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3 Keys to Closing Backlog Items 🔑

Having troubles closing backlog items? Do items seem to take longer and grow bigger than you anticipated? The "trick" is to have a closing mindset from the beginning.

We have all been there (if not, let me know please). Work in progress takes longer than you expected. Why is this stuck you may ask? Why aren't we finished yet? What happened? What is happening?

Man standing at finish line

Closing items promptly is important. It affects team and organization effectiveness and throughput, and is a prerequisite on the road to predictability.

The bottom line question for teams and stakeholders to ask before commencing work on an item needs to be:

Will we get this item to done?

This question needs to be top-of-mind when authoring and echo throughout the lifetime of the item. 

Here are three keys to closable items all the while bearing this question in mind.

Key #1: Dress for success

First and foremost, set things up for success. This starts when the item is first envisioned and defined, making sure it is:

  • Valuable and understood

  • Actionable

  • Feasible

These aspects could well be part of a "Definition of ready" checklist, and in the next post I will describe this aspect of closable items further.

But your work does not end with a well written item, you also need to...

Key #2: Focus on the few

Give items the focus they deserve. Some sure ways to lose focus are:

  • Too many things in progress in parallel

  • Pulling team members away to work on other things

  • Working on low value items.

One way to increase focus on high priority items is to give them special attention in some meetings.

For example, using Scrum, a question in some of the daily stand-ups can be "How are we doing on story X?" or "What do we need to do get X done this sprint?".

Another way is to look at number of people working on top priority stuff. In the post Three Ways to Become T-Shaped I wrote about swarming. Swarming also helps with focus, increasing resilience and throughput.

Sometimes careful authoring and focus is not enough. Items with unknowns always run the risk of getting stuck or dragging out, and it's not always possible or desirable to avoid them entirely. For these items consider timeboxes.

Key #3: Timebox the unwieldy

A timebox is a constraint on how long to spend. Timeboxing is useful when:

  • There are unknowns that affect effort

  • Items can be worked on indefinitely

The first type can sometimes be handled by splitting the item into an investigation and an implementation part.

In this scenario the investigation part easily turns into the second type - items that can be worked on indefinitely.

Sometimes properly defining an item solves the indefinite work challenge, but sometimes it's not possible. Then timeboxing is a prudent strategy.

I see timeboxes as upper limits on spent time. As soon as a satisfactory outcome is reached - or the team thinks it might be - meet with stakeholders and discuss next steps.

A timebox can be split into multiple checkpoints along the way. Or the item can be split into smaller pieces each one timeboxed on its own. All depending on what makes most sense.

Final thoughts

Another key, spanning across the life cycle of items, is stakeholder involvement.

When first defining items stakeholders need to be available to answer questions about intention, purpose, and help clarify and make business decisions.

The same is true when the item is in progress.

Timeboxed items need stakeholder involvement as well.

Composing easy-to-close items that still add value and allows the team to collaborate is an art form in its own right. But it's a skill worth honing which can have huge impact on organization effectiveness.

Do you have other tips or tricks for how to close items? Share in the comment section below.



2 Comments


Adding on to item one in tghe post, my favorite trick is to make sure the question before starting is the right one. Not "can we do it", "is this okay", "can we start this" but "will we be able to get this all the way do done" (in this iteration). It almost forces a closing mindset.

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Magnus Nord
Magnus Nord
Nov 09, 2022
Replying to

Exactly. That's exactly what you need to ask yourself in for example Scrum. Thanks for this.

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