Sprint Backlog 101: Never Stop Refining

by Jasmin Iordanidis, Product Marketing Manager

11 Feb 2021

A sprint backlog is like an agile team's treasure map — checking off each item is like visiting a different place on the map. By the end of a sprint or iteration, the team will have delivered previously agreed outcomes and ultimately achieved their sprint goal. This is like getting to the ✖️ on a treasure map.

Join us as we find the answers you need to successfully complete each sprint. You'll learn about a sprint backlog’s purpose, plus who creates, owns, updates, and uses it.

What's a sprint backlog?

A sprint backlog consists of the items that need to be completed in order to get to the sprint goal. It should go into artifact during the sprint planning meeting. A sprint backlog has three parts:

  • The sprint. Each sprint backlog targets a specific iteration.
  • The sprint goal. This is the higher level aim for each sprint. To achieve it, the development team completes certain items from the product backlog.
  • A plan. The sprint backlog represents a plan to deliver a product increment by the end of the sprint. It's organized to allow for progress tracking with to-do, in-progress, and done items, plus effort estimations and remaining workload.

The sprint backlog should always be accessible and up-to-date so that the development team understands the work and can see what is coming up next. It should also have enough detail to allow tracking work progress.

Each sprint starts with a sprint backlog, and the artifact's lifespan equals the sprint's duration. You may expect to find work items — user stories, tasks, or bugs — in it.

The sprint backlog is the development team's go-to home to find all the ideas for what to work on. At every Daily Stand-Up,, the team looks at it to let others know what they did the day before. Additionally, they recall or adjust priorities based on what they need to do for the next day(s).

🧐 During the Daily Stand-Up, developers also use the sprint backlog to evaluate the sprint's progress.

sprint backlog: Progress bar GIF

The sprint backlog is not only a way of keeping the development team's eyes on the prize. 👀 It's also a way to discuss how well they achieved the sprint goal.

At any point in a sprint, to-do, in-progress, and done items are included in the sprint backlog for anyone to review and use to calculate the remaining workload. This helps verify if the development team is on track to achieve the sprint goal. ✌️

Jira provides a burndown chart to check the development team's work. This displays the remaining workload for the current sprint. In addition, the chart shows:

  • Work in progress
  • The distribution of work throughout the iteration

A Jira burndown chart also helps evaluate whether additional items fit into the sprint and effort estimations were accurate.

🛑 Keep in mind that you don't need a sprint backlog if you follow the Kanban framework. That’s because Kanban isn’t about working in timeboxes (the sprints).

Now, the sprint backlog isn't an off-the-shelf artifact that you can use in your project — every project is unique. So, someone must be responsible for populating the sprint backlog with work items.

Besides defining what a sprint backlog is, we should discuss what sets them apart from product backlogs.

Sprint backlogs vs. product backlogs

Though their names are similar, a sprint backlog and product backlog serve different purposes. A product backlog is:

  • A collection of work items to either bring a new product to the market or improve an existing product
  • A list of work items to tackle in the future
  • A set of work items arranged by priority, with the most priority at the top
  • The source of the sprint backlog items

On the other hand, a sprint backlog is:

  • A subset of work items from the product backlog
  • A group of items to work on during the next sprint

Here’s how the two backlogs meet: The product backlog provides work items for a sprint backlog. And, by the end of a sprint, the team might transfer incomplete work to the next sprint or the product backlog. If the work items have high priority, they should go into the next sprint. If not, they should go into the product backlog for a later sprint.

Essentially, a product backlog covers a greater amount of time than a sprint backlog. However, like the sprint backlog, the product backlog might evolve to reflect changes in the market or customer needs and, the development team needs both in order to deliver product changes.

Now, the sprint backlog isn't an off-the-shelf artifact that you can use in your project — every project is unique. So, someone must be responsible for populating the sprint backlog with work items.

