The Shadow Backlog

Making covert backlogs visible to reduce team drag

A number of years ago during a large format Inception Workshop, the group was mapping out all the different elements of the Product Development on a giant wall. The goal, quite clearly, was to make all the work visible so it could be discussed, explored, prioritized and planned out in the open. Everyone in the room agreed that this was, in fact, a good idea.

However, we kept hearing about things in side conversations that weren’t officially on the Big Board, but you know, “would just get worked in with another task.” It was a mix of technical tasks (”oh yah, we have to upgrade one of the servers”) to client specific features (”well, we made a commitment for this feature as part of Client X’s big deal”). On their own, it didn’t seem like much — who couldn’t just sneak in a few tasks here and there without really dampening the team’s throughput.

But, after a couple of days of this, it became quite clear that there was an emerging Shadow Backlog. A mysterious and amorphous collection of bits and bobs that stated to really add up. During the workshop, we pivoted to a very specific exercise whereby we solicited everything that was rattling around the dark corners of people’s brain and invited them to make it all transparent.

We did not want to judge or recriminate anyone for having these Shadow Backlog Items (SBIs?), otherwise, they’d skulk back into dark recesses, only to be discovered later when our capacity was mysteriously reduced.

So, if you’re a Product Person, Sponsor, Facilitator or anyone else who feels a dark shadow creeping across a (virtual) wall of work, don’t hesitate to call out the Shadow Backlog and bring it in the sunlight. Work that is not capture transparently, assigned to a Backlog, or just “assumed” that it will get done, is a recipe for missed expectations and pockets of risk that no one wants to inadvertently harbour.

By eliciting a Shadow Backlog, you can use a humorous metaphor to address the serious issue of un-prioritized commitments that team(s) are signing up for. From there, the Product Team can unpack the Shadow Backlog and determine where things might need to go, or communicate broadly that Items A, B & C, do not need to be done, so please do not do them surreptitiously under pressure from another interested party.

Even a small amount of light will chase away the Shadow Backlog!