5 Steps to Make Product Backlog Groomings More Engaging

Today’s the day! You (a Product Manager) have prepared your product backlog. The goals are clear, features and user stories are defined and your team’s ready for the next big thing. The kick-off usually happens in team meetings where we discuss OKRs, roadmaps, features, stories, etc. There were times when I left a meeting with more questions and unclarity than before. Despite the fact that the idea behind backlog grooming is to bring clarity to the whole team. I’d like to share 5 steps that help me better facilitate and structure team meetings to gain clarity on imminent projects with an engaged team.

What’s product backlog grooming?
A “backlog grooming” or “backlog refinement” is a team meeting where the Product Manager and the Software Engineers come together to discuss user stories in the backlog. The goal is to gain clarity on projects, tasks, and estimate tickets and the scope.

Usually, we meet once a week to discuss tickets in our backlog or other topics like the roadmap or quarterly goals. The frequency of these sessions depends on how well-groomed our backlog is. If we kick off a new, bigger project, I spend more time with my team to get everyone aligned as fast as possible. If we’re in the middle of a project that is clearly defined, we meet bi-weekly.

A very important thing I always do one day (at least 24 hours) before every grooming, is to share a short agenda. This contains at minimum a list of stories/tickets I want to discuss. I always ask my team to add additional points or stories to the agenda. It’s very important to not forget about the work that needs to be tackled outside of my little product world 🙃

The better you are aligned on running and upcoming projects, the more time you save in meetings and during implementation. Let’s look at the rules that helped me and my teams to be more structured.

#1 Do a Check-In at Every Backlog Grooming Session

“Never change a running system!” - Anonymous

Unfortunately, you can’t improve and change if you don’t try out new things. I regularly change the agenda of the backlog grooming sessions. Not in a way that I do completely new crazy stuff or try to reinvent the wheel. It’s more about making tiny changes within a given structure.

We always start with a quick check-in. I ask how everyone is doing and how we are feeling today. Before I start talking about something else I ask if anyone has any particular topics they want to discuss or any feedback on the agenda or other pressing topics. It’s important for your team members to arrive at the grooming. If you were fixing a bug before or worked on something very complex, you need some time to make the context switch.

There are multiple ways to get started. Another way to do a check-in is to ask person by person what’s on their mind (30 sec - 1 min). That can help you to better understand what the mood of the team is. Based on that, you can adjust your personal agenda if needed.

You can find many other check-in questions on the internet. The main message is to remind ourselves that we’re all humans. A quick “health check” before starting a meeting helps me to get everyone in the mood to sit together and discuss particular topics.

What About Time Concerns 🤔

In my opinion, the time you spend is very well invested. If you figure out during the check-in that someone is struggling with a big issue in the live system which causes, for example, app crashes or breaks the website, you should spend time discussing that instead. If you know that someone isn’t in a good mood or has another issue you can dive into that. The productivity boost when everybody is in meeting mode shouldn’t be underestimated. People are simply more engaged if they have the ability to speak up and if everyone is listening.

If you have people's attention it’s time to get started...

#2 Kick it Off: It’s Backlog Time!

After we’ve checked in and everyone’s taken a sip of coffee or Club Mate, we start. Before we talk about any story, I kick things off by sharing the current plan. This can be the

  • Product roadmap
  • OKRs (Objectives and key results)
  • Company goals or vision
  • Project status and milestones
  • Current sprint goal
  • etc…

Sharing the priorities and goals at the beginning is very crucial to (again) help catch everyone up. As mentioned above: If you have fixed an urgent issue or just stopped working on a complex task you might forget about the global priorities. One of the key tasks of every PM is repeating, repeating, repeating. Every day, every week, every month…

If I’m sometimes in a rush and forget to share our OKRs, I get a friendly reminder from my teammates to open the slides and have a look at them.

I present the slides and read out every objective and key result. Before I move to the next objective, I ask questions and if the team thinks we’re on track. I recommend asking open questions in order to make people engage with the topic. You can ask things like...

  • How do we feel about the current progress?
  • Does anyone foresee potential obstacles or delays?
  • Where do we stand currently?
  • Are our goals still clear?

Instead of asking

  • “Any questions? (1.5 seconds later) No? Ok, let’s continue….”

