Jira Backlog Grooming Is Just Like Gardening

5 Jira Backlog Grooming Best Practices

When you hear “Jira Backlog,” shivers of terror probably run down your spine. It is no man’s land, a barren desert. It is where tickets and support requests go to die. But it doesn’t have to be!

Think of your backlog as your garden, ripe with ideas and work for picking, sometimes overrun with weeds, always requiring care.

With the correct practices and organization, Jira backlog grooming can be fruitful and insightful; it can also make for easier sprint planning in the future. We’ll cover the best practices to help make you successful, and show you how to prioritize your Jira backlog with Visor.

What’s the difference between backlog and grooming?

Backlog is simply a list of work to be done – or in Jira terms, backlog is where you create, manage, and house the issues that your team is working on. Backlog lets you define work and set priorities so that you can determine which tasks have to be tackled right away and which need to be handled down the line.

However, because so many issues can end up in backlog, it’s important to regularly review the it to ensure the issues in backlog are the correct ones and that they’re prioritized accurately. This process is called backlog grooming or backlog refinement. Backlog grooming can include:

  • Closing out outdated issues
  • Adding new issues 
  • Adjusting priorities for issues in backlog
  • Assigning and adjusting estimates for how long it may take to complete an issue.

If you’re new to Jira backlog grooming, we have best practices listed below to help guide you. 

You can manage backlog grooming entirely within Jira, or you can use an app like Visor to help you set priorities. While it may seem to make sense to handle everything within Jira, a tool like Visor can help if you need to involve teams that don’t typically use Jira in planning.

5 Best Practices to Clean Up Your Jira Backlog

1. Plan ahead for the “next harvest” and make a v2.

It’s easy to let scope creep, well, creep in. To avoid having great ideas go to waste, make a v2 Epic or Project for any Stories or Tasks that do not fit into the current scope. That way, all your ideas for another iteration of the project live in one place and can be linked to the MVP or v1 of the project for future reference.

Placing ideas into a “v2” category allows items to live in your backlog in a clear, organized way and helps set priority between new projects and future iterations of current projects.

2. Find a prioritization method that makes sense for your organization.

Whether sorting by priority or story points, only you know what works best for your organization. 

If you are working on a larger project, it might make sense to have items that complete it at the top of your backlog. Similarly, suppose you have some team members who have extra time on their hands. In that case, it might make sense to have some iterative or improvement tickets closer to the top for visibility so idle team members can pick up lucrative projects or quick wins. 

Whatever your current project ecosystem is, implement items such as tags, labels, or estimated due dates to help set priority and give team members a clear picture of the work to come. 

3. Set a percentage of sprints toward bug squashing! 🐛

It’s easy to get shiny new toy syndrome with cool feature requests and new designs, but don’t forget to “eat what’s in the fridge.” Forgotten bugs, tech debt fixes, and “someday, not now” improvements that could benefit your current users are often rediscovered with thoughtful Jira backlog grooming best practices. 

Whether you use story points, t-shirt sizing, or some other metric of measuring your work in sprints, dedicate some percentage of work to fixing broken things, improving things that might be slow or outdated, and setting your future projects and architecture up for success. You’ll thank yourself later. 

4. When in doubt, spec it out. 

Recency bias is a massive factor for many teams while triaging issues during Jira backlog grooming. That’s why providing as much detail as possible in the initial ticket creation is vital so that if and when a ticket ends up in the backlog, there’s some context to it.

The worst thing in the world is finding a ticket with a promising issue summary and no further detail. What project was it for? How did it fit into the current project scope? What was the intended behavior? Even something as quick as a few bullet points or notes in the description can be a timesaver later on. It’s worth the upfront investment, trust me. 

5. Keep business needs in mind.

Everyone knows that projects and businesses often require agility and pivoting. For example, perhaps retention was your company’s original priority, but now you’re focused on expansion. That’s okay! You don’t have to abandon ship or start over fully. 

Just make sure you keep the business needs and expectations of executives in mind when grooming your backlog. Consider alternative statuses like “Held Back” or “Pivoted” for items that might return to priority once circumstances change. 

How to Prioritize Your Jira Backlog With Visor

An essential step in Jira backlog grooming is setting priorities.

However, it can be hard to set priorities in Jira when stakeholders and plans aren’t solidified. That’s where third-party applications, like Visor, can help. Below is how you can quickly set priority to many items in your Jira backlog using Visor, an official Atlassian Marketplace Partner.

We also provided some tips on using custom fields to visualize and plan your future sprints. 

Step 1: Import your Jira data into Visor.

When importing, select the Sprint field as a field to import. This will be crucial for the process.

step 1 to jira backlog grooming in visor

Step 2: Isolate Blank Sprint Fields with Filtering.

Once you import your data, you will see that the Sprint column has some cells populated with Sprint names and others are blank. The rows with blank cells are the records currently in your backlog. To isolate these records, click the arrow to the right of the column name. Select “Filter Field,” and then, from the Filter menu, select “(N value).” 

jira backlog grooming step 2

Step 3: Drag and drop the isolated issues to set priority in Visor.

