The 5S Strategy: Tame Your Product Backlog and Maximize Value

Taming a Product Backlog might seem like trying to break in a wild stallion—unpredictable, headstrong, and quite the challenge. But imagine having a blueprint to rein in the craziness, strategies that harness the Product Backlog into one with focused purpose and clarity. Enter the 5S strategy—Subtract, Sort, Shrink, Slice/Split, Substitute—your saddle for this untamed horse, transforming the chaos of backlog refinement into a finely paced, purpose-driven gallop, maximizing your product’s value and minimizing waste.


Envision your backlog as a hot air balloon. The lighter its load, the higher and swifter it ascends. For every backlog item, pose the question: “Is this absolutely necessary?” If it fails to elicit a resounding ‘yes,’ then it’s time to cast it overboard. The Subtract strategy purges your backlog, leaving only the user stories that anchor firmly to your product’s vision and resonate with your customer outcomes and business objectives. This lean and nimble approach enables swift economic progress while curbing wasteful diversions, creating a laser-focused path to product development.


Sorting your backlog is akin to arranging your music playlist in order of preference—you want your favorite tracks playing first. Similarly, the ‘Sort’ strategy is about arranging your product backlog items in order of importance based on value, risk, and urgency. This step transforms your backlog into a comprehensive guidebook for your product’s journey, highlighting the path of the highest value. It brings clarity and focus to what’s most important, ensuring that you are always working on the most valuable aspects first, reducing the risk of delaying critical features. It’s a tangible demonstration of the age-old wisdom—doing first things first—which leads to efficient use of resources and, ultimately, a more successful product.


Frequently, we define the scope first, then gauge the time. What if we inverted that formula? The ‘Shrink’ strategy suggests you initiate with, “How much time is this worth?” Then, devise a solution to fit that time allotment. This inventive variable scope/fixed time approach, invoking the Pareto principle, reduces complexity while preserving the essence of the user story. Remember, time is a river—you can’t flow upstream, but you can always adjust the breadth. This method smartly budgets your efforts, maximizing value and minimizing waste. Basecamp calls this managing one’s “appetite” in their book, Shape Up.


Imagine user stories as a layered cake. Each layer is necessary to deliver value, but it isn’t enough on its own. Just like slicing a cake, you need all layers for a serving of value. The Slice/Split strategy endorses dividing stories into thin, vertical slices. Each slice is self-contained, usable, and valuable. Once you’ve made the slices, apply the Pareto principle to distinguish valuable parts and subtract less valuable ones. It’s like sieving for gems—you filter out the dirt to reveal the precious stones, mining for value in your backlog.


The final ‘S,’ Substitute, is your wildcard when a high-value story can’t snugly fit into a Sprint or release, and you’re considering replacing it with a smaller-sized, less valuable item. Here, stay your ground. The value should always supersede. Employ ‘Substitute’ only when shrinking or splitting aren’t feasible options. Remember, a Sprint is a steady race, not a dash—it’s designed for sustainability, not a test of endurance. Warning, this is not meaning you should cram as much as possible into a Sprint. You want to ensure the team works at a sustainable pace.

By implementing the 5S strategy in your Product Backlog Refinement, you ensure a well-curated backlog and a product that delivers maximum value while reducing waste. It demands discipline, but with practice, these strategies will improve your Product Backlog Refinement sessions, unblock progress, and motivate your teams.

For your product, this means a sharper focus on success, eliminating unnecessary clutter and distractions. For your team, it translates into a clear path of work, where priorities are well-defined and frequent progress. Stakeholders, on the other hand, enjoy the reassurance and gratification of seeing regular, meaningful strides toward the product’s goals and confidence in your direction. So, give it a try!


To visualize these strategies more clearly and keep them handy during your backlog refinement sessions, we’ve created an insightful infographic on the 5S strategies. This is a useful reference to have by your side when you’re refining your product backlog.

Mastering your product backlog with the 5S strategy has never been easier! Download the 5S Strategy Infographic to support you and your teams!

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