The sprint backlog is one of the most important aspects of , but it's often misunderstood and very easy to get wrong. And getting a sprint backlog wrong can have dire consequences not only for the next sprint but the product as a whole.
What is a sprint backlog?
A sprint backlog is the group of tasks a scrum team commits to completing during a sprint. In agile project management, a sprint backlog is a product of and has three main components: the Sprint Goal, a list of items pulled from the , and a rough actionable plan for completing those items.
What is the purpose of a sprint backlog?
The purpose of a sprint backlog is twofold: (1) to align the scrum team on what they need to complete during a sprint and (2) to help visualize how much work is involved with completing the sprint.
In the scrum framework, a scrum team is typically made up of:
A Scrum Master, who manages the daily scrum meeting. A product owner, who advocates for the product backlog. The developers, who do the work of the sprint.
During sprint planning, this team works together to create the sprint backlog. At this stage, the sprint backlog serves as an agreement between all team members about what they aim to get done in the next two weeks and why they're doing those tasks now rather than in future sprints.
As the scrum team puts together a sprint backlog, they'll predict how long it will take to complete each task. The Scrum Master then makes sure it's feasible to do all the work within the sprint's timeframe, typically with a based on the sprint backlog, which visualizes in real-time how much work remains in the project vs. the amount of time left to complete that work.
During the actual sprint, the sprint backlog serves as the daily gut-check for what tasks are in progress, what tasks are upcoming, what tasks are off track, and how all this information relates to the Sprint Goal. In daily scrum meetings, the predictions the team made earlier are put to the test.
If a task takes longer than predicted or should be broken down into smaller tasks, the scrum team will update the sprint backlog. Then, if the amount of time it takes to complete each task exceeds the amount of time left in the sprint, the scrum team should reprioritize by reserving some less immediate tasks for future sprints. This reprioritization and the underlying reasons are good subjects to discuss in the sprint review and .
Throughout the life of a sprint (from planning to review) the sprint backlog serves a central role as a document all team members contribute to and reference. To serve this role effectively, your sprint backlog should include a few essential components.
What should I include in a sprint backlog?
At its most basic level, your sprint backlog should include a Sprint Goal, a list of items pulled from the product backlog, and a list of tasks that align with those product backlog items. You can think of these components as the "why," "what," and "how" of your sprint.
The why: The Sprint Goal
The Sprint Goal is the objective of the sprint that the scrum team works towards. During sprint planning, your team should define your Sprint Goal first and allow it to guide two remaining components of the sprint backlog (i.e., the sprint backlog items and the sprint tasks).
You can think of your Sprint Goal as a tactical step toward achieving the overarching , which is the current "why" behind your product. For example, a Product Goal may be to launch your cookie delivery app in the European Union. A good Sprint Goal to match this Product Goal would be to "Add the ability to purchase cookies using Euros."
A good Sprint Goal is a clear objective that provides developers some flexibility in how they accomplish it. Throughout the duration of a sprint, your Sprint Goal should not change, but how your developers achieve it can change significantly. Throughout those changes, your Sprint Goal remains the same, serving as a reference point for how the work of the sprint aligns with the overarching product roadmap.
The what: Sprint backlog items
The main component of a sprint backlog is the group of sprint backlog items pulled from . These items are what you plan to accomplish during your sprint. Your scrum team should select these items together during sprint planning after you've defined the Sprint Goal. In our cookies app example, the product backlog is a list of features and/or user stories that your organization must complete to reach the Product Goal of launching in the EU. If you define your Sprint Goal as we have above (i.e., add the option to pay in Euros), your team would select all relevant features (e.g., "Users in an EU country need to see prices in €.") or (e.g., "As a cookie-starved Parisian, I'd like to see cookie prices in Euros so I can decide how many cookies to buy."). Each feature or user story you select will become an individual sprint backlog item.
The how: Sprint tasks
Once your scrum team has selected the relevant sprint backlog items, you can start to break each of them down into a rough list of tasks. These tasks define the specifics around how the scrum team will accomplish the sprint backlog items. This is where you'll define the amount of work involved with the sprint, assign responsibilities, and make predictions on how long it will take to complete each task, and create a burn-down chart.
