How to Avoid Key Mistakes While Managing Backlogs with Azure Boards [Checklist inside]

13 min read

Azure DevOps Boards is a cloud service provider that enables everyone to develop software in a collaborative project mode, discuss projects and work on them together.

It offers various capabilities, including integrated reporting, calendar views, customizable dashboards, and native support for Agile, Scrum, and Kanban processes.

Azure DevOps Kanban Board interface

This product also provides comprehensive customized functionality of backlogs.

Each item in the Azure DevOps Boards backlog will be assigned specific information as the project progresses. Your team will then divide, prioritize, estimate, and implement each item before delivering the outcomes to your clients.

We have prepared a few best practices to implement in your workflow. Start with this checklist if you and your teams want to plan and manage your Azure DevOps Boards project’s backlogs with a minimum-tracking strategy.

Set up your Azure Boards’ backlogs

Azure Boards has an outstanding backlog system with a straightforward user interface for adding new tasks and moving them around using the drag-and-drop technique. It is an archive with all the information you need to track and share with your team.

Azure DevOps Boards backlogs are used for the following:

  • Defining user stories, product backlog items, or requirements so you can quickly specify the tasks that your team is expected to complete
  • Reordering your backlog to ensure you’re working on the highest priority items first
  • Describing and estimating each item in your queue
  • Assigning backlog items to teams and sprints as soon as possible. You can drag an item to a sprint or use a bulk update
  • Sorting or uniting backlog items into groups by mapping them into a hierarchy
  • Reviewing the hierarchy or portfolio of work assigned to multiple teams
  • Forecasting work to determine how much can be completed in a sprint
  • Showing cumulative progress, counts, or totals to indicate the amount of work completed or left undone

You can assign members to each work item and use the Backlog hub to plan and organize your work items.

CHECKLIST: How to utilize Azure Boards backlogs effectively

To operate an Azure Boards backlog, you should:

#1 Define the acceptance criteria clearly

Acceptance criteria specify the indicators the team should use to determine whether a requirement or bug fix has been appropriately implemented. It defines what “Done” means.

Acceptance criteria in the structure of product backlog in a form of diagram

To make the purposes of acceptance criteria clearer, let’s break them down:

  • Making the feature scope sophisticated 
  • Describing negative hypotheticals
  • Establishing communication
  • Simplifying the acceptance test process
  • Carrying out feature assessments

Developing a shared understanding of how the functionality should be executed is essential because different people may have different perspectives and solutions for the same issue.

The product owner defines and writes some criteria when creating the product backlog. After sprint planning, the team can further specify the others during user story conversations.

Diagram about how to define acceptance criteria

You can capture these criteria in the work item. Clear acceptance criteria help with estimating and developing requirements and with testing.

#2 Utilize all Azure Boards’ portfolio, product, and sprint backlogs

To manage work in Azure DevOps Boards, you have access to three classes of backlogs (from more extensive to smaller in the hierarchy):

  • Portfolio backlogs
  • Product backlogs
  • Sprint backlogs

The following table details  the differences between these backlogs:

Task or elementPortfolio backlogProduct backlogSprint backlog
Corresponding board typeKanbanKanbanTask
Add items and child items
Reorder items
Map items✓ (except the top-level portfolio backlog)×
Filter by keyword and select fields
Show/hide parents✓ (except the top-level portfolio backlog)×
Show/hide in-progress items×
Customize: show bugs×
Configure: columns
Display roll-up progress, counts, or totals×
Customize: add more backlog or board views✓ (when you add another team)✓ (see schedule sprints)
In-context reportsCumulative flow VelocityCumulative flow VelocitySprint burndown
DurationProject or releaseProjectSprint

Your project plan, as a roadmap for what your team aims to deliver, is directly synchronized with your product backlog. For each default process, the following work items in backlogs are defined:

  • Agile: Stories, Features, and Epics
  • Basic: Issues and Epics
  • Scrum: Backlog items, Features, and Epics
  • CMMI: Requirements, Features, and Epics

Portfolio backlog allows you to group and organize your product backlogs into a hierarchy, providing product owners with an insight into the work done by several agile feature teams.

