We Need to Rethink the Product Backlog

Ah, the product backlog. Two simple words that send shivers down every PM’s spine.

For those not yet privy to the horrors of the product backlog, it’s essentially a long to-do list of product requirements - a mixture of customer requests, team demands, and strategic ideas.

The reason it’s so maligned by Product teams is that every time you complete something on the list, it seems like three new things crop up. Any progress is countered by new items. The backlog grows and grows.

Eventually, it becomes unmanageable and left largely ignored. Occasionally, a brave PM may take a peek, if they dare, but ultimately the backlog becomes a compost heap of feedback.

There are countless articles about how to reduce the size of your product backlog, how to take an agile approach to your backlog, how to prioritize it. But all of these miss the glaring elephant in the room:

A product backlog is not a productive or effective way of building a product.

In fact, a product backlog isn’t very useful in any way, whatsoever. Instead it’s just something that PMs like to moan about.

But, with a simple tweak to how we think about backlogs, by reframing them in a slightly different way, we can turn the jumbled mess into something beautiful, something useful.

We can turn a product backlog into a feedback library.

A library has a few amazing qualities that make it really useful, and when you apply those qualities to your product backlog, it changes the whole dynamic.

1: It’s Packed

Firstly, a library is stuffed full of books. I mean, there’s a lot. Obviously this partly depends on the size of your library, but even the smallest ones have shelves the height of two people, packed full of books.

manage product backlog

Generally, this means that if there’s something you need to know, you can probably find a book about it somewhere.

If you replace ‘books’ with ‘feedback’, then the library begins to look more like a product backlog, only now that overwhelming mass of data is actually useful.

You don’t go to the library and plan to read every single book. Therefore, you shouldn’t go to your backlog and plan to build every single request.

Instead, think about what information you need, use your product strategy to guide you, and then find the relevant data in your feedback library.

2: It’s Organized

Pretty much every library organizes their books in some way. Most use the Dewey Decimal System. This is a way of grouping books based on some main classes, and then sub-categories of those classes.

The beauty of this is that I can go into a library wanting to find a book about customer feedback for SaaS companies (something like this) and easily navigate to the right shelf.

If the library wasn’t organized in this way, then finding the right books would be a nightmare.

In the same way, if your product backlog is all jumbled, then how can you ever hope to find what you’re looking for? You can’t, and so you probably won’t bother.

By making sure your backlog is organized, perhaps by product area, features, or use cases, all you have to do is navigate to the most relevant data.

3: It’s Free

Far and away the best thing about libraries is that they’re free, or at least, mostly free.

Once you’re a member you can just rock up, pick up a book or two, and leave. You don’t have to pay a single thing. Sure, you might have to pay late fees if you don’t return them, but if you follow the rules then you’re fine.

If you read a lot, you can save a lot of money by borrowing from a library instead of buying books to leave sitting on your shelf at home.

product backlog too big

Much like a library, your product backlog is also free. Your customers, team members, and prospects are giving you all of this information for free, simply because they want to help.

All of the data that you’re moaning about and ignoring didn’t cost anything. If that’s not a reason you should be grateful and start using it more, then I don’t know what is.

Building Your Feedback Library

So, now that you understand why a product backlog is an awful way of looking at things, it’s time for you to build your feedback library.

Chances are, you’re reading this because you have a massive product backlog already. That’s great news, because it’s really easy to turn it into a feedback library.

You just have to encourage your users to submit feedback, make sure you organize your feedback in a way that makes sense to your Product team, and then, well, that’s it. That’s all you need to do.

The main thing that transforms a miserable product backlog into a joyous feedback library is your mindset.

Don’t see it as a long list of things you need to work through, see it as a goldmine of information that you can dip in and out of whenever you need to.

Plus, if you’re in charge of the backlog, you can now change your job title to “Product Librarian”, and that sounds much cooler.

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