Now that you’ve isolated issues in your backlog, you can drag and drop to set priority in Visor. 

From here, aside from dragging and dropping, you can also assign sprints, change assignees, and add notes or estimated due dates with Visor custom fields. Custom fields allow you to make notes or changes that won’t be pushed to Jira when you sync and are perfect for planning, ideating, or visualizing rough timelines. 

jira backlog grooming step 3 drag and drop

Can you filter your Jira backlog?

There are three main ways of filtering your Jira backlog – by using labels, by using JQL, our by using Visor. Here’s how to do so with these various methods.

Option #1: Filter backlog using Jira labels

For this method to work, it helps to have Backlog as a label. If you do, then filtering backlog is a simple process. 

Step 1: Create a Filter

First open the project you would like to work on. Go to the Filters dropdown menu at the top of the page and select View All Filters.

jira backlog filter screen

Click the Create a Filter button on the right-hand side of the screen. 

Step 2: Choose your filter

Select the dropdown menu where you have backlog saved as a label (in the screenshot below, you can find it under Status). Select the checkbox labeled Backlog and Jira will filter for that label. 

jira backlog screen for filtering

Step 3: Save your filter (optional)

If you’d like to save your filter, select the Save Filter hyperlink to the right of the filter search dropdown menus. A popup will appear, which will prompt you to enter a name, description, and viewing and editing permissions.

jira screen to save filter

Option #2: Filter Your Backlog in Visor

Visor syncs with Jira, allowing you to visualize your project data and add filters.

Many project managers use Visor to make quick bulk edits to their backlog. We go over how to prioritize and filter your backlog in Visor in this section of this blog post.

Option #3: Filter backlog using JQL

If you do not have a Backlog label, or you want a more precise method of filtering for backlog, you can enter filter parameters using Jira Query Language (JQL).

Step 1: Create a new filter

Open the project you want to filter, then select the Filter dropdown menu and select View All Filters. Select the Create New Filter button to start your new filter.

Step 2: Switch to JQL

When you open a new filter, you’ll see a series of dropdown menus. These allow you to filter for an assortment of existing labels. On the upper right, you’ll either see a toggle or a hyperlink that will allow you to switch to JQL. Select it, and a box will appear for entering JQL queries.

dropdown menus to filter jira backlog

Step 3: Enter JQL query

At this point you want to enter a query. Include the project you want to search for, the issue types you want to view, and include all your “done” statuses and empty sprints. A sample JQL query you could use to filter for backlog might look like this:

project = <your project> AND issuetype in (<type of issues you want to filter for>) AND status not in (<all done statuses>) AND (sprint is EMPTY OR sprint not in openSprints() AND sprint not in futureSprints())

jql query for backlog

If you’re not sure how to format your command, you can click the question icon to see Atlassian’s JQL Syntax Help.

Step 4: Save your filter (optional)

To save your filter to use again later, click the Save Filter hyperlink to the right of the JQL query box. A popup will open that prompts you to enter a filter name and description, along with filter permissions.

3 Things to Keep in Mind When Refining Your Jira Backlog

1. The backlog isn’t always where things go to die.

Much like a garden, your backlog can get overtaken by “weeds” of dead or irrelevant tickets if it is not properly maintained. To ensure that every issue is still relevant, you should make cleaning and organizing your backlog as regular and scheduled as possible. 

Try setting a meeting on your calendar for “Backlog Cleanup” once a month or once a quarter to ensure that you keep things clean, organized, and relevant. A regular meeting will keep your Jira instance workable and help with future sprint planning because there will be less searching for issues or on-the-spot cleanup. 

2. Don’t get sentimental; trash vague and empty tickets.

Much like how you wouldn’t keep a dead plant on the windowsill, you don’t want to take up precious space with tickets that aren’t clear. You’ll waste less time during refinements trying to figure out what Steve meant by “Better button on homepage” in 2019. 

You may have created the ticket during a flash of inspiration from an employee no longer working with you, or it was part of an irrelevant project. Whatever the case, there’s no reason to raise these ideas from the dead, and if they’re really that important, they’ll come back to you. Better to keep things clean, concise, and well-thought-out. That way, every ticket that comes up has value. 

3. Make backlog cleanup a part of project completion.

Congrats! You’ve finished your project. But as with every harvest, there’s always some cleanup afterward. So, pick up those withered stems and clean up those backlog tickets once your team finishes a project.

Categorize extra or duplicate tickets you may have created for a project into “Done” statuses or move good ideas that didn’t make it into the MVP into your v2 or “future state” Epics. This way, your backlog is primed and ready for your next project–no ghosts of projects past.

Conclusion: You Can Clean up Your Messy Backlog

Tools like Visor can make your backlog less scary to tackle. Quickly set priorities in Visor and push out changes to your Jira instance with Visor’s two-way syncing. Once you find workflows and tools that work for you, maintaining your backlog will be less overwhelming.

Perfect the best practices of backlog grooming to make your backlog ready for harvest. Remember to stay organized, “weed whack,” and set clear and thoughtful priorities.

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