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How do you handle dependencies between items in the backlog?

Tackling Dependencies in the Agile Backlog

I recently fielded a compelling question, and it’s been circling our Agile world for quite some time: “How do you handle dependencies between items in a product backlog?”

While the purists among us might quickly respond with “you don’t have them,” I believe we need to explore this subject a little more deeply. 🚀

So, let’s go ahead and break this down.

In An ‘Ideal’ Agile World

Let’s get this out of the way. Ideally, you shouldn’t have dependencies. 🚫

That’s the golden rule. It simplifies everything if we just don’t have to deal with them.

But let’s be real – achieving this utopia isn’t always possible because, in the diverse and complex world of product development, achieving a backlog without any dependencies is a tall order.

Make Dependencies Visible

One thing’s for sure: when you have dependencies, “make them visible”. The first thing you want to do is make them clear. Everyone should see which items are linked, no matter the tool or platform.

I’ve always believed that “if I move one item because of a dependency, everything else moves by its very nature”. – everything shifts.

Remember when I talked about the scaled agile framework course I took years back? They introduced the idea of the red wool. Every dependency was visually connected with this red thread.

It’s less about the colour (though they were adamant about red!) and more about understanding the ties that bind.

It’s all about clarity and connection.

Horizontal vs. Vertical Slicing

A common misstep I’ve seen from teams, especially those still dipping their toes into Agile, is the tendency to use horizontal slicing: front end, middleware, backend. This approach is just a waterfall in disguise.

Avoid the horizontal trap. Instead, think vertically. 📊

For instance, if we look at a cash machine, we could slice it by its components: the interface, logic, and backend data. This creates dependencies since all three need to be functional to deliver value.

Instead, we should ask – How can we deliver a minimal yet functional value slice?

A thin vertical slice that provides tangible benefits to the user.

Cake Analogy

Imagine a cake 🍰(a topic close to my heart).

You usually cut cakes vertically, right? (That’s unless you’re like that one crazy friend we all have!).

That way, you get a bit of every flavour. That’s precisely what we aim for in Agile – a thin but complete slice of value.

For instance, with the cash machine analogy, why not a thin but complete feature instead of dividing by technology (front, middle, back)?

Like, “Put my card in, put my PIN in, take a tenner out.”

That’s the thin slice we want.

Zoom in on the Customer

When dependencies arise, one question has to be, “Did we create these through horizontal slicing?”

If yes, reunite the split items. 🔄

Consider how you might slice it differently, keeping the end-user in mind.

Sometimes, a really thin slice, a “diet piece of cake,” is all you need.

Let’s look at the product from the perspective of “what does the user want?

Challenge, Adapt, Overcome

In our Agile journey, we constantly challenge the status quo. Push boundaries. Seek opportunities to combine tasks or approach them differently.

Ask questions. Can we merge tasks? Is there a new way to approach this?

Why? 🤔

Because dependencies diminish our flexibility, if we’re always bound by “this needs to be done before that,” we might find ourselves doing tasks we don’t honestly want to do, missing out on true agility at the product level.

Final Words

Dependencies are challenging but not impossible. Stay focused, be adaptable, and always keep the end-user in sight.

If you’re passionate about Agile and Scrum as I am, consider my Agile courses. They’re crafted for enthusiasts like us, eager to master the Agile craft.

Let’s harness the power of Agile together!🚀

Join me, and let’s push the boundaries of what’s possible. 💡

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 https://www.agilesuccess.academy/courses/growing-scrum-masters-advanced

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.

For more information on John McFadyen, visit https://www.johnmcfadyen.com or connect with John on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnmcfadyen/.

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author avatar
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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