Product Backlog vs Sprint Backlog: Here’s the Difference

The development of Agile project management remains one of the most influential business trends of the 21st century, and for good reason. Agile provides numerous benefits to both teams and their parent organizations, increasing adaptability and accelerating value delivery in every effort. Still, effective implementation is no simple endeavor and requires a deep understanding of every component.

Two of the most central artifacts to the Agile experience are the Product Backlog and the Sprint Backlog. These components have similar task-management functions and are complementary in nature. As a result, it’s easy for new Agile practitioners to confuse the two— yet it is critical to understand the crucial and distinctive role each Backlog plays.

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The Product Backlog and Sprint Backlog Defined

The Product Backlog and the Sprint Backlog have several important differences. Whereas the Product Backlog essentially serves as a comprehensive list of user requirements, the Sprint Backlog is a dynamic subset of this collection, containing only the most relevant priorities for a particular portion of product development.

Still a little confused about the difference between the Product Backlog and the Sprint Backlog? The phrase Product Backlog is almost synonymous with Agile teams at this point, but it’s important to understand how both the Product Backlog and Sprint Backlog benefit a Scrum Team. Here’s a quick analogy that will help you understand the difference— think of your Product Backlog like the menu at a local restaurant, and the Sprint Backlog like the kitchen staff’s plan to make your meal.

Now imagine this: you walk into a local Indian restaurant and take a look at the menu. Each of these individual menu items is worth some amount of value to you, the customer. You’re potentially interested in exchanging your money for one (or many) of these items, and you feel varying levels of desire for each. The server comes up, and you decide to order the Chicken Tikka Masala and butter naan. She jots down your order and takes it back into the kitchen. In a sense, you just helped the Product Owner identify what Product Backlog Items you want most.

The server walks back into the kitchen and synchronizes with the kitchen staff. “Here are the two Product Backlog Items that need to be created for the customer: Chicken Tikka Masala and butter naan.” They start to identify all of the tasks that need to be completed in order to create these particular menu items. There are ingredients that need to be prepped, cooked, and served to the customer— and later, dishes that need to be cleaned. All of these tasks requiring completion are essentially the Development Team’s Sprint Backlog. It’s their plan to deliver the Increment.

This analogy underscores how both the Sprint Backlog and the Product Backlog are equally important and intricately intertwined. The kitchen staff depends on the server, just as the server depends on the kitchen staff. Although the two backlogs serve distinctive functions within the context of this process, each ultimately serves as a necessary element of a singular system. 

How the Product Backlog and Sprint Backlog Work Together 

The Product Backlog and the Sprint Backlog, while distinct, are nonetheless deeply interconnected and complementary in nature. Tasks defined in the Sprint Backlog are entirely dependent on the output of the Product Backlog, and incomplete items from the Sprint Backlog may eventually be moved back into the Product Backlog.

As you’re thinking about each of the backlogs, you’ll see that the Product Backlog is outward-facing, whereas the Sprint Backlog is inward-facing. 

The Product Backlog contains everything of value to your customer— all the cool stuff that they would be willing to exchange money for. Correspondingly, this component is generally managed by the Product Owner, who dominates most of the team’s direct interactions with customers and stakeholders. By evaluating the importance of each task with respect to the external business environment, the Product Owner ensures the Development Team is always focused on high-value work.

The Sprint Backlog holds all the stuff the Development Team has to do in order to deliver the value for a customer. Rather than fixating on the big picture, this list tends to target specific, day-to-day objectives. As a result, the Sprint Backlog is more closely related to the technical nuances of product development, outlining how each feature will be implemented. 

If you’re not sure if it belongs on your Product Backlog or your Sprint Backlog, ask yourself— would a customer pay you money for just this item? For instance, in the Indian restaurant scenario, would a customer take a seat and tell the server they’d like to pay for the kitchen staff to wash their own dishes? Or perhaps just prep some ingredients? No one would ever pay for an isolated piece of this experience (at least, I never would), and most expect these steps to be integrated as part of the meal-making process— it is the composition of tasks that is truly valuable to the customer.

Managing Product Backlogs and Sprint Backlogs

For those operating legacy business models, transitioning to Agile is a significant undertaking. Organizations adopting this methodology must take a multitude of complex variables into account, particularly when it comes to how they manage priorities within a project. 

Ordinarily, organizations new to Agile must spend years developing their proficiency in managing vital artifacts such as Product Backlogs and Sprint Backlogs. With the right partner, however, businesses can jumpstart Agile adoption, leveraging the expertise of an experienced practitioner in order to accelerate their efforts. Responsive Advisors is that partner. 

With a diverse catalog of training programs, a team of accomplished industry professionals, and a track record of meaningful successes, Responsive Advisors is ready to help prepare your organization for the next wave of Agile transformation. 

Greg Crown

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