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The Project-changing Magic of Tidying Up Your Backlog

I’m a sucker for organization trends. Earlier this year, I read The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, and cleaned my entire house in a matter of weeks under a strange neurotic spell. I threw away years of accumulated papers. I trashed expired cold medicine. I donated 4 trash bags full of clothes.

Kondo’s method, referred to as KonMari, involves the simple act of picking up every item in your house and asking two questions: “Does this bring me joy?” and “Where is this item’s home?” If an item does not bring you joy, Kondo says you must throw it away or donate it. If it does bring you joy, the item must have a proper and permanent home. To achieve a clutter-free and balanced home, we must discard our belongings that do not bring us joy and store them in a permanent home.

I applied this organizational method in my house, and everything has remained organized and clean, even months later. The KonMari method has proven effective for my house, but what about my projects at work? I began to apply the same KonMari questions in the office, and it has become an effective framework to prioritize and organize our project’s backlog.

If reviewing your backlog during sprint planning produces feelings of panic and anxiety, consider analyzing each item and asking the following questions: “Does this requirement bring value?” and “Does this requirement have a home in the backlog?”

Does this requirement bring me value?

If an item does not bring you joy, it can only clutter your home and distract from the things that make you happy. Similarly, if a requirement does not deliver value, it can only distract from the success of the project and the implementation of a minimum viable product.

At Seilevel, we stress the importance of mapping requirements back to a Business Objectives Model tied to specific dollar amounts. By linking a requirement to a business problem or objective that adds $X per year, it should be relatively easy to prioritize requirements in the backlog using the value of implementation.

Kondo does note that some items might not bring us joy prima facie. Your social security card might not bring you intrinsic joy when you hold it, but it is still necessary. Think of the joy you would lose if you had to replace it by going to a Social Security Administration office. We have to negatively evaluate joy for certain things.

Similarly, some requirements might not bring value at first glance—compliance requirements, security requirements, support requirements, etc. You should also evaluate how much value could potentially be lost by not implementing these requirements.

Does this item have a home?

If we are to live a clutter-life, we must establish a proper home for our belongings. Things are out of balance when items are not stored in their proper homes. Clean laundry belongs in a drawer or a closet, not piled onto the floor. Think of all the morning scrambles you could avoid by keeping your keys or wallet in one place, every day, without fail.

This same logic applies to a product backlog. User stories should have a home, linked to a feature and an epic. If a user story is properly linked, it is much more likely to be properly prioritized. If a user story does not fit beneath an existing feature or epic, consider creating epics so that every item in your backlog has a home. I recently created an epics for solution analysis and production support so that no work existed as a stand-alone user story.

By reducing the clutter in the backlog, you can ensure complete and properly prioritized product launches. By tying requirements to value and placing each requirement into a properly organized location, you, as a product owner, can confidently plan and deliver functionality, knowing that your backlog is complete and tidy.

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