I always take time to answer questions. If I have the feeling we’re losing track or there are more things to discuss, I propose to schedule a follow-up or discuss it “offline” (which means after the meeting).

Checking in and kicking off the grooming should take no longer than 5-10 minutes. From there on, I start presenting the backlog.

If you're looking for a comprehensive guide to better manage your backlog, check out 👉 this read 📝

#3 Present the Playground (Your Product Backlog)

The playground I’m talking about is the backlog. I used to work with digital backlogs which means I present it on a big screen (if we are all in one room) or I share it via my screen on Hangout, Zoom, or any other tool. Before we start the deep dive, I spend a couple of minutes presenting the stories in the backlog.

Since I’ve prepared my backlog with epics and user stories I give my team an overview of the tasks that I’d like to discuss. This is usually the time when questions pop up or team members have other tasks they want to discuss. If needed, we rearrange the order of tickets to be groomed and then we start with the first story from the top.

In a perfect world, everyone has read the tickets before and is prepared.

Sometimes people aren’t able to prepare for grooming for a multitude of reasons. If you notice that this happens on a regular basis with more of your team members, I recommend addressing it and finding a better way to make sure that the team prepares for the grooming. Retrospectives can be a great time to discuss these kinds of topics.

Bear in mind that the backlog is the place you all use to plan and work with 🤝

#4 Deep Dive Into Every User Story

After picking a story we haven’t discussed, I spend a couple of seconds to reading it out loud to the team. Yes, I do that with every story. Alternatively, you can give everyone a minute to read. I like the old-fashioned way of reading them out loud. The next action is to ask for feedback and open questions. This is actually the time when you as PM receive questions or people start discussing technical details.

Some tickets need more time and others need less. I always set a timebox of 10 minutes. It can sometimes take longer, although, this is an indicator that more preparation is needed. Based on the feedback and outcome of the conversations, we adjust or break it down into more tickets. By “we” I mean either me or someone else who is sharing the backlog. If we have a backlog with a lot of tech stories, one of the engineers presents the backlog, takes notes, and adjusts the tickets.

Sometimes I get asked by teammates to let them facilitate the whole grooming including the steps before the session. I really recommend letting Engineers play the PM role as well. At the end of the day, we’re one team with one goal and everyone plays an equal part. It’s important to change perspectives and as mentioned before, you should constantly try out new things 😉

After a ticket has been enriched with all the relevant information, we estimate it according to the Fibonacci format. That’s the last missing piece of the puzzle that’s needed for a ticket to match our “definition of ready” and to be “ready for development”.

That was the happy part… What if a story needs more specification?

#5 Define Clear Follow-Ups

Even with a timebox of 10 minutes per story, we spend an average of 5 min per task. As mentioned above, longer discussions are an indicator that more clarification and preparation is needed. That doesn’t mean that you need to cut the discussion off after 10 minutes. Sometimes it’s very important and healthy to have longer discussions because they can relate to bigger topics or more stories.

Regardless if a story needs more preparation, follow-up tasks need to be created. Something else I recommend is always defining clear follow-up actions. This can happen naturally, depending on how experienced and how well your team works together. Sometimes though, teams struggle to define follow-ups and assign to-do's. In this case, I believe the Product Manager can guide the team.


You’ve discussed a story and identified that it needs to be broken down into 2 more tech stories. You all agreed that this needs to happen by the next grooming.

And... what’s next?

If no particular person takes over the task (and you know that it might not be prepared for the next grooming) you can always ask who wants to do it.

Instead of asking broad questions, let’s get specific. If one or more people committed to taking over the task you can even ask them when they think it’ll be ready.

In a nutshell, I focus on the

  1. “What” (Action item)
  2. “Who” (Owner)
  3. “When” (ETA)

Sounds pushy? 🙊

It does... kind of...

At the end of the day, it is the team’s responsibility (including the PM) to prepare and plan features. As a Product Manager, you always strive for the most granular planning in the shortest time. You’re not assigning tasks to people and giving them deadlines. The proposed method is a collaborative way of achieving results and empowering the team to take more ownership.

What are your tips and tricks and how do you shape your team meetings?

Let’s have a chat on Linkedin.