6-minute read

Quick summary: Explore the collaborative journey of building an Agile team backlog, a five-step process that blends diverse team inputs into a strategic plan for driving project success.

Agile methodologies have revolutionized how teams approach product development, emphasizing flexibility, continuous improvement, value delivery, and a high degree of collaboration. Central to this approach is the Agile team backlog—a dynamic team artifact that not only guides the sprint planning process, but also serves as the foundation for a project’s measured success.

Each Scrum master brings their own unique approach to backlog creation, and in this article, I’ll share insights from a recent real-world experience, shedding light on how an effectively constructed backlog can significantly influence project outcomes.

The Agile team backlog not only guides the sprint planning process, but also serves as the foundation for a project’s measured success.

Understanding the Agile team backlog

The team backlog is a prioritized list of user stories that the team aims to address in the current and upcoming sprints (at least two sprints out). It’s distinct from the product backlog, which encompasses future user stories and features awaiting prioritization and inclusion in the team backlog. This delineation ensures that, while the team backlog focuses on the immediate work necessary to deliver value incrementally, the product backlog captures the broader vision and long-term goals of the project quarter by quarter.

Recognizing the importance of the team backlog is crucial. It quantifies the team’s priorities, clearly outlining what needs to be accomplished in the short term and guiding daily priorities and sprint planning. This focus helps teams remain flexible, responsive to change, and aligned with project goals and customer needs. A well-maintained team backlog ensures that every task undertaken is directly tied to delivering user value, enhancing team efficiency, and facilitating continuous improvement.

The team backlog quantifies the team’s priorities, clearly outlining what needs to be accomplished in the short term and guiding daily priorities and sprint planning.

Step 1: Conduct a collective brainstorming session

The journey of team backlog creation begins with an open, collaborative brainstorming session, where we create a mind map of everything we currently know about the current priorities. This initial step is pivotal, moving beyond the traditional method of passively receiving tasks to actively engaging the entire team—and, when possible, stakeholders—in the process. The idea is to log all ideas regarding work that needs to be done to achieve the product’s goals.

In the session I conducted with a Logic20/20 Machine Learning Team, we used Miro to set up a virtual board, segmented into key areas that reflected our client’s goals for the project. Each participant added all their user story ideas to the board via “virtual sticky notes,” with the understanding that any idea was fair game, no matter how rudimentary or far-fetched.

This approach not only democratizes the backlog creation process, but also fosters a sense of community and shared purpose from the outset, ensuring that priorities align closely with both the team’s capabilities and the business’ objectives.

Step 1 highlights the evolution from the traditional method of passively receiving tasks to actively engaging the entire team—and, ideally, stakeholders—into the process.

Step 2: Categorize user story ideas by theme

After creating the initial mind map, our next move was to organize the flood of user story ideas into coherent themes. Each team member revisited the Miro board, grouping related sticky notes into distinct piles, with each pile representing a common theme.

For our team’s project, key themes emerged around pipeline construction, data cleaning processes, and model development, among others. Engineers, with their deep technical insight, were instrumental in this phase, guiding the categorization process to ensure each idea was aligned with the most relevant theme.

In this step, we began to clarify the scope of work and also highlight the technical pathways we would need to explore, laying a solid foundation for more detailed planning and execution.

Step 3: Sequence the themes

In the third step of our backlog creation, we turned our attention to sequencing the themes we had identified. This phase of the process was about understanding the logical order in which different areas of work needed to be tackled.

Our team carefully reviewed each theme, considering dependencies and project milestones to determine a sequence from the most immediate to the later stages of the project. Using our Miro board, we rearranged the piles of sticky notes into rows, representing the progression of work from top (immediate) to bottom (furthest out).

As a result, we had the rough beginnings of a delivery plan that would guide the subsequent phases of our Agile project planning across the business quarter. This structured approach helped ensure that we would address each area of work in the most effective sequence.

After sequencing the themes, you have the rough beginnings of a delivery plan that can guide subsequent phases of Agile project planning across the business quarter.

Step 4: Map out dependencies and associations

The next step in our team backlog journey involved identifying the dependencies and relationships between the themes we had outlined. Returning to our Miro board, we began to draw connections—literally. By drawing arrows from one pile to another, we began defining a more granular sequence in which themes needed to be tackled and demonstrated how they were interconnected.

This exercise transformed our organized themes into a comprehensive, albeit still rough, framework for our team backlog. It started to resemble a delivery plan, where each theme’s completion would logically flow into the initiation of another.

I realize what I’ve described so far may seem like a huge undertaking, but it only took the team about two hours total. Considering we went from a blank board to the foundation of a backlog in that time frame, I call it a testament to the value of collaborative effort and meticulous planning in Agile project management.

example of an Agile team backlog mind map at the end of Step 4

Our Machine Learning Team’s mind map after we completed Step 4

Step 5: Transition user story ideas into the system of record

The final step in building an Agile team backlog involves transitioning your organized, sequenced user story ideas from the mind-map board into the system of record, thus beginning the actual construction of the Agile team backlog.

This critical phase is led by the product owner, who plays a pivotal role in translating the collected “sticky note” ideas into actionable user stories. In our project, we used Azure DevOps as our system of record, where the product owner converted each idea from our Miro board into a card, categorized and prioritized according to the immediate needs of the upcoming sprints.

The product owner began this step by working with the team to determine priorities among the identified functionalities, with those deemed essential to complete over the next two weeks—in the first sprint—being tackled first. The product owner crafted a user story for each prioritized card, ensuring that each one was complete with acceptance criteria and ready for the team to refine. He then conducted a collaborative review with the team, especially our engineers, who contributed their domain knowledge to further refine and sequence the work based on technical dependencies and the project’s goals.

Once a user story was fully vetted and entered into Azure DevOps, we recolored its “sticky note” as black on the original Miro board as a visual indicator of what had been transitioned. The remaining ideas on the Miro board, now identified as the product backlog, awaited their turn to be developed into user stories as the project progressed.

This step marks the completed transformation of initial concepts into a structured plan of action, setting the stage for successful sprint executions and, ultimately, project delivery.

Bringing it all together

The journey to building your first team backlog, as outlined in the story of our team’s collaborative planning process, underscores a fundamental shift from traditional project management to a more inclusive and iterative Agile framework. This isn’t about dictating tasks, but rallying together as a team to meet customer needs through a collective brainstorming and planning effort.

My experience with the Machine Learning Team demonstrates the power of collaboration—how a diverse group, including stakeholders, can come together to shape a project’s direction. The resulting backlog is not just a list of tasks; it reflects shared goals, expertise, and the dynamic interplay of ideas that propels us toward success. This process ensures that our projects are not only aligned with the immediate objectives, but are also flexible enough to adapt to new insights and challenges, thereby reinforcing the Agile commitment to continuous improvement and customer satisfaction.


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Alison Braun
Alison Braun is a Solution Architect and Agile Coach in Logic20/20’s Digital Transformation practice.