A Guide to Product Backlog Refinement in Scrum

Software product development is a dynamic process that requires continuous evaluation. In the same vein, the Product Backlog which is the master list of all deliverables for the product also needs consistent evaluation and evolution to ensure success.

Backlog refinement is a concept that is very important for these purposes and is the backbone of Agile methodologies, helping to manage work priorities and maintain a streamlined workflow.

This comprehensive article explores backlog refinement in Scrum, what it entails, its purpose and benefits, and how to get it done effectively.

What is Backlog Refinement in Scrum?

Product Backlog refinement is a process used in Agile project management and Scrum to review and adjust the Product Backlog items. This process helps the team to keep the backlog up-to-date and ensure that backlog items are prepared for upcoming sprints.

Backlog refinement is a continuous process throughout the life of the project and it ensures that at all times, the development team is working on the top-priority features.

Here’s what it generally involves:

  1. Reviewing the Backlog Items: The team reviews the items on the backlog to ensure they are still relevant and accurately reflect the project’s needs.
  2. Prioritizing Items: The team, led by the product owner, prioritizes the backlog items based on their value to the project. High-priority items are typically more detailed than lower-priority items.
  3. Estimating Effort: The team estimates the effort required for each item. This is often done using story points or hours.
  4. Adding Details: The team may add details, such as user stories or acceptance criteria, to backlog items. This helps to ensure everyone understands what’s required for each item.
  5. Breaking Down Large Items: Larger items, often called epics, are broken down into smaller, manageable items or user stories.

If using the Scrum framework, it is important to note that backlog refinement is not a Scrum event and the Scrum team decides when and how the refinement will be done. There are no fixed criteria and it depends on the product being built.

Refinement usually consumes no more than 10% of the development team’s capacity, and the Product Backlog items can be updated at any time by the Product Owner.

What is the Purpose of Backlog Refinement in Scrum?

The primary purpose of Backlog Refinement in Scrum is to prepare the Product Backlog for the next Sprint Planning meeting.

It’s a process that helps ensure the team is working on the highest priority items and that those items are ready to be worked on when they are pulled into a sprint.

By continuously refining their backlog, Scrum teams can improve their efficiency and effectiveness, leading to better product development outcomes.

Here are some specific purposes of Backlog Refinement:

  1. Ensuring Clarity and Understanding: The Product Owner and the Development Team discuss and clarify the details of the Product Backlog items, ensuring everyone has a shared understanding of what’s required for each item.
  2. Prioritizing Product Backlog Items: The Product Owner, with input from the team, prioritizes items based on their value to the project. This helps to focus the team’s efforts on what’s most important.
  3. Estimating Effort: The team collaboratively estimates the effort required for each backlog item. This helps with sprint planning and resource allocation.
  4. Breaking Down Items: Large items, or Epics, are broken down into smaller, manageable user stories that can be completed within one sprint.
  5. Identifying Dependencies and Risks: The team can identify and discuss potential dependencies and risks, allowing for proactive planning and mitigation.

Why Backlog Refinement is not a Scrum Event

While backlog refinement is essential when using Scrum, it’s however not among the Scrum events according to the Scrum Guide. One reason for this is that backlog refinement is not the same for all Scrum teams and thus can’t be applied universally like other Scrum events.

Also, for backlog refinement, the attendees, duration, and frequency depend on the context and situation and can’t be explicitly defined. Scrum events can be defined along these lines in contrast.

Backlog Refinement vs Grooming

When I first started learning about Agile and Scrum, I kept seeing backlog refinement and backlog grooming used in different learning guides. However, I really couldn’t figure out the difference then as the definition of both seemed to be the same.

Well, I can tell you now that there is actually no difference between them as they both refer to the same Scrum activity.

The Scrum Guide 2001 refers to this activity as grooming. The Scrum Guide version 4 in 2013 replaces this word with refinement while the definition remains the same.

So while you may see articles referencing the activity as backlog grooming and more recent ones as backlog refinement, they refer to the same activity.

Backlog Refinement Techniques

For backlog refinement, some techniques come in handy. These include:

  1. User Story Mapping: This practice involves organizing user stories by user tasks. It helps teams understand the system from the user’s perspective and identify the most valuable items.
  2. DEEP: This is an acronym for Detailed appropriately, Emergent, Estimated, and Prioritized. It’s a reminder that backlog items should be fully understood, arise naturally from the process, have rough size estimates, and be arranged in order of their priority.
  3. INVEST: Invest stands for Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small, and Testable and is a technique used for defining good quality user stories.

