Contributed by Ellen Gottesdiener and Jeff Sutherland
Deliver Value Sooner
Backlog refinement prepares your backlog for development. Investing in doing this well helps you deliver sooner, can double your productivity, and builds strong collaboration—the backbone of high performance teams. We find that Product Owners and development teams need advanced skills and training in backlog refinement. With a keen focus on value and conducting Structured Conversations using the 7 Product Dimensions, you greatly improve your ability to go from vision to value.
Refinement Is about Readying
Refining the product backlog involves analyzing and slicing stories in a way that makes backlog items ready for sprint planning. A healthy backlog is continually refined by the product owner for the team to detail, estimate, value, and order backlog items. This ongoing refinement work is the key for rapid and incremental delivery of product value while optimizing the productivity of the development team. According to studies performed by Jakobsen and Sutherland, product backlog items that have been properly refined in time for sprint planning can double a team’s productivity. 
Yet, teams struggle to efficiently and effectively do this important work. They falter when they waste time on backlog items that are insignificant to the overall value of the product or are too big or fuzzy to be actionable or demonstrable.
Start and End with Value
A successful product delivers value when it is aligned to your product vision and goals. A product delivers value when it provides a fair return in exchange for time, money, goods, or services. Refinement assumes that the product owner collaborate with the development team to order the backlog based on value. And refinement requires tough decisions that balance different stakeholder perspectives of value with how value changes over time based on evolving market conditions and customer need.
Value-based backlog refinement decisions require collaboration between the product owner and the team. Building trust should reveal the complexities that influence the inevitable tradeoffs needed throughout the development lifecycle. Some sprints, for example, might require the team to take on short-term technical debt to deliver features needed to stay on par with other product offerings in a highly competitive market. Other sprints might require the team to focus on reducing the risk of regulatory noncompliance by deferring work on desirable features to a later sprint.
Taking a Holistic View of Backlogs
Every product and associated backlog items have 7 Product Dimensions that incorporate functional requirements (User, Action, Data, Control dimensions) and nonfunctional requirements (Interface, Environment, Quality Attribute dimensions). 
The 7 Product Dimensions provides a unified, complete, and comprehensive understanding of the product under development. This holistic view of backlog items emphasizes that no single dimension is sufficient by itself—all seven are necessary. By exploring these dimensions, everyone’s understanding of backlog items should benefit from improved conversations.
Structured Conversations Help You Slice for Value
The team needs a mechanism to encourage exploration, evaluation, and confirmation while backlog items are being refined. This ongoing and systematic approach is called the Structured Conversation.
The concept of a Structured Conversations is a useful tool for group collaboration and innovation. It encourages a more efficient approach for exploring, evaluating, and confirming options.
Initially, the team explores options for backlog items across the 7 Product Dimensions. The team then evaluates a subset of high value options and assembles them into cohesive valuable chunks. The conversation is not over until everyone knows how to confirm their shared understanding by identifying how each story will be demonstrated and validated.
Refining using Structured Conversations with the 7 Product Dimensions exposes dependencies and enables the team to focus on actionable, valuable stories that are small enough to be estimated and completed within a sprint. Enabling specifications are often byproducts of these conversions that supplement more complex stories.  Enabling specifications can include wireframes (Interface dimension), data model diagrams (Data dimension), decision tables (Control dimension), or similar visual analysis models. As a case in point, the team should prioritize creating enabling specifications that are most useful for regulatory compliance, reference information for product support, and for team members who don’t have domain knowledge.
Backlog refinement is the engine that drives ongoing delivery of valued product increments. This translates to faster delivery, greater customer satisfaction, and higher team happiness and motivation.
- Jakobsen, C.R. and Jeff Sutherland, J. “Scrum and CMMI—Going from Good to Great: Are you Ready-Ready to be Done-Done?” Agile Conference, IEEE Conference Publications (2009): 333-337.
- Gottesdiener, Ellen and Mary Gorman. Discover to Deliver: Agile Product Planning and Analysis. EBG Consulting. 2012.
- Sutherland, Jeff. “Enabling Specification: The Key to Building Agile Systems.” Scruminc (blog). June 2, 2012.
Ellen Gottesdiener is an internationally recognized leader in the convergence of agile + requirements + product management + project management. She is founder and principal of EBG Consulting, which helps organizations adapt how they collaborate to improve business outcomes.
Ellen’s passion is helping people use modern product requirements practices to build valued products and great teams. She provides coaching, training, and facilitates discovery and planning workshops across diverse industries. Ellen is a world-renowned writer, speaker, and presenter. Her most recent book, co-authored with Mary Gorman, is Discover to Deliver: Agile Product Planning and Analysis. Ellen is author of two other acclaimed books: Requirements by Collaboration and The Software Requirements Memory Jogger.
Jeff is the inventor and co-creator of Scrum. He is a West Point graduate, former fighter pilot and cancer researcher, as well as CTO of eleven different software companies. He launched the first Scrum team in 1993 and has shephereded its growth into almost every industry: finance, healthcare, higher education and telecom. His most recent book is Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.