Practical tips for organising your backlog, from my home improvement project

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

(My home improvements are nothing as ambitious as this photo!)

For the last two weeks, I’ve had a bit of a break from blogging while moving into my new home. This week, I’d like to write about taking a backlog of work or ideas and getting them organised and ordered.

However, instead of talking about software projects, I’m going to use my recent move as the example. Since moving in, there’s lots of things I want to with the place — so it makes sense to organise these into some kind of order.

What you need:

  • Post-it notes, Sharpie pens, Whiteboard, whiteboard markers
  • Or, a suitable digital alternative

Step 1: Get the ideas written down

First, we write down everything we want to do.

Grab a stack of post-it notes and a Sharpie (per person) and start writing things down. Stick to one idea per post-it note. Keep the text brief.

You can use online tools to achieve a similar effect — particularly while we are working from home, but also if anyone in your group is working remotely.

With several people involved, you may want to timebox the task to 5–10 minutes, or you’ll have more ideas than you can realistically handle.

Step 2: Review and rank the ideas

First, read all of the items and see if they make sense. Are any of them too broad or too big?

For instance, “electrical work” would be too broad of an idea for the things I’d like to do in my flat. Instead, I can break this down into a few specific things — replace fuse box, add new plug sockets, replace socket covers, replace light fittings, and so on. Or, these could be broken down further — replace light fitting in lounge, replace pull cord in bathroom, replace light switch cover in lounge, and so on.

Look out for any duplicates and stack those together. Then, you can rank the ideas.

There are a few ways to do this. Giving each person 3–6 votes and taking the items with the most votes is fine if you don’t have dependencies, or if there’s not already a natural order — i.e. things that you want to do above anything else — or things you have to do.

You can use “MoSCoW” — i.e. Must have, Should have, Could have, Won’t have — to rank which tasks by order of importance.

Or you could do what I did and simply use High, Medium, or Low.

Step 3: Order the ideas

If you have a lot of ideas, you might not get to all of them yet. Start with the ideas with the most votes, or those that are the highest ranked.

Some things can be done in parallel, while others might have to be done before others — or you might want to push a few important things to the top. In a new home, safety is very important, but then so is heating, which might include replacing the windows, or getting new radiators. An electrician could do lots of small things in one day, but it’s probably better to focus on addressing any potential hazards before making the light switch covers look nicer.

The ranking of ideas will help, but the highest priority ideas might not be the ones you can do first. Replacing the windows in my flat is something I’d like to do right now, but there’s a lead time of a few months. The job is all booked in — but I can do other things in the meantime.

To actually write up the order, I titled up 3 columns on a whiteboard:

  • To do
  • Next up
  • In progress

For each task I’d like to do next, I’ve put them in the “Next up” column, in the order I’d like to do them. As a task gets underway, I move it to the “In progress” column. Other ideas I’d like to do soon, but which aren’t top priority, go into “To do” for the time being.

I’ve decided not to have a “Done” column — instead, when I task is done, I add it to a Google doc that lists out everything I’ve completed so far. And I’ll take the post-it note off the board at this point, freeing up space for other tasks.

You might find you have more tasks than you can fit on the board — and that’s fine — you can set them to one side for now. I’d recommend writing these up somewhere, either keeping them in the backlog of your issue tracker, or keeping a short list documented in Google Docs or Sheets.

Step 4: Keeping the board up to date

In a previous post, I explained that the Agile board should reflect reality. It’s all very well to get things in a nice order, but you need to keep the board up to date, too.

That means:

  • moving things to In progress when work starts;
  • moving things to Next up when space frees up;
  • changing the order of tasks as required;
  • adding more things to the To do column as space frees up.

While you can (and probably will!) do this in digital tools, there is a lot to be said in having a physical board. Moving a post-it between columns can feel good — seriously, try it! — I’d say it feels better than moving things around in something like Asana or Jira.

Having limited space is similar to a WIP limit, but it’s much harder to circumvent when you physically don’t have any more room for post-it notes. I guess you could get a bigger whiteboard — or a second one. I will admit to having just bought my second, although they will be used for different things.

This isn’t a particularly new or groundbreaking process, but keeping my home improvement ideas organised in this way has helped me to feel more on top of them, and to see progress being made. It’s very rewarding, and I’d recommend trying something like this for any project you do — tech or otherwise.

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