Whatever your starting point, portfolio backlogs can help you organize your project workflow more effectively:

  • Control a portfolio of features supported by several management and development teams
  • Arrange the items into a release train
  • Divide a significant feature into several smaller backlog items and reduce the size variability of your deliverables

#3 Refine your backlog (backlog grooming)

Your team may start the current sprint planning process with clarity and be ready to go when the sprint begins by deciding which tasks are the highest priority for the upcoming sprint.

In addition, backlog refinement helps prevent tickets from piling up in your product backlog.

The product manager is typically in charge of continuously improving the product backlog. The product manager will serve as a facilitator to arrange product backlog items during the refinement process and:

  • Based on the objectives of the current sprint, prioritize tickets for the upcoming sprint
  • Provide detailed user stories to clarify unclear tickets
  • Combine comparable or pertinent tickets into one task, merge duplicate tickets, etc.
  • Meet with stakeholders to get more information on a ticket
  • Divide tickets with a large amount of work into smaller tasks
  • Identify each task’s “definition of ready” and acceptance criteria
  • Estimate the amount of work required for each task using story points

Backlog refinement aids your sprint planning efforts and eliminates the following difficulties:

  • Long, unfocused, and ineffective sprint planning meetings
  • Insufficient thought given to design requirements
  • Ineffective sprint execution and planning
  • Losing sight of the team’s goal to produce business value
  • Inability to make predictions

The sprint planning meeting should be followed by an appointment to refine the backlog to finish the following tasks:

  • Reduce the size of the backlog by dividing larger items into smaller ones. There should be no backlog item larger than what can be finished in a single sprint.
  • Recognize and address any gaps in the product backlog. Take note of fresh ideas, stories, requirements for architecture and design, and other spikes.
  • Arrange the backlog differently to reflect the current objectives and business value emphasis
  • Verify that each item has been added with clear acceptance criteria
  • Reexamine estimates for backlog items and revise them upwards or downwards based on the latest knowledge of the scope and acceptance criteria
  • Go over every potential backlog item that will be considered for the open sprint to ensure that everyone, including the team and the product owner, is clear on what needs to be done to support its development

Once you’ve streamlined your backlog effectively, your sprint planning sessions will function seamlessly.

#4 Sync your product backlog to a high-level roadmap

The product backlog and the product roadmap play crucial roles in developing a product, but these roles couldn’t be more dissimilar. This is why it’s best to combine these tools rather than using them independently.

In priority order, you can only effectively create a list of tasks for developing the product with a high-level overview of your product’s strategic objectives and plans.

You, therefore, need a stand-alone, uncluttered strategic plan to document and convey this approach.

However, your roadmap will only be useful in guiding your product’s actual development once you can convert its broad concepts and tactics into a manageable list of individual tasks or backlog. As a result, you won’t be able to direct your team on what to focus on next.

Your product backlog should be well-organized and smartly prioritized to assist your development team in staying focused on the correct tasks at the right time.

This is another reason why you shouldn’t combine these two tools or use just one to accomplish both tasks:

  • Teams may become distracted from the large strategic picture by a very tactical roadmap
  • A backlog that prioritizes higher-level, strategic things may prevent the team from having a clear strategy for what low-level tasks to take on next

Make sure your roadmap and backlog genuinely operate together by keeping them updated and in sync rather than gradually splitting them into separate documents that each tell a different story.

This involves periodically checking your roadmap to verify that the items listed on your backlog still reflect the strategic objectives and priorities of the roadmap. It also entails maintaining a lean backlog, preventing it from becoming a “black hole” in which everyone dumps their ideas and requests.

The most straightforward and efficient way to synchronize your roadmap and your backlog is by utilizing the appropriate tools to build and maintain both. Ideally, purpose-built web platforms like PPM Express allow you to connect your roadmap and your backlog directly so that they can communicate with one another.

PPM Express is a cloud platform for product management at scale that helps natively visualize your product strategy through your product roadmaps by capturing every milestone, date, and dependency between work for individual products, epics, or features.

