What is a Pyramid Backlog?
A Pyramid Backlog is a visual prioritization tool that helps force hard decisions on the most important things to work on, at the Product Backlog level.
What’s the Benefit?
Teams often expend a significant amount of effort on prioritization; the pyramid backlog technique can reduce the amount of time needed to prioritize the items near the top of a backlog, and also helps reduce the likelihood that time will be spent prioritizing items that are lower in priority.
Teams can benefit from using a Pyramid Backlog at any time. A couple of common situations where usage of a Pyramid Backlog can be particularly helpful:
- When a new team is forming
- When an existing team is struggling with prioritization, especially when they have a backlog with a lot of work items
The people who are present are the same people who would be present for any Agile planning conversation:
- Everybody on the team (all of the Developers, to use Scrum parlance)
- A Product Manager / Product Owner
- A facilitator (typically a Scrum Master, if it’s a Scrum team)
- An existing Product Backlog (or alternatively, a Story Map, if a backlog does not yet exist)
- Business and/or product goals
- A prioritized Product Backlog
Preparing for Success
To set up the team for success:
- Make sure there is agreement on the list of things to be prioritized, and as noted above, be sure to keep the number of items reasonably small
- Create a physical or virtual representation of the Pyramid Backlog (for an illustration, see the reference below).
To facilitate usage of a Pyramid Backlog:
- Agree on the ground rules for the exercise:
- There can be one, and only one, priority one, and that work item goes in the top row
- There can be two, and only two, work items that go in the next row
- There can be three, and only three, work items that go in the third row
(Continue this pattern for a number of rows that work in your context)
- Once you’ve got work items placed in the various rows, take a step back and discuss as a group. Is there a need to move anything up or down?
- Use the outcomes from the conversation to inform follow-on activities, such as Backlog Refinement and Sprint Planning.
Note: It can be helpful to use the Pyramid Backlog on a continuing basis, as a prioritization tool. For teams that are in habit of putting physical artifacts on a wall, it can be very helpful to have this in the same area as the team Kanban board, for instance.
Agile Coach Jimmy Janlen describes the technique in his book Visualization Examples: Toolbox for the Agile Coach.