Breaking Wishes Into Doables (4/8)

After spending some time on Discovery, I ended up with a comprehensive list of potential projects. They seemed to be in sync with my inner needs and I finally felt like everything that had been on my mind, either recently or for a long while, had been articulated. At that point, I also had an understanding of how important each project was to me and which one I could and should pursue first.

The next step was to look at the projects in more detail and to create an action list. In Agile, this action list is called Backlog.

Define it

My newborn projects consisted of several high-level ideas and also of some specific to-do items. Each of the projects had a brief mission statement describing its goal and value.

  1. For each project separately, I looked at the ideas under it to make sure all of them made sense in relation to that project’s goal. If they didn’t, I deleted them.
  2. If they made sense but the goal needed some refinement, I updated the project’s mission statement.
  3. I did brainstorming in order to figure out what actions would need to be taken in order to turn the ideas into reality. I did this only for those projects that I wanted to start soon.

In this way I produced a list of so called ‘stories’ and ‘epics’. They were high-level to-do items and each of them brought a real value to me in relation to one of my goals (eg. taking that XY education really contributed to my goal to learn a certain skill).

Structure it

As a hierarchical list, Backlog consists of three basic units:

  • Stories are to-do’s that are doable within one or two weeks and once done, evidently bring you closer to completion of the project.
  • If a story is too big for 1-2 weeks, it is then called an epic and should be broken down to several smaller stories. The epic is completed once all the stories under it are completed.
  • Usually all stories have a few smaller tasks.

An example could look like this:

  • PROJECT NAME: German.
  • MISSION/GOAL: I want to improve my German language skills because I’m moving to Germany later this year.
  • EPICS: Reading, Speaking, Writing, Listening (in this case, epics represent individual language competencies and cannot be completed in 1 or 2 weeks)
  • STORIES: Subscribe to a blog of interest in German, Read a book in German, Explore content of Berliner Zeitung official website (after all of these are done, and only after that, I will consider my Reading epic done)
  • TASKS: The story Read a book in German could have a list of tasks such as: Choose an appropriate book, Buy/borrow the book, Read the book

When creating your Backlog, you can use all three of the Backlog units (epics + stories + tasks), or only two, or just one. Your choice depends on the level of detail you would prefer to have.

Visualize it

While breaking your project down, it is important to think about what its final visual structure will look like. Here are some options:

Project -> tasks
Project -> stories -> tasks
Project -> stories
Project -> epics -> stories -> tasks
Project -> epics -> stories

The bigger your goal, the more structure you might need.

For example, if I wanted to read and to write a review for all the books in the world, I would choose a more detailed structure. I would create a separate epic for each writer. Every epic (= every writer) would have many stories (= books from that writer). My tasks for each story (= each book) would be to buy/borrow, to read, and to write a review.

If the goal of my project was to read all Tolkien’s books only, I could keep my backlog simpler by just creating a dedicated item for each his book.

In my personal life I find it the easiest to work with project -> story structure. I sometimes use tasks. Epics I use very rarely.

Don’t overdo it

The most important rule here is to not waste time on planning work that is not going to be started in the next few weeks. When creating the initial Backlog, focus on the priority projects or on removing show-stoppers from these.

For projects with start date 1-2 months in the future, it is perfectly enough to draft just some epics. The projects that won’t start sooner than in 3 months become part of the Backlog as they are, with ideas in raw state.

If you have some stories and tasks on your mind now that you might forget to add later, you can, of course, write them down, no matter how far in the future they are.

It is your wishlist and as Product Owner you can really do whatever you like with it. You are the responsible one. Just remember to keep it simple. A lot of what you think you need to do today might not be exactly what you need to do tomorrow. Life is a process full of changes. Backlog is a living artifact that gets refined as often as the events in your life require.

Key takeaways about Backlog

  • It provides a structured view on everything you want to do.
  • It allows you to manage your priorities in real time.
  • It embraces all the current work and is able to take in any new work.
  • It provides a safe place where ideas won’t go to waste.
  • It is a dynamic artifact that is never finished.
  • It is groomed regularly (personally, I do this a few times per month) to match the current situation in your life and changing priorities.
In addition, a Backlog can be:

  • a specific project you want to accomplish (= you only have one Backlog at a time);
  • your life as a program composed of multiple projects;
  • a project-less list of to-dos (this is the the simplest and the best approach if there’s not too many items, otherwise this type of Backlog will feel too complex and difficult to prioritize).

Questions For You

What did you like? What did you learn? What did you lack?


4 thoughts on “Breaking Wishes Into Doables (4/8)

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