You can integrate all your workstreams from Azure DevOps, Jira, Smartsheet, and MS Project (Online, Desktop, Project for the web) to be sure that your team delivers a product that customers need and use.

#5 Capture and manage spikes

To build new features and requirements, you can capture non-feature work that still needs to be completed for a healthy delivery ecosystem.

This task may involve any necessary exploration, design, research, or prototype. Any effort performed that does not immediately result in shippable software might be taken into account and recorded as a spike.

Anyone on an Agile or Scrum team can start a spike if they don’t feel ready to start a specific task or story.

In most cases, if a team member accepts a task and realizes they need additional details before starting, they can make a spike to ask for help and support in their preparation.

Finding out mid-sprint that a story requires much more work than you planned because you needed to be fully aware of its requirements might be frustrating. Building in some flexible space for uncertainty is helpful when sprinting and trying to control velocity.

Capture this work as necessary and add it to your backlog of tasks. You can either use the word “[Spike]” before the title or add the tag “Spike” to the work item in Azure DevOps Boards to indicate that it’s a spike.

#6 Establish an idea management module

To provide concrete results and guarantee success with ideation, innovation, and problem-solving, idea management is necessary.

When brainstorming, it’s easy to let ideas fall through the cracks. The most critical information may go unnoticed. Using online whiteboards, brainstorming tools like Miro, and idea management features like those in PPM Express can help overcome this problem.

There are numerous advantages to setting up an idea management system, including:

  • Enhanced velocity – idea management offers a framework that speeds up idea generation and implementation
  • Inherent collaboration – idea management is a collaborative activity by its very nature because teams employ these procedures together
  • Better follow-through and management – it makes organizing and tracking ideas much more manageable and saves anyone responsible a great deal of time

With the PPM Express idea management module, you can: 

  • Capture employee ideas in the necessary detail, no matter where they come from
  • Bring feedback into workplaces automatically using our Power Automate and Zapier integrations
  • Focus on client feedback from a select group of consumers by using the filtering and sorting features
  • Use unique forms, fields, and categories to develop an innovation culture that works for your business
  • Assess ideas in light of the problem statement and essential needs
  • Develop the greatest ideas into pilots, product backlogs, and finished products

Having an idea management platform from PPM Express supports businesses at every stage of the ideation process. It makes it easy for all employees to contribute to innovation, be imaginative, and be recognized.

#7 View or configure team velocity

Teams monitor their velocity to assess how much work they can accomplish between sprints using either of the following criteria:

  1. A record of tasks that have been finished.
  2. The total of the estimations for Effort (items on the product backlog), Story Points (user stories), and Size (requirements)

Two velocity charts are available to Azure DevOps Boards users:

  • The contextual report from a team backlog or Kanban board
  • The dashboard Velocity widget.

You would only have data for Velocity to evaluate and forecast if your team had finished a sprint or if you were working on items before the sprint start date. So, set an iteration date range that includes the current date to address this issue, or wait for the sprint to begin.

Here’s our advice for getting the most value out of the velocity charts:

  1. Define and size backlog items to reduce variance
  2. Determine how your team wants to treat bugs. If it decides to treat them like requirements, bugs will appear on the backlog and be taken into account in the forecasting and Velocity chart.
  3. Set the area path for your team. Based on the default settings for your team, the forecasting tool will estimate those items. These parameters might determine whether or not objects in area paths should be included by default for the team.
  4. Avoid organizing bugs and backlog items into hierarchies. Only the final node in a hierarchy, known as the leaf node, is displayed on the Kanban board, sprint backlog, and task board. We advise you to have a flat list and only create parent-child links one level deep between items rather than nested requirements, bugs, and tasks. Use features to aggregate user stories or requirements. Quickly mapping stories to features establishes parent-child linkages in the background.
  5. Update the status of any backlog items the team has finished working on at the end of the sprint. Items that still need to be finished should be added to the product backlog and considered during a subsequent sprint planning meeting.

