Impacts or backlogs

Posted by Marcus Hammarberg on May 31, 2017
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The word backlog has a negative ring to me (and I think to Swedish people in general). A backlog is a list of tasks that and I’ve yet not completed, things that still is required from me or my team. Putting something on a backlog is a nice way of saying; we will look at it… eventually.

(Business) Impacts, on the other hand, has a much more positive, forward-leaning ring to it. Here a bunch of opportunities that we still haven’t tried, that potentially make us even better.

Now it’s a bit sad that backlog is a central word in agile because I think it misses the point, quite a bit, and sets us in a defensive mood from the start.

In this post, I wanted to explore some thoughts I have had in my head on why we should stop using backlogs and start using impacts. Not only the words but the entire list altogether.

This post is a lot about feeling so I’ve used a little different tone in my writing. Imagine me saying this to you and it might make sense. Might…

A negative ring - a positive ring

Let’s start fluffy - I rarely get the opportunity to be fluffy.

As I wrote in the beginning backlog has a negative ring to it. If you create a backlog you are immediately behind. There’s stuff on your backlog that you haven’t done.

Here’s a formal definition:

an accumulation of uncompleted work or matters needing to be dealt with.

A log. Of back-work. Uncompleted and behind!

In the whole setup of the word and concept, there’s a negative ring (that I amplified greatly above :))

Focusing on business impact is more positive. It holds opportunities and optimism. Impacts that we still can do, open spaces of unrealised potential.

Impact is also defined more positive, I think:

have a strong effect on someone or something (verb)

a marked effect or influence (noun)

There’s a before and an after. Here’s how it looked before we made our impact, here’s how it would look after. See?! That’s better, right?

Notice the absence of a list, there’s no order, there’s no behind. It’s just a set of impacts that we could try to get us closer to the goal. That is often a little bit hard to handle so why not organize it in a map which gives a visual representation and context to the different impacts we want to make.

Focusing on impacts implies focusing on opportunities and unrealised improvement opportunities. It is, at its core, positive.

Mindless working of the backlog - know the goal

Here’s the backlog of planning party:

  • Invite people - not more than 25.
  • Book room - that holds 25 people
  • Decorate room
  • Bake pastry of choice
  • Make food (should be warm at the party of course - time it perfectly)
  • Be nice and happy during the party!

Do this! Do that! Deadline X and deadline Y.

What kind of party is this? How would you know if the party is a success or not? Are you hosting it or the reason the party happens at first place? You cannot know from this list.

It’s a birthday party. It’s for your oldest son. It’s a surprise party. He likes youtube, Star Wars and Lego and meringue cake.

Which of these lists make you more likely to host a birthday party that he will remember?

In all honestly, the second list says nothing about what needs to be done. What if you forget something and the party still turns out amazing? Who cares about that forgotten items.

I’m in IT. Most backlog issues (the word used to describe things on the backlog in the most common backlog tool - JIRA) I’ve seen in my life doesn’t contain a single sentence as of Why we need to do this. Or what success looks like. Or why we need to do this now over other things that are important.

Backlog items/issues are (often in my experience) heavy on the HOW but light on the WHY.

If you focus on the impact you want to make you naturally make sure that everyone involved also understands the goal of the impact/feature. It follows naturally. How to achieve the goal is of secondary interest.

Business impacts are heavy on the WHY and light on the HOW

Task list - experiment

As we need to know about goal of an impact (or feature) it naturally lends itself to experimenting;

  • Maybe there are different ways to reach that goal?
  • What is the smallest possible thing we can do to see if we are moving in the right direction?
    • Btw - what should we measure to see if we’re moving in the right direction?
  • What if we try this totally different thing?

Questions like these are not appreciated with a backlog. Don’t think about that now - just do the tasks. They are on the backlog so you are already behind.

Focusing on impacts opens up discussions for experimenting and trying different ways to the goal.

Fear of forgetting stuff - finding new ways

I written about and had many discussions on our fear of forgetting important things. This is one of the more common reasons that our backlogs keep growing and that we don’t dare remove stuff from the backlog.

In futility, I’ve tried to argue that you cannot forget things that are important. Because then the thing was actually not important. Often I end up in problem when making this argument because many people want to have “it written down so that we don’t forget it”.

I think this is related to the fact that it is really hard to remember long lists of tasks. As we work with one thing a new idea pops up and we better add it to the list, before we dive into the next thing. Typically the idea we had is out-of-date once we finally get to it.

If we are goal-, impact-driven then this risk is smaller, in my experience. As we finish one thing we can ask ourselves what the next thing that takes us closer to the goal is. If we’ve run into great ideas to do so, it quite naturally will arise as a potential candidate in these discussions.

I’m not saying - don’t document a single idea you have. Just make a little note of it, on a wiki or on a whiteboard somewhere. If I remember correctly this is the original intent of user stories: “a small note about something that we should talk more about later”

It just needs to contain enough information so that we know what to talk about. Document as little as possible - but not less than that.

By focusing on impacts we don’t need to remember many details - they will come back to us, in the right context, as we discuss how to reach the goal. I promise.

Summary

Business impacts are heavy on the WHY and light on the HOW

Focusing on impacts implies focusing on opportunities and unrealized improvement opportunities. It is, at its core, positive.

Focusing on impacts opens up discussions for experimenting and trying different ways to the goal.

By focusing on impacts we don’t need to remember many details - they will come back to us, in the right context, as we discuss how to reach the goal. I promise.

Stop working with backlog - start working with impacts. You will be happier, your work will be more flexible and engaging. And there will be dancing unicorns all around you.



Published by Marcus Hammarberg on Last updated