Agile Playbook

What is Story Refinement?

Story Refinement or Backlog Grooming as it has been called, is where the Product Owner and the Delivery Team review high-priority Product Backlog Items (PBIs). While the Scrum Guide does not include Story Refinement as an event, many teams have found it to be a critical ceremony and it is often considered to be the 5th Scrum Ceremony.

What’s the Benefit?

Refinement ensures the highest priority Stories meet the Definition of Ready (DoR) and the team has enough work to bring into Sprint Planning and prepare a valuable Sprint Commitment.

When?

Story Refinement should be a regularly scheduled ceremony occurring once or twice a week. Teams often spend 5% to 10% of each Sprint refining the Product Backlog.

Who attends?

  • Product Owner (PO)
  • Delivery Team Members who will create the outcome.
  • Delivery Team members who will validate and test the outcome.
  • Scrum Master (Optional facilitator)

Inputs

  • Story Definition of Ready
  • Prioritized Backlog Items
  • Current Features (if stories align)

Outputs

  • Stories meeting the Definition of Ready (DoR)

Preparing for success

Product Owner (PO) Preparation

The PO should prepare a list of high-priority candidates aligning with any Features and Product Roadmaps. This should be ready for the team’s review at least a full workday before refinement.

Team Preparation

The Team should review the candidate Stories so they can think through questions and dependencies.

Facilitator Preparation

The facilitator ensures Product Roadmaps, Features and Epics are available if needed. If the ceremony is in the same physical space, gathering the usual Stickies, Pens and maybe index cards.

Execution

  1. The PO reviews the highest priority candidate Stories or features as needed.
  2. The Delivery Team asks questions to better understand the Why and What.
  3. High-level tasking may take place to better understand the stories, but deep dive details should wait for Sprint Planning.
  4. The PO refines the description and Acceptance Criteria as needed.
  5. When the Delivery Team has enough information, they may estimate using Story Points.
  6. If the story is too big for a single Sprint, or the Feature is too large for Program Increment, the item should be split into separate and value items.
  7. If the PO can’t answer all the questions, an action plan should be created of how answers will be obtained. This may involve anyone attending.
  8. The process continues until time is reached or the Backlog is deemed healthy.

Best Practices

  • Remember the INVEST mnemonic created by Bill Wake for Backlog Items.
    • Independent – The story should be self-contained.
    • Negotiable- Stories are not explicit contracts and should leave space for discussion.
    • Valuable – Stories must deliver value to the stakeholders.
    • Estimable – You must always be able to estimate the size of a story.
    • Small – Stories should not be so big as to become impossible to plan/task/prioritize within a level of accuracy.
    • Testable – Stories or its related description must provide the necessary information to make testing possible.
  • Review the Definition of Read (DoR) from time to time as it’s a living document and should also be refined as needed.
  • It’s often best to have the entire delivery team involved with refinement, however, at times this can be challenging. If everyone cannot attend every refinement ceremony, ensure everyone attends often. Some teams suggest at least 25% to 33% of the time.
  • Follow the “Three Amigos”. This refers to different perspectives needed to ensure a story is viable. It involves the customer/business perspective, the builder perspective and the testing perspective. This often refers to the Product Owner, developers and testers. If the entire team can’t attend, it’s important to ensure these 3 perspectives are valued.
  • Many teams find it helpful for the PO to send a list of candidates a full workday before the ceremony. This is only valuable if the delivery team agrees to review them before refinement.
  • Refinement may occur once or twice a week immediately after the Daily Stand-Up. The team is already together and has not started developing or building yet. If the time isn’t needed, the team can have the time back.
  • Estimating can be used as a valuable check to determine the team’s understanding. If estimates vary widely, it may be due to a lack of common understanding.
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