Kill the Backlog of User Stories

Most companies think that a key part of being Agile involves creating a Backlog of User Stories from their product vision & product strategy. Soon they end up with 100 user stories to manage! And then drown in the details and the tedium of writing even more granular acceptance criteria for the user stories. Then there’s the estimation, grooming, prioritization, ad nauseam.

So Product Managers end up choosing one of the two evils:

  1. minimize Strategy work and spend most of their time updating the dozens of User Stories in the "Backlog" with detailed acceptance criteria;
  2. disengage from the delivery process and declare that Product Management is "out-of-band" in the Agile development process.

The solution is mind-numbingly simple - at least for a good Product Manager, Entrepreneur or Product Executive:

Start with a Go-to-Market Strategy

Here's how:

Identify key business Milestones (plan on getting to them in about 3 to 6 months), figure out your strategic Plans (about a month each) to validate or invalidate your assumptions about user & customer acquisition/ engagement/ monetization, and focus on minimizing core development Activities by choosing one key Activity that targets a key User Role/Persona in each Strategic Plan that should result in a Release (no longer than a month).

Put another way:

Don't *create* a big product backlog of User Stories from Features in your product strategy - that's just feature creep in bite-sized chunks. Instead, separate your product strategy from go-to-market strategy, and derive a mere handful of user stories from each Activity in the current strategic plan.

You shouldn't have more Plans beyond the Milestone you're targeting; and no User Stories beyond those derived from the Key Activity (and maybe, 1 or 2 supporting Activities) you have in the current Plan.

A typical company I coach and even my own startups typically have about 3 Milestones considered, about 3 to 6 Plans per Milestone, and 1 Key Activity (broken into about 4 to 10 User Stories for the current Plan) for the Persona/User-Role under focus.

My entire "Backlog" consists of no more than 10 User Stories at any given time.

I submit that the primary source of the problem most Agile projects face today lies with the word: Backlog.

"Backlog" is a *project* manager's term - nothing wrong with that, that's their job. But project managers shouldn't even be influencing - let alone deciding - what needs to be done, they should be responsible for getting done that which has been decided by Product Management and their Go-to-Market Strategy.

Product Managers don't think about the "Backlog" - they think about all the strategies to engage their users/customers in Activities to realize their product & business goals.

Empower the Product Management in the Agile process by focusing on Strategic Activities instead of the abominable Backlog of User Stories, and you empower the whole team and the entire organization as a result. You will end up lowering the time & cost to achieve business goals, while simultaneously increasing the quality of the products by reducing the amount of "development" work that needs to be done.