OKRs in Agile Q&A part 2: The Backlog

Continuing from my last post and more questions arising from my Reawakening Agile with OKRs talk.

In my OKR book I advice teams to forget about the backlog and instead use the OKRs as a story generating machine. As I expected, this grabs people’s attention. For many this might be the most surprising piece of advice in the boo, and perhaps the most controversial.

So it is hardly surprising that there were several questions around this:

Q1: If the backlog isn€™t a reflection of what we need to do in order to move towards our vision what is it for?

Exactly. If the backlog does not reflect your vision then what is the point of a backlog?

First off, if the backlog is aligned with your vision, and things are working well then why change? Certainly don’t add OKRs unless they are addressing a problem, and when you add OKRs see if there is anything else you can remove. If OKRs are simply repackaging the backlog then why both? Why add to the tools and processes in use?

For a few fortunate teams that is indeed the case. However, for many teams the backlog also contains a multitude of work which is not part of the vision and requested fixes. The backlog long ago became a dumping ground for requests.

Yet removing work from the backlog becomes hard. Product Owners feels they lack the authority or confidence to actually say “No, we will not do that.” At the same time the teams performance is judged by “how much backlog” gets done. Success or failure come down to “is the backlog done?” Thus the backlog comes into conflict with the OKRs.

In the book I introduce Jeff Bezo’s “Day 1” approach where company works as if today is the first day and questions what they are doing. OKR setting needs to be a day-1 experience.

Q2: Backlog needs reviewing to align with OKRs, surely?

That is one approach, set the OKRs and then before or during every planning meeting comb through the backlog and find work which will move you towards the OKR. That will work if you have a few dozen items in the backlog but what if you have a thousand or more? What if the backlog has been passed down from a previous product owner or a requirements document? In both cases that work will be harder.

The bigger problem is: what if you think of something that is not in the backlog and will move you towards the OKRs?

Do you say No?
I expect not, I expect you will quickly write it, slip it into the backlog and say “look what I just found”

Now the backlog is a collection of ideas which might, or might not, help achieve the OKRs but which you might not do.

At which point, what is the point? Why not just brainstorm what you can do?

Q3: Isn’t OKR then a guidance to create Backlog? or prioritize it?

Create a backlog, yes, the OKR is guidance to create a backlog – its a story generating machine. So what is the point of having 500 stories which describe work not related to the current OKRs? Will not get done anytime soon? And likely will never be done? But which confuse the governance process and drawn everyones morale because “we still have 500 PBIs to do.”

Once you have your OKRs then there is little point in creating any more backlog then you will do in the next three months. You may generate 12 months of work but since OKRs are reset every three months the chances are three quarters of those stories will be thrown away.

So every quarter reset the backlog and start over. That is pretty much what I’m advocating.

Prioritizing the backlog, see Q2 above.

Q4: How have you approached the removal of backlogs? small experiment?
Q5: Have you done this in real life? How did you persuade people?

OK, you found me out, we didn’t actually throw the backlog away. There was some history in there which was useful and more importantly it would have drawn too much attention to the team. Instead we just ignored it.

This started as a small experiment between me – as Agile Coach – and the Product Owner: we just opted to ignore it.

We set the OKRs based on current priorities and strategy. Then in the planning meetings if we knew of a story in the backlog we pulled it up. But actually, this turned out to be more work than it was worth. Plus, by challenging the team we got better answers and more involvement.

It didn’t take long before the team noticed what was happening but I don’t think they minded much. Again they might say “O I know there is a story in there to do…” but more generally we just wrote new stories there and then: the OKRs were a story generating machine.

In the book I describe a further experiment I ran with another coach, as a result she came to the same conclusion: OKRs before backlog. While we shared this with other coaches – and indeed anyone who wanted to talk about it – we didn’t make a big fuss or publicise it. I’m doing that now.

Succeeding with OKRs in Agile

I see this approach as the logical conclusion of working with OKRs so I don’t think you need to make a fuss. You can just do it and I expect more teams to reach this conclusion. Except of course, those backlog-slaves who are labouring under corporate agile to burn-down the backlog!

Succeeding with OKRs in Agile is available in print or ebook format from Amazon now, an audio version will be out in the next few weeks. I will be repeating Reawakening Agile for Agile Newbury next month and discussing OKRs with Adrian Reed in May.


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