The Scrum approach to agile software development marks a dramatic departure from waterfall management. Scrum and other agile methods were inspired by its shortcomings. Scrum emphasizes collaboration, functioning software, team self management, and the flexibility to adapt to emerging business realities.


Back to Scrum Basics: Product Backlog Items vs. Tasks

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The Product Backlog is a force-ranked list of Product Backlog Items (PBIs), which should represent customer-centric product features. The Product Backlog should not contain tasks.

Since it is the Product Owner’s responsibility to determine what work will yield the most business value, the Product Owner prioritizes the PBIs. The Product Owner focuses more on the “what,” while the “how” is left for the team to decide.

The Product Owner and team should collaborate about an hour per week on backlog refinement (aka “backlog grooming”) to convert large fuzzy requirements (“epics”) into more distinct user stories. If a PBI would take more than a quarter of a two-week Sprint, it’s probably too big.

Only a subset of these PBIs, the Sprint Backlog, are tackled by the team in a given Sprint. During Sprint Planning, and during the Sprint itself, the team discovers and tracks the Sprint Tasks necessary to accomplish each PBI in the Sprint Backlog. I often meet teams that cannot distinguish their Sprint Backlog from their Product Backlog, making me wonder whether they have clear goals.

My favorite way to keep track of Sprint Tasks is with a physical taskboard, owned by the team. The team is less likely to self manage if people outside the team, including the Product Owner, try to scrutinize their progress during the Sprint, particularly at the Task level. The demo at the Sprint Review Meeting is a more appropriate time to inspect and adapt the product.

If the effort to accomplish PBIs is estimated, we prefer relative units such as T-shirt sizes or Story Points—i.e. abstracted estimates of difficulty. Sprint Tasks should usually take one day or less. Some teams find it useful to estimate Sprint Tasks in hours, though we eventually stopped estimating them at all. Also, there’s no point in trying to reconcile the effort estimates of PBIs and Sprint Tasks.


Watch a team break Product Backlog Items (PBIs, or User Stories) into Sprint Tasks during the Sprint Planning Meeting.


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