Although velocity indicates a team’s productivity, you shouldn’t mistake it for its key performance indicator. Velocity merely acts as a tool for calculating team capacity.

By asking a team to work faster, you are essentially asking them to do more with the same number of resources. This request will inevitably result in “Story point inflation” and less desirable results.

#8 Display rollup progress bars, counts, and totals

A Rollup is a calculation based on parent-child relationships displayed on a parent item (such as an Epic, Feature, or a User Story).

A rollup column can be added to your backlog view in the same manner as any other column:

  1. Click on “Column Options.”
  2. Choose what you want to roll up from the quick rollup list by clicking “Add rollup column” on the panel. This choice will be saved per user, and the backlog level will be the same as other columns.

The rollup choices you can include are based on the process template for your project. As a result, each project may have a different list of available rollup columns.

Process of custom rollup column creation in Azure DevOps

Any of the backlog levels can have one or more rollup columns added to them.

You can add Progress and Total rollup columns. Each has a specific purpose:

  • Progress rollup is based on the state of the linked items

A progress bar showing the proportion of related items that have been completed appears in this column. The specifics of the calculation are displayed when the cursor is over the bar.

For instance, if you select “Progress by all Work Items,” a tooltip will provide the number of completed items among all the linked items.

  • Total rollup, as a state-neutral, can be used to gauge the size of work items

Think about how your team might divide Epics into Features and Features into User Stories. 

You can view how many User Stories are associated with each Epic by adding the “Total by Count of User Stories” column to the backlog of Epics.

This is a simple approach to gauge how much engineering work two Epics require (assuming the team has good practices on breaking down work evenly).

You can add rollup progress bars, counts of descendant work items inside a hierarchy, or sums of selected fields, such as Story Points or Remaining Work, to any product or portfolio backlog.

Rollup progress by User Story bars in Azure DevOps

When you assign backlog items to a sprint using the Planning pane, the sprint window refreshes with a running count of backlog items, tasks, and the Planned Effort.

Planning pane in Azure DevOps

Planned Effort provides a sum of all Story Points or Effort defined for backlog items assigned to the sprint.

A sprint backlog or taskboard can also display a rollup of the Remaining Work.

The parent work item displays the total amount of Remaining Work defined for all tasks from the sprint backlog. When you visit the task board, this value is also shown on the parent work item card.

Rollup of the Remaining Work in Azure DevOps

There are three different forms of rollup from a sprint task board:

  • The parent work item’s card shows the rollup of the Remaining Work
  • The top of each column shows the total of all Remaining Work defined for all tasks inside that column
  • Each row, grouped by column, shows the total of all Remaining Work defined for all tasks associated with a backlog item
Different forms of rollup from a sprint task board in Azure DevOps

The system automatically zeros out the Remaining Work for a job when you update its status to Completed.

#9 Create a “big picture” view with PPM Express

Project management focuses on a specific project to ensure that the deliverables are met within a specified timeline and budget.

Portfolio management is a completely different discipline. Managing a portfolio necessitates:

  1. Ordering all project proposals according to company objectives
  2. Ensuring that projects are chosen and approved according to budget, available resources, and business goals
  3. Coordinating project management execution
  4. Adding the capacity to change course if priorities shift and running “what if” scenarios
  5. Ensuring that the project’s completion results in business outcomes that turn the plan into concrete, quantifiable results

This is a different way of looking at things for many organizations because portfolio management is built on this strategic, goal-oriented perspective.

The project team will disband and move on to the next initiative once the deliverables have been given to their owners. But from a portfolio perspective, this is the most crucial time since the “tools” and “platforms” that will be used to achieve the goals have been supplied, but now it’s up to them to produce the promised results.

PPM Express, for instance, enables users to view backlogs immediately, including Epics, Features, User Stories, Sprints, and Tasks. PPM Express directly transmits data from any source, including Azure DevOps, Jira, Microsoft Planner,, Smartsheet, and Microsoft Project Online.

Using this set of reports, which displays the performance, statuses, financial analyses, and timeframes for all of the organization’s portfolios instead of manual calculations and PowerPoint presentations can help you gather all the required information.

