Nothing Gums Up a Well-Oiled Agile Team Faster

I ran into fellow Agile-ist Chris Bartling in the halls of the fine organization where we both consult on different projects (I’m working with an enthusiastic team building a collaborative community called Law School Exchange).

We yammered about the importance of Product Owners grooming and feeding the backlog. Today I noticed Chris blogged about, what else? … The Importance of Grooming the Story Backlog.

This is often overlooked. But as a well-traveled, in-the-trenches developer I can say that

Nothing gums up a well-oiled Agile team faster than the business not feeding the hopper with meaty stories.


The first step is understanding what makes a useful story. Lots of people have written about, and know much more about, useful story generation (e.g., Agile coach David Hussman).

I volunteered to help our business side write story cards for a couple of Sprints ahead; they were not keeping up with our dev team’s appetite. Developers love meaty stories.

Fortunately I have earned the trust of the Product Owner, so that I can say “We’re on the verge of flailing, how can I help?”. I met with him and his lieutenants for 3 hours yesterday afternoon. We generated about 20 meaty stories.

I hoped to suggest, in a non-abrasive way, the kinds of things that help developers be productive after, for example, reading the tests that constitute done, on the back of the story card.

Here are 3 simple things I hoped to impart about Story cards:

  • Meaningful story title (card front);
  • Blurb encapsulating the gist; AND
  • Tests (card back) that “constitute done” using personae (e.g., Law Prof Larry can mark a document “private”).

Once we understand how to write a useful story, the next step is make a grip of them. Lay out the path as far as you can. Developers love that. No one wants to see the business flail. When a Product Owner is not allowed to focus on the product, and starts to flail, projects get axed.

Product Owners need to be several Sprints ahead in the Backlog. I also suggested to our Product Owner that he have weekly meetings with his lieutenants to GROOM and FEED the backlog.

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