Benefits of Backlog Refinement in Scrum

Backlog refinement is an integral part of Scrum and there are lots of benefits from this process:

  1. Efficient Sprint Planning: Having a well-groomed product backlog makes Sprint Planning meetings more efficient. Teams spend less time figuring out what to do and more time discussing how to do it.
  2. Better Estimations: Regular refinement sessions allow for more accurate estimation as the team gains a better understanding of what each backlog item entails.
  3. Improved Prioritization: Backlog refinement helps the Product Owner and the Scrum team to prioritize the Product Backlog items based on their value and urgency. This ensures the most important items are worked on first.
  4. Early Problem Detection: During refinement sessions, the team can identify potential issues or blockers early, which allows for proactive problem-solving.
  5. Increased Team Collaboration: Regular discussions about the Product Backlog increase the understanding and alignment within the team regarding the product’s direction and features.
  6. Improved Product Quality: With regular backlog refinement, the team can better understand the requirements and expectations, leading to higher-quality output.
  7. Stakeholder Satisfaction: With a well-groomed backlog, the team can deliver high-priority features faster, leading to increased stakeholder satisfaction.

Backlog Refinement Meeting

The Backlog Refinement meeting is a regular session where the Product Owner and the development team review items on the Product Backlog to ensure the right items are prioritized and ready for upcoming sprints.

During these meetings, the team discusses, estimates, and prioritizes backlog items. The goal is to have a refined Product Backlog where items are clear, actionable, and appropriately sized. As earlier iterated, it’s recommended that these meetings take up no more than 10% of the team’s capacity.

Backlog Refinement Meeting Agenda

While the specific agenda can vary depending on the team and project, a typical backlog refinement meeting may follow this general structure:

  1. Reviewing the Backlog: Start by looking at the entire backlog. The Product Owner might provide a brief overview of the product vision and goals to ensure everyone is aligned.
  2. Discussion of New Items: The Product Owner introduces new user stories or Product Backlog items. Each item’s purpose and requirements are discussed to ensure the team understands it.
  3. Estimation: The team discusses the effort needed to complete each item and assigns an estimate, often using story points or hours. This process may involve breaking down larger items into smaller, manageable parts.
  4. Prioritization: The team, led by the Product Owner, prioritizes the items based on their estimated value to the project or product. The highest priority items are those that the team will work on in the next Sprint.
  5. Definition of Done: The team agrees on what it means for each item to be “done”. This includes the acceptance criteria that the item must meet to be considered complete.
  6. Preparation for Next Sprint: The team ensures that there are enough refined items ready for the next Sprint. These items should be clear and small enough to be completed during the Sprint.

Anti-Patterns of Backlog Refinement

Anti-patterns are common practices that often seem helpful but can be counterproductive. Here are some anti-patterns for backlog refinement:

  1. Ignoring Refinement: Neglecting the backlog refinement process can lead to a cluttered and unmanageable backlog, making sprint planning difficult and inefficient.
  2. Too Detailed Too Early: Creating highly detailed user stories too far ahead can lead to wasted effort if priorities change.
  3. Doing It Alone: If the Product Owner is the only person involved in backlog refinement, it can lead to a lack of shared understanding and buy-in from the team.
  4. Not Estimating: Avoiding estimation of backlog items can result in a lack of understanding of what can be achieved in a sprint and can lead to unrealistic expectations.
  5. Inconsistent Prioritization: If items are not consistently prioritized based on their value, the team might end up working on less important items.

Best Practices for Backlog Refinement

Here are some best practices to follow during backlog refinement sessions:

  1. Regularly Schedule Refinement Sessions: Regular refinement sessions help keep the backlog manageable and ready for the next sprint.
  2. Involve the Whole Team: While the Product Owner leads the refinement process, the whole team should be involved to ensure shared understanding and buy-in.
  3. Size Appropriately: Break down large backlog items into smaller, manageable items that can be completed within one sprint.
  4. Estimate Effort: Use techniques like story points or T-shirt sizes to estimate the effort required for each item. This helps in sprint planning and managing expectations.
  5. Prioritize Based on Value: Prioritize items based on their value to the end-user or the business, not just on ease of implementation.
  6. Review and Adjust Regularly: The backlog is a living document. Regularly review and adjust items based on feedback, changes in business priorities, or other factors.

