Backlog Hand Limit

We’ve all faced that struggle of modern-day life where the checkout at the supermarket turns into an unfair battle.

The minute you start unloading your cart, the race is on. All the lady behind the counter needs to do is quickly swipe the scanner and more stuff ends up on your end of the conveyor belt. You barely managed to unload everything and now you’re fighting to organize your items in dedicated bags. You can’t help but notice that the system seems to be organized for their productivity, not yours. There is no way you can win.

Backlogs often feel like the checkout at the supermarket. It’s trivial to add stuff. It’s much harder and more stressful to prioritize, groom and build. Developers spend an iteration burning through ticket after ticket only to end up with more tickets in total.

At the heart of this problem lie the Idea Fountains. Every organization has a few. These people come up with product ideas that could be added. They want to hold on to their old tickets “just in case” and expose their recency bias when prioritizing.

The result is always a noisy Backlog. It’s impossible to groom and it feels like nobody can ever catch up.

It’s far easier to come up with vague ideas than to execute them. And since there is zero cost to adding such an idea to the Backlog, Idea Fountains will spew Jira ticket after Jira ticket.

Back in the days of fixed-price projects, the Change Request was a natural brake on this behaviour. The mere idea of introducing change had a cost. That triggered the “bean counter reflex” in most of them. It made them ask the question: “do we really need this?”. As a result, changes were only bought if absolutely necessary.

We don’t need to go back to the rigid nature of the Iron Triangle. We love the flexibility.

But could it be that Backlogs have a bit of a design flaw? Nothing fits the more-is-more Idea Fountain better than an endless list of high-level ideas, free of charge. Without a cost, we’re just collecting Jira tickets like Pokemon.

The most straightforward solution is a Hand Limit on the entire Backlog: it can contain at most 10 items. Adding a new User Story forces you to delete another. Pushing a new idea gets turned into a sacrifice, a trade-off. The price of adding one “just in case” is losing another one. When things have a price, we value them more.

The result is a focused Backlog that only contains things that we’re going to build.

That leads to laser focus and a sustainable pace.