Portfolio management must keep an eye on the fulfillment of anticipated benefits, confirm that it is in line with strategic goals, and, if necessary, take corrective action to deal with deviations.

Results are considerably more likely to match organizational needs from the outset if the organization adopts a more comprehensive portfolio approach to management.

For instance, ideas that are developed into business cases and become project candidates can be developed with those goals and objectives in mind if the organization has clear-cut strategic priorities that all members understand. Proposals are then in line with organizational needs from the beginning.

The foundation becomes even more solid if the organization uses tools and processes to encourage collaboration, idea sharing, and business case preparation across several areas.

To promote development and innovation at all levels, businesses use the PPM Express platform to collect fresh concepts, enhancements, change requests, and proposals for new products.

Simple but effective idea management software increases awareness, appreciation, and employee involvement while boosting transparency and providing a disciplined method for idea selection, prioritizing, and alignment with strategic objectives.

Because the projects’ development processes are identical, the organization can start its yearly planning exercise with project candidates that more closely match its aims and objectives, which can be compared objectively.

The advantages go beyond the simple selection and acceptance of projects; once the portfolio is up and running, the portfolio management view can provide many more critical benefits.

Traditional project management could be more constrained in decision-making and corrective activities. Project limitations frequently specify the possible courses of action and the scope of the necessary corrective actions.

However, when we manage each initiative as a component of the overall portfolio in PPM Express, we have a far more comprehensive range of options available to us. It is now acceptable to compromise on a project’s deliverables as long as the portfolio’s chances of success are maintained.

#10 Define product owner as a key part of project success

Product owners are crucial to Scrum because they serve as the team’s point of contact with consumers. To enable product owners to fulfill the following responsibilities, they need to be added to the Contributors group.

The following are the primary product owner’s duties:

  • Examining user stories, features, or requirements to articulate consumer requirements after conducting an analysis
  • Building, prioritizing, and refining the product backlog
  • Speaking out for customer and stakeholder requirements in front of the team and answering their inquiries
  • Scheduling frequent meetings with stakeholders to discuss their requirements and keep them updated
  • Helping stakeholders understand the decisions underlying the priority order of your backlog
  • Attending to all inquiries from your team regarding the backlog’s requirements and priorities

Add product owners to the Azure Boards’ team as an administrator if they are also in charge of customizing team settings.

Teams, tools, and projects can all be managed by team administrators in Azure. You should remove administrator privileges if a user is no longer active.

A product owner can reduce the need for detailed specifications by being more responsive to the team’s questions about implementation details and clearly expressing acceptance criteria within each requirement.

Azure DevOps as a digital transformation vector of project portfolio management

Digital transformation is on the up in the modern world, and getting your projects completed faster and better than everybody else is now more important than ever.

A holistic digital transformation approach simplifies the shift into four key business areas:

  • Core operations: changing them from physical to digital by altering how or what is given as value
  • Experience: giving the employee and customer experience another look as a reliable experience-feedback method
  • IT infrastructure: using cloud-based tools like PPM Express for computing, building, and integrating new applications, storing and retrieving data to search for insights
  • Information management and analytics: creating a data-driven organization in which decisions are primarily based on data-driven insights

An additional layer of this shift is in creating accessible interfaces to efficiently operate new digital tools on all levels, both customer-facing and internal ones.

Saving time using proper organization and visualization tools is of utmost importance to leading the race. That is why using Azure Boards is one of the best ways to optimize your portfolio management.

Azure DevOps can help you achieve digital transformation. It ensures proper visibility and a cohesive workforce, allowing you to manage and achieve cross-functional team goals. But even Azure Boards has its limitations.

That is why we highly recommend adapting your Azure DevOps workflow with our best practices and PPM Express to make up for the failings of Azure Boards and connect your work across different platforms.

Let’s have a deeper look at these areas and explore how they interact – book a demo to discover how you can expand Azure Boards’ backlog functionality.

How to Avoid Key Mistakes While Managing Backlogs with Azure Boards [Checklist inside]
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