Backlog Prioritization Techniques

Prioritization of Product Backlog items is key to backlog refinement. To properly refine the backlog requires prioritization of the items and ensuring the ones for the upcoming sprints have the highest priority and value.

Techniques used for backlog prioritization include:

  1. MoSCoW Method: This technique categorizes backlog items into four categories: Must have, Should have, Could have, and Won’t have.
  2. Value vs. Effort Matrix: This is a 2×2 matrix where one axis represents the effort (cost, time, complexity) and the other represents the value (impact, benefit). It helps in identifying high-value, low-effort items.
  3. Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF): In this method, jobs with the smallest cost of delay divided by duration are the highest priority.
  4. Cost of Delay (CoD): This technique helps in deciding the priority based on the perceived cost of not doing the task now. The higher the cost, the higher the priority.
  5. RICE Scoring: This stands for Reach, Impact, Confidence, and Effort. Each task is scored on these four factors, and the sum is used to rank the tasks.
  6. Kano Model: This model categorizes customer preferences into five categories: Must-Be, Attractive, One-Dimensional, Indifferent, and Reverse. The features customers expect or are excited about get higher priority.

You can read more on backlog prioritization techniques in Agile here.


In conclusion, Product Backlog refinement is an essential practice in Scrum and other Agile methodologies, ensuring that the Product Backlog remains up-to-date, prioritized, and ready for upcoming Sprints.

By consistently reviewing, prioritizing, estimating, and detailing backlog items, teams enhance their efficiency, collaboration, and product quality.

While Backlog refinement isn’t a formal Scrum event, it is crucial for successful product development, enabling teams to deliver value-driven results.


What is one Key Benefit of a Backlog Refinement Session?

Backlog refinement sessions provide an opportunity to prioritize tasks effectively, ensuring that the team focuses on the most impactful projects. This optimizes productivity and aligns team efforts with business objectives.

What is the Difference Between Backlog Refinement and Sprint Planning?

Backlog Refinement involves reviewing and prioritizing upcoming tasks, while Sprint Planning specifically allocates those tasks into the next sprint. Refinement ensures tasks are ready for development, while Planning organizes tasks for immediate execution in the upcoming iteration.

Does Kanban have Backlog Refinement?

Yes, Kanban can include backlog refinement. Even though it’s a continuous flow model, teams can still prioritize and refine tasks to ensure they’re effectively managed and aligned with the team’s capacity and project goals.

What is the Duration of Product Backlog Refinement Meeting?

The duration of Product Backlog Refinement meetings can vary. However, Scrum Guide suggests allocating no more than 10% of the team’s capacity for refinement activities, which includes these meetings. The exact duration should be tailored to the team’s specific needs and context.

Is Backlog Refinement a Scrum Event?

No, Backlog Refinement is not officially defined as a Scrum event in the Scrum Guide although it is an important activity in Scrum. It’s a continuous process where the Product Owner and Development Team collaborate to keep the backlog updated and ready for future Sprints.

Who is Responsible for Facilitating Backlog Refinement?

The Product Owner is primarily responsible for facilitating backlog refinement, collaborating with the Development Team to ensure tasks are clear, relevant, and prioritized. However, the Scrum Master can also help facilitate these sessions, promoting effective communication and collaboration.

What is the Output of Product Backlog Refinement?

The output of Product Backlog refinement is an updated and prioritized Product Backlog. Tasks are clarified, decomposed into manageable sizes, and ordered according to their importance. This ensures readiness for the next Sprint Planning and aligns the team’s work with product goals.

Who Should Participate in Backlog Refinement?

Backlog refinement does not have fixed attendees that must be present at every session. However, it’s important for transparency that the Scrum team consisting of the Product Owner, Scrum Master, and development team should be at backlog refinement sessions.

Other project stakeholders like Business Analyst, UI/UX, etc can also be present at the invitation of the Scrum team.

David Usifo (PSM, MBCS, PMP®)
David Usifo (PSM, MBCS, PMP®)

David Usifo is a certified project manager professional, professional Scrum Master, and a BCS certified Business Analyst with a background in product development and database management.

He enjoys using his knowledge and skills to share with aspiring and experienced project managers and product developers the core concept of value-creation through adaptive solutions.

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