Who owns and creates sprint backlogs?

sprint backlog: Looney Tunes it's mine GIF

Here are the team members involved in creating sprint backlogs:

  • The Scrum Master. During the Sprint Planning ceremony, the Scrum Master uses the product backlog to create the sprint backlog — the output. However, the Scrum Master doesn't do it alone.
  • The development team. When moving product backlog items to the sprint backlog, the Scrum Master considers the development team's input. ⚖️
  • The Product Owner. The Scrum Master needs the Product Owner's agreement to include product backlog items in the sprint backlog. 👌 And if the development team has questions about the product backlog, the Product Owner is the one to ask.

The sprint backlog's creation is one part of the agile workflow that shows how essential teamwork is to agile. Nevertheless, the sprint backlog must always be owned by someone throughout the workflow. Otherwise, these artifacts can get lost and become outdated.

Scrum methodology says that the whole agile team owns the Sprint Backlog. And by "agile team," we mean the Scrum Master, the Product Owner, and the development team.

That’s because all agile team members contribute:

  • The Product Owner knows what the development team should deliver by the end of the sprint. Plus, they order product backlog items by priority. In other words, the Product Owner constrains the product backlog items that should go into the next sprint backlog.
  • The Scrum Master has enough experience to distribute the development team's work throughout the sprint. When considering sprint backlog item dependencies, that distribution makes the most sense.
  • The development team knows how long similar Sprint Backlog items take to complete. ⏲️ This means they can determine the sprint goal's feasibility within a certain time frame.

Remember, the sprint backlog is a living document, so team members should update it as needed. Let’s look at how a sprint backlog can change.

Updating the sprint backlog

The sprint backlog should adapt to answer market trends and customer needs as they arise. Those changes might influence items in the product backlog and how they’re prioritized. As a result, the sprint backlog changes.

Let's have a look at what may cause a sprint backlog to change and who makes the updates:

  • Effort estimations were not accurate enough. If the development team realizes that some work items will take longer than expected, they should raise a 🚩. They should then negotiate the scope of the sprint backlog with the Product Owner without compromising the sprint goal.
  • A new, higher-priority user story, task, or bug comes up. If that happens, the development team should add it to the sprint backlog. That might impact the sprint's duration or push some items to the next sprint.
  • Progress in completing a user story or a task or solving a bug changes daily. As this happens, the development team should keep updating the remaining workload they estimated for the current sprint. And they should do it during the Daily Stand-Up or Daily Scrum meeting. Once the development team finishes all the work in the sprint backlog, they achieve the sprint goal. This means the development team implemented the product increment, which is ready for delivery. 📦
  • A sprint backlog item is no longer needed. This might be due to a shift in the market or customer needs. If that happens, the development team should remove the item from the artifact. 🗑️
  • The development team better understands sprint backlog requirements as the sprint continues. So, they might realize that to achieve the sprint goal, they need to include more items in the sprint backlog.

The sprint backlog: A guide for sprint success

Delivery GIF

A sprint backlog is a guide for completing a sprint goal. This means that its lifecycle is short and equals the iteration's duration. It's a visual representation of the sprint that supports Scrum team discussions on in-progress and to-do work.

This backlog may also be the most reassuring Scrum artifact for developers, as it assures them the work is organized and no additional work items will fall from the sky without their knowledge. If the workload must increase, the team will debate it and weigh the developers' experience-based opinion.

With a sprint backlog, the team perfects its ability to plan sprints, estimate effort, and allocate resources. They learn how long work takes and how much of it fits into a sprint. And by learning this, the team learns the resources they need to get to the finish line.

To plan sprints, Easy Agile User Story Maps is a fast, straightforward, and collaborative tool. It allows you to do the following in Jira:

  • Visualize what the team will deliver and when by arranging user stories into sprint swimlanes
  • Prioritize user stories in each sprint by ordering them inside the respective sprint swimlane
  • Analyze sprint statistics to ensure that the team's capacity isn't exceeded and the sprint goal is feasible

Try planning your sprints with Easy Agile User Story Maps. We’re pretty confident it’ll help your team collaborate even more seamlessly.

Subscribe to our blog