5 min read

Backlog to the Future

Backlog to the Future

Its time to talk about backlogs again!

A topic near and dear to my heart, mostly because it helps me apply some sort of fragile order to the chaos that is existence, which is nice. I suppose it also helps me get things done, but lets be honest, its mostly the order vs chaos thing.

Anyway, I use backlogs for a variety of things in my personal life: these blog posts, my professional development and any chores that need to be done around the house.

Naturally, I also maintain a backlog for everything that I do at work, because really, why wouldn't I? My motivations are no different: I want to be able to prioritize, clearly communicate what I'm doing and clear my brain of noise so I can actually get things done.

But my work backlog is something of a different beast. Its much larger (because work is where I spend most of my time and effort), it features multiple competing priorities (so many things to do) and people other than me actually pay attention to it.

So I'm going to write about it.

Are You Telling Me You Built A Backlog?

What exactly makes my work backlog special? I'm so glad you asked!

My personal backlogs all follow a simple workflow of To Do -> Doing -> Done, along with the ability to give up on things (Abandoned). This workflow is represented as columns on the board and gives me enough flexibility to organise myself while not being too prescriptive or complicated.

My Professional Development board. Relatively simple.

Planning is simple, all I need to do is groom things and place them in priority order in the To Do column. When I actually have time to work on something, I drag it kicking and screaming across the board. Sometimes very very slowly.

For my day to day work I've found that I need two additional columns: Priorities and This Week.

The Priorities column is for prioritizing high level streams or initiatives. Each item in this column is basically an epic, associated with a single label on the board so that I can tag individual tasks appropriately.

The This Week column is a planning construct, which allows me to divide and conquer the backlog into meaningful chunks on a week by week basis. At the beginning of each week I spend some time aligning myself and figuring out what I should be focusing on, then fill this column appropriately. Again, to align it with Scrum, each week is basically a sprint.

Putting it all together, the board that I use for my work backlog looks something like this:

A simulation of my work board, in all its glory.

If you're interested in looking at the actual board in Trello, I've shared it publicly here.

Great Scott!

You may be asking yourself: but why? Why complicate things?

Well, for starters my work backlog grows incredibly quickly. So much so that its easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. The Priorities column allows me to manage that somewhat, by keeping the number of items low and reducing the total cognitive overhead.

Also, because the priorities are few, its easy to use them to have a conversation with my stakeholders and have them weigh in on what is important quickly and easily. I'm talking about people like my team, my manager, my managers manager and other people who care about my existence.

The This Week column is great for setting expectations about what I intend to accomplish over the coming week. This works exceedingly well for me at a personal level (i.e. it gets me focused and helps me to make decisions about what not to do, which is important), but is also really useful when I'm talking to my manager.

The last benefit is that it sets a good example for being organised and sharing clearly and publicly what my priorities are. Other people, whether they are in my team or not, can see this sort of thing and might then choose to use it for themselves. I believe it makes me more effective, so my assumption is that it will help others do the same.

Why Is Everything So Heavy In The Future?

Now is the point in the blog post where I go into the downsides, because I have a pattern that I follow when I write these things.

The first is that it takes a lot of discipline to maintain. More so than it does to maintain one of my personal backlogs, because of the extra complexity. Sometimes it feels easier to just go and do something, but that would be missing the point of having a prioritized list of work. I have no real idea how much time I spend wrangling it on a week by week basis, but it feels like a decent amount.

The second downside is more specific to Trello: there isn't much in the way of analysis/intelligence capabilities. It would be nice if I could easily see a week by week breakdown of how many things I've completed (aka a velocity) or a cycle time of some sort, but its just not there by default. Its hard to hold that against the platform though, as its designed to be simple and flexible. There are Power-Ups that you can turn on to augment the base functionality, but I honestly haven't dug into them yet.

The final downside is that the backlog is always growing, which makes it harder and harder to reprioritize over time. Of course, the reality is that a well maintained backlog just shows visibly how much work there is to do, bringing attention to it rather than letting it hide quietly in the shadows. Still, it can be a bit demotivating to have what looks like an infinite list looming up at you.

Even considering the downsides though, I would say the benefits far outweigh them.

Backlog? Where We're Going, We Need One

It should come as no surprise that I love me a good backlog, especially considering I've now written two blog posts on the subject.

It really is an approach that works well for me, and I think it makes me more effective than I would be otherwise.

I worry a little that I'm overusing the concept, that not everything can (or should) be represented using a backlog.

But then I put that idea on my backlog to investigate later, prioritize it down below the other things that actually matter and get on with my day.

And I feel a whole lot better.