3 Ways Product Managers Survive a Black Hole Backlog
February 25, 2016

3 Ways Product Managers Survive a Black Hole Backlog

by Danny Archer

I speak with close to 100 Product Managers at companies of all sizes every week. And no matter how big each company is, I hear a common theme in these discussions: Their product backlogs have devolved into black holes. Features are put in — but most never come back out as implemented.

What once was a crisp, manageable backlog quickly becomes an unwieldy list of features — some good, many bad. Most Product Managers have no way to distinguish features that matter.

It is easy to see how this happens. I have been there, too. My colleagues in sales, marketing, and engineering had meaningful features that they thought would make the product better. So, they threw them over the fence at me. I then added them to the proverbial back burner (aka backlog). They had to go somewhere, right?

“Sure, let me add it to the backlog” might as well be an automated answer. Without a strategy to vet features based on business impact, it is easier to add all of them to an endless backlog that never seems to shrink.

Then release planning rolls around. And it becomes too easy for Product Managers to only focus on what is top of mind today — which keeps previously requested features a distant memory. The result? An abandoned backlog, where features that could be game-changing get buried beneath the new, new thing.

But here is the good news: Your own backlog does not have to suffer the same fate. Leading product myself and working with thousands of product leaders has taught me three tricks to trim even the longest product backlogs:

Set your strategy It is impossible to groom your product backlog if your product strategy does not come first. You need to know where you are going before you can figure out how to get there. Putting features into a release without knowing how they will enhance your product is like getting into your car and driving until you run out of gas — hoping you end up somewhere good along the way.

That’s why the most essential step to managing a black hole backlog takes place before you touch it. Start by reaffirming your strategy for the product as well clearly defining the goals that will achieve this strategy.

Your goals do not need to be complicated. Many of the Product Managers I speak with believe that thinking about product goals is a luxury they do not have time for. “Our company is pushing forward too quickly,” they say. “No one has time to focus on strategy right now.”

Then they tell me what they must achieve within the next 12-18 months:

  • “We want to bring in 1,000 new customers this year.”

  • “We want to grow our existing customer use of our product by 20 percent.”

So, these Product Managers are setting goals for their products. And those goals align to high-level product strategies. They just do not realize it.

Score your features Once you have defined (or revisited) your product goals, the next step is relatively easy. You need to rank each feature in your product backlog based on its quantitative business value. And you can achieve this by using your product’s core metrics to build a feature scorecard.

Use your scorecard to quantify the value of features against the three to five metrics that matter most to your business. Then, rank all features within your product backlog using this scorecard.

Your scoring system can be very simple. Just take each of your product’s goals and rank each feature against them on a scale of one to 10. Of course, you can create much more complex scoring systems if you chose to — but I am a fan of simplicity and I recommend keeping it simple to start.

For example: Does this feature nail your goals to bring in new customers and grow existing customer use with low effort required to implement it? Awesome — prioritize it.

Does that other feature fail to drive more business or help existing customers? Great — you just framed your conversation for explaining to the features’s requestor why it will not be prioritized.

Organize your backlog Your new feature scorecard gives you a system to prioritize your backlog. And that means your backlog does not have to be so dark and scary. It empowers you to quickly comb through the list and find the new features that will have the biggest impact on your product. The result? You can say “yea” or nay” to each feature more quickly than you might think possible.

Many Product Managers feel torn between daily execution and ongoing backlog management. But the truth is that you can’t separate the two.

The solution to a black hole product backlog is not to stop encouraging submission of new features. Managing your backlog — and the features in it — should be an ongoing process. It matters just as much as release and strategy planning.

Danny Archer

Danny Archer

Danny was a senior product success manager at Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software.

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