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Agile Marketing Series: What Your Backlog Says About Your Priorities

In agile software development, the backlog is an accumulation of programming work which has yet to be completed. Management decides on the backlog by using information from daily scrums, the work team, and other stakeholders in the business coming together in the occasional sprint meeting to decide what works—and hopefully, what new opportunities the business will pursue.

It’s More Than a To-Do List

As in our personal lives, time is the most limited resource. Deciding what gets done first on your agile team’s backlog is not a simple matter of list making. It’s where you put the rubber to the road. Your money where your mouth is. The backlog says “these are our priorities,” and that makes it a big deal.

The Theory of Capabilities

In his book  How Will You Measure Your Life? Clayton Christensen defines three things that make up a business’s capabilities: resources, processes and priorities.

1. What. Resources are what you have to work with.

  • skills
  • equipment
  • people
  • cash
  • education
  • patents
  • technology
  • information
  • relationships
  • designs
  • brand
  • pots of coffee in the break room

2. How. Processes are how you go about solving customer problems—how employees interact to turn resources into value.

Agile is a process. (And in my opinion, the best process for modern business, considering the arc of management history.)

3. Why. Priorities determine why you chose to solve some problems before others. Your values as a group of people, as a business, as an entity in society at large.

The backlog, then, is so much more than just a list. Implied within your backlog is the big question “Why?”

  • Why are we here?
  • Why are we doing this?
  • Why do we have this opportunity?

The why is not something most people are comfortable with. So when the backlog is created, it cannot be left to the analytical side of the business alone. It’s not a scheduling matter alone.

It’s much bigger than that.

What Meets How. How Meets Why.

Agile marketing connects marketers to innovators through scrums, sprints and a commitment to learn as you go along—a commitment to be fearless in the face of failure and never fail the same way twice. Agile marketing also connects resources to the agile process.

The backlog then connects process to priorities, showing what you plan to achieve in an approachable and understandable set of steps. Resources in the process do the work, solving problems for customers by pursuing opportunities as they emerge. The agile process is a solid, disciplined way to manage the fuzzy world of resources, including the internal motivations and external incentives of the people involved.

And although how you go about the process is important in a zen sort of way, the backlog matters most in the decisions of what to do next and why. The backlog is the mission and is based on strategy, but it shows up in something deceptively simple: a to-do list

It’s Easy to do the Laundry, Hard to Invent the Clothes

The big question is: does your backlog represent the values you say you have as a business? For many companies, it does not. (And for many people, it does not.)

After all, it’s easier to do the laundry and pay the bills than to rearrange the boxes in the garage. And it’s easier to do all those practical tasks than to write a letter to an old friend, spend quality time with your children, or take stock of your progress toward bigger ambitions.

Don’t let the your backlog devolve into a series of practical household chores.

Remember: Agile processes are supposed to get the day-to-day things done while still preserving time to explore and question the overall assumptions those day-to-day things contain. Otherwise, what’s the point of having an agile process at all?