In life and work, there is never enough. It’s human nature to want more than what we currently have. As a result, you never have enough money to buy, or time to do, everything you desire.
The answer, of course, is obvious. If you can’t resource your way out of the problem, you have to reduce the need. In Buddhism, it’s letting go of desire.
The sage who’s fully quenched rests at ease in every way; no sense desire adheres to him whose fires have cooled, deprived of fuel. All attachments have been severed, the heart’s been led away from pain; tranquil, he rests with utmost ease. The mind has found its way to peace.
A similar paradox exists in software development. No matter how large your organization, you’ll never have enough development resources to build every feature you want. You can staff up and your desired output will rise in proportion.
So, how do you escape this trap?
The first thing is to realize that only a small portion of the features you ship have a significant impact on your business. Most features either fall flat or please just a small segment of your customer base. And even for the users that utilize the new feature, would they have left your product without it?
And yet, we spend hours upon hours making long lists of features and grooming those lists in our backlogs; many of which will never see the light of day.
The solution is not just one of prioritization. When you prioritize, you put projects in order of importance. But you still end up with a long list of stuff that will never get done.
It’s also not an issue of robust product discovery. There are plenty of savvy organizations that engage in prototyping and user research to ensure new features deliver value. That’s good, but it doesn’t eliminate the long backlog or the perpetual feeling of under-delivering that pervades many tech companies.
Eliminate the backlog
Instead, eliminate the backlog altogether. Work sprint to sprint. What is the most important thing you can do in the next 4 weeks to add value? Work on that… and then ask yourself the same question 4 weeks later. Chances are your perspective about what’s important next will have changed from 4 weeks prior. Any prioritization you would have done a month ago is likely outdated.
Eliminating the backlog is freeing for the entire product organization.
Maintaining a backlog is not just a time-suck for teams, it can also stifle creativity. That’s because the backlog is a safety blanket that allows the team to switch off. Instead of listening to your customers in real-time, the team simply moves on to the next thing on the list.
However, a team that is unencumbered by a long list of stuff that was important 6 months ago is more likely to recognize a fresh opportunity. In fact, the pressure is on every sprint to find a new problem to solve.
This may not work in all business settings, but even in bureaucratic, enterprise organizations, you can take baby steps in this direction.
For example, try deleting customer or stakeholder requests in your backlog that are older than 6 months. There’s a reason you haven’t acted on them and if the idea is truly important, it will come up again — probably with more urgency the next time. It will feel liberating to purge the clutter!
Letting go of your backlog just might create a happier and more creative product team!