Agile Learning: Managing Your Product Backlog in L&D

product backlog learning and development

Getting the Agile Learning ball rolling takes a deep understanding of how the processes work. But also, the roles and responsibilities of each role on the project team.

In many Agile frameworks (including the popular Scrum methodology) the Product Owner is responsible for defining a vision of what he or she wishes to build and communicating that vision to the rest of the Agile team. They do this in part by using a product backlog. 

What is a product backlog?

The product backlog is a list of features for the product. For example, on an Agile Learning project, this might translate to a list of pieces of content the product owner would like to include on the new course that is under development.

The product backlog is compiled almost like a wish-list which is then prioritized by importance. The Agile Learning team then endeavors to deliver certain features during each Sprint or iteration or the product.

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6 Tips for Effectively Managing the Product Backlog

Product Owners need to be clear (but flexible) about the end-goal for the product and how it should look. The backlog can help with that, but the Product Owner needs to stay on top of it to make sure the prioritization of different features still make sense. Here are some tips for managing the product backlog in L&D:

1.Keep it manageable

People new to the role of Product Owner often make the mistake of making an impossibly exhaustive list of features on the backlog. Not only is it unrealistic to achieve such a long list of features, but the upkeep is impossible throughout the duration of the project.

Part of the skill of creating the Backlog is understanding how to push the envelope while remaining realistic with what can (or should) be added to the list.

2.Maintain one backlog per project

When it comes to that decision making, Product Owners often make the mistake of not allowing the word “no.” It’s an understandable instinct when you consider the root philosophies behind Agile of “failing fast” and taking a highly collaborative approach.

Rather than saying “no,” many Product Owners fall into the temptation of creating multiple backlogs and categorizing them, almost like a “Maybe” pile. But to keep focus and deliver value, it’s imperative to decline items when needed. It helps to set expectations for the rest of the team and keeps your backlog manageable.

agile management

3.Know what’s in your backlog

Although collaboration is imperative in Agile, it’s vital to keep on top of what is being added to the backlog. Many Product Owners start off allowing everyone on the team to add items to the backlog. The result? Chaos.

Imagine allowing all instructional designers and subject matter experts to add whatever they feel like to the backlog. You’ll end up with a list of course content requests with no cohesion that is impossible to deliver.

Try to create some standardization in your approach to adding items to the backlog, and allow other team members to filter items through you before adding them to the list.

4.Reorder the Product Backlog regularly

Don’t forget that the backlog is like a living, breathing artifact. It should evolve, grow, and shrink as the project carries on. After all, the point of Agile Learning is to be able to respond quickly to change, and that includes changes to the project’s direction or objectives that can happen along the way. So prioritizing items on the list should be a regular, continuous process.

Plus, it’s important when it comes to planning Sprints that you can present an organized and up-to-date backlog to the rest of the team.

When prioritizing or re-organizing the backlog, Product Owners may take several factors into account, including:

  • Learner priority
  • Urgency of feedback
  • Relative difficulty to implement
  • Dependencies (X item requires Y first)

5.The Product Backlog shouldn’t be complete

Following on from tip #4, the product backlog is never “complete.” It is ever-changing and shifting. But many Product Owners want to start off with a finished backlog at the beginning of a project.

It’s an understandable instinct. It feels more organized to say something is done and ready than to accept that something may be in a constant state of flux. 

But that’s a core reason why the backlog is so important to the Agile process. How can we  be certain about what is best or what should be prioritized at the start of a project when we have the least information about how it will develop?

Agile also never looks at the product/course itself as complete. It is developed and improved continuously over many iterations as needed.

6.Make it transparent

While we’ve mentioned that it is inadvisable to allow all project team members to add to the product backlog at will, it’s very important that the backlog be transparent and available to the whole team.

Now that working-from-home has become a reality for many, a physical wall on which to list the product backlog no longer works. But many teams use software or tools such as Trello to maintain a visible backlog already anyway.

Whatever way you choose to create, manage, and prioritize your product backlog, the most important factor is that it remains a realistic, workable list.

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Agile Learning: Managing Your Product Backlog in L&D