it until they confidently say, “We’re confident that if we took that into a Sprint, we could get it done”.

Be Guided by ‘Ready’ but Not Shackled by It

I’ve often mused on the idea of ‘ready’ because the agile space is nuanced.

It’s not about dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’. It’s about collective confidence, a shared belief in the team’s capability to execute. 🧭

Yet, it’s crucial to remember, especially for my fellow Scrum Masters, that the definition of ‘ready’ isn’t set in stone. It’s a benchmark, a tool, a guiding principle, and like all tools, its efficacy depends on its application.

Be wary of seeing it as a strict contract. Instead, let it serve as a transparent reminder of your team’s ideal ready state.

Remember, it’s more of a guiding principle.

Emergent Nature of Backlogs

We all know and understand that the Agile space is ever-changing. By its nature, it’s unpredictable and what’s considered a vague idea today could be the most pressing item tomorrow.

As I’ve experienced, the agile backdrop is shifting and changing all the time.

Therefore, while having a detailed, thoroughly discussed backlog is comforting, it’s also essential to be nimble and adaptive. πŸ”„

Teams should be at ease with the fact that sometimes items can rise from the depths of the backlog unexpectedly.

Final Thoughts

The balance of detail in a backlog? It’s an art and a science.

The key is to let the item’s position and the team’s knowledge guide the level of detail, but my honest answer will always be, ‘it depends.’

And if this reflection piqued your curiosity, I invite you to dive deeper into the world of Agile and Scrum with my tailored courses.

Together, let’s master the art of balancing the level of detail in the backlog!

If you are interested in becoming an agile coach and value mentored, coach-driven skills development in your journey to mastery, visit our Growing Agile Coaches page.

If you are inspired by the idea of an online apprenticeship for a scrum master, visit

If you like the idea of becoming a scrum master and want to achieve internationally recognised and certified accreditation as a scrum master, visit our Certified Scrum Master (CSM) course page.

If you are already a scrum master and want to upskill to a more advanced level of knowledge and agile coaching capability, visit our Advanced Certified Scrum Master (A-CSM) course page.

If you have several years’ experience as a scrum master and want to validate and certify your professional skills, visit our Certified Scrum Professional Scrum Master (CSP-SM) course page.

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John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.

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