Most of the changes you make to a sprint backlog will be changes to the sprint tasks and their predicted duration. Your Sprint Goal should remain the same, and you may add or remove sprint backlog items based on their constituent tasks, but the tasks themselves are fair game.
5 tips for creating and maintaining a sprint backlog
Sprint backlogs aren't meant to be pristine, absolutely rigid documents. They're iterative, occasionally messy, collaborative tools scrum teams use to complete big projects, one sprint at a time. Here are a few tips to make the most of them.
1. Make the sprint backlog accessible.
At its core, a sprint backlog is a collaborative tool. Everyone on the scrum team needs to be able to . You may need to make sure the Scrum Master is the only one that can make official changes, but the whole team should be able to dive in potentially with
2. Align everyone around a clear Sprint Goal and stick to it.
While your sprint tasks and sprint backlog items may change to reflect during the life of a sprint, your Sprint Goal should not. The Sprint Goal serves as the guidepost for selecting backlog items and prioritizing tasks. If it changes, then the scrum team will have no firm direction to align their effort towards.
The benefits of a clear Sprint Goal go beyond just intra-team alignment and encompass all potential sprint stakeholders. It's the easiest, clearest way to communicate the business value of the sprint itself and provides an agreed-upon definition of done.
3. Don't be perfectionistic in sprint planning.
Even the best sprint planning sessions will fail to account for every particular. Don't be perfectionistic when it comes to defining specific sprint tasks. Just get the rough sequence down and move on to the actual work of the sprint.
In fact, the list of sprint tasks is so subject to change that says that "Your sprint backlog will emerge throughout the sprint." If you ask other scrum practitioners, they'll say similar things, with saying, "What comes out the end of a sprint is rarely exactly what was imagined when we went in."
So, when it comes to creating your sprint backlog document, be clear about the Sprint Goal (why) and the sprint backlog items (what), but leave the sprint tasks (how) space to change. Do enough planning to give your team confidence you can achieve the Sprint Goal in the given time frame, but leave the rest flexible.
4. Update the sprint backlog frequently.
As the current sprint develops, you may find that there are too many tasks to complete within the given time frame. The sooner your scrum team recognizes this situation, the better. Otherwise, you'll end up at the end of the sprint with a list of incomplete tasks and irritated team members.
On the puts it this way: "I would expect the Sprint Backlog to change frequently - likely daily - throughout the Sprint." Use daily scrum meetings to accomplish these updates and keep everyone involved on the same page.
5. A groomed product backlog leads to a good sprint backlog.
Much of the sprint backlog comes directly from the product backlog. The Sprint Goal is a direct iteration towards the Product Goal, and product backlog items often become sprint backlog items. Therefore, your sprint backlog is usually only as good as your product backlog.
You should build time into your sprint planning meetings to reflect on the product backlog. You should also ensure the Product Owner has decent input into the formation of the sprint backlog.
3 templates to get you started
Here are three Coda templates that can help you and your scrum team create and maintain a sprint backlog, from sprint planning to burn-down charts:
For a straight-up sprint backlog template, you can plug right into your current workflow.
For a cohesive sprint planning document that encompasses many different scrum principles.
For sprint retrospectives that reflect on your sprint and its backlog.
And you can find so much more in .
Sprint backlog FAQs
What is the difference between a sprint backlog and a product backlog?
A sprint backlog is a list of tasks to be completed during an upcoming sprint that allows the scrum team to achieve the Sprint Goal. A product backlog is a list of features or user stories that the organization must complete in order to fulfill the overarching Product Goal. A Sprint Goal is one iteration towards the Product goal, and the items in a sprint backlog are typically items from the product backlog that are relevant to the Sprint Goal.
Who decides what goes into the sprint backlog?
The scrum team collaboratively decides what goes into the sprint backlog. First, the scrum team defines the overall Sprint Goal. Then they select items from the product backlog that relate to that goal. Then they break those items down into actionable tasks.
How often should the sprint backlog be updated?
The sprint backlog should be updated as often as needed, sometimes every day during the daily scrum meeting.