Refinements - right?!

Who hasn't experienced some messed up refinements where you thought, "Why am I here? This is a waste of my time". So yeah, doing refinements right, is a hard task.

Let's find out how to do it. But first: Why do we do refinements? Interestingly, the Scrum Guide does not mention a lot of detail in regard to Refinements. In fact, there are only two sentences:

Product Backlog refinement is the act of breaking down and further defining Product Backlog items into smaller more precise items. This is an ongoing activity to add details, such as a description, order, and size.

Patrick Perkins

That's it. So, it seems like most of what the refinement is, is up for interpretation and discussion.

What we can get from this small description about the Scrum refinement event, or also referred to as backlog grooming, is that it is an ongoing process. This means it occurs throughout the entire product development cycle. It is a collaborative effort between the product owner and the development team, with the goal of ensuring that the product backlog contains items that are clear, concise, and ready for development.

During refinement, the development team and product owner review the items in the product backlog, breaking them down into smaller, more manageable pieces if necessary - it's stated right there in the Scrum Guide. They also prioritize the items in the backlog, based on factors such as business value, risk, and dependencies.

The purpose of refinements is to ensure that the product backlog is always in a state where the next set of items are clearly understood and can be worked on by the development team. This helps to improve the efficiency of the development process, as the team can focus on delivering value to the customer as quickly as possible.

Refinement In Practice

One thing I noticed in the last years working with multiple teams is, that the refinement process is very different from team to team. But why is this?

I personally would argue that most teams are spending too little time on making sure stories are refined enough. Here I want to share five common mistakes I observed while working with Scrum teams.

5 Common Mistakes with Refinements

There are several common mistakes that teams make when it comes to refinements:

  • Not setting aside enough time for refinements: Refinements should be a regular, recurring activity, but some teams may not set aside enough time for them, which can lead to a backlog that is poorly defined or out of date. Often times there are arguments like "I need to work on the items in the sprint" or "I don't want to be in meetings all the time".

  • Not involving the right people: Refinements should involve both the product owner and the development team. If one of these groups is not involved, it can lead to a backlog that does not accurately reflect the priorities and goals of the team. Occasionally, stakeholders should be invited in order to explain their ideas and reasoning behind certain stories.

  • Not breaking down items into small enough chunks: If items in the backlog are too large or complex, they may be difficult for the development team to understand or work on. It is important to break them down into smaller, more manageable pieces during refinements. This will ensure that team members understand the details of the item.

  • Not prioritizing items effectively: The product backlog should be prioritized so that the most important and valuable items are at the top. If the priorities are not clear, the development team may end up working on the wrong things. This prioritization also helps teams in pulling items to a sprint if there is room for more.

  • Not keeping the product backlog up to date: The product backlog should be a living document that is constantly updated and refined. If it is not kept up to date, it may not accurately reflect the current priorities and goals of the team.

By avoiding these common mistakes, teams can ensure that their refinements are effective and add value to the development process.

Next, I want to focus on the primary concern I have observed regarding the effectiveness of refinements: the time invested in implementing them.

Finding Time to Invest in Refinements

The amount of time that a team should spend on refinements will depend on a number of factors, including the size of the product backlog, the complexity of the items in the backlog, and the availability of the product owner and development team.

In general, it is recommended that teams set aside a regular, recurring time for refinements, such as a few hours each week or a half-day each sprint. During this time, the team can review the items in the product backlog and make any necessary updates or changes.

In a previous team I worked with, there were difficulties in completing sprints and the backlog was not well-organized. To address this issue, the product owner and the team decided to prioritize refining the backlog in order to better understand requirements and ensure that the right requirements were being prioritized. This required dedicating a significant amount of time to refinements, such as a daily one-hour refinement session, until the backlog was in a satisfactory state. This approach illustrates that investing heavily in refinements can be necessary to improve delivery and achieve desired results.

It is important to strike a balance when it comes to the amount of time spent on refinements. On the one hand, it is important to ensure that the product backlog is well-maintained and up to date. On the other hand, spending too much time on refinements can be counterproductive, as it can take time away from actual development work.

Ultimately, the key is to find a balance that works for your team and your particular project. It may take some trial and error to determine the right amount of time to spend on refinements, but with practice and experience, you will be able to find the sweet spot that maximizes the value of your refinements while minimizing the time and effort involved.

Reasons Why Not to Do Refinements

There might even be reasons why teams omit refinements all together:

  • Lack of time: Refinements require a dedicated block of time, and some teams may not have the time or resources to set aside for this activity.

  • Lack of understanding: Some teams may not fully understand the value of refinements and may not see the need to invest time and effort into this activity.

  • Poorly defined roles: If the roles and responsibilities of the product owner and development team are not clearly defined, it can be difficult to coordinate and conduct refinements effectively.

  • Lack of collaboration: Refinements require collaboration between the product owner and development team. If these groups are not working well together, it can be challenging to conduct effective refinements.

None of the given reasons justify not doing refinements. They are merely explanations. You should definitely make sure to fix these issues. Overall, not doing refinements can lead to a product backlog that is poorly defined, out of date, or not aligned with the goals and priorities of the team. This can lead to inefficiencies and delays in the development process.


In conclusion, Scrum refinement is a crucial aspect of maintaining a well-organized product backlog and ensuring the success of any team. It is essential to be aware of the reasons why not to do a refinement and take appropriate measures. The benefits of implementing refinements in your scrum process are undeniable, and although it may not be easy, it is well worth the effort to achieve excellence in your process.

Share your own experiences with refinements, and let's continue to learn and improve together. Follow me on Twitter and share your story.