Results Driven Backlogs: Keep an Eye on Your Fuel Gauge

Last year I took my family for a road-trip through Morocco. It was a memorable holiday. We’ve seen beautiful sceneries and cities. We ate great food. And we indulged in the wonderful local culture. If you ever have the chance to visit, I can wholeheartedly recommend it. There was just one downside to this great holiday: our rental car. Sure, we knew it would be slightly smaller than our family car at home. No problem. We also knew it wouldn’t be very luxurious. Again, no problem. No, the problem turned out to be a bit more stressful.

After strolling around the city of Marrakesh for a couple of days, we decided to go deeper inland towards the Sahara desert. So, we picked up our rental car, cramped all of our stuff in to it and embarked on an epic road trip. First stop: the Atlas mountains. Much to my surprise we received the car with a gas tank completely filled to the brim. Nice, this meant we had a couple hundred of kilometers ahead of us without needing to stop to refuel.

Just like all our travels through foreign countries, the first kilometers were spent looking outside and being amazed. After about 50 kilometers, we were close to the Atlas mountains already, I realized I didn’t see the needle of the fuel gauge move much. My first, naive, guess was that this car was just really fuel efficient. But when the needle hadn’t moved after another 50 to 75 kilometer I realized there must be something wrong. My hunch, a broken fuel gauge. “Ok, no big deal,” I thought “what’s the average range of a car? Something over 400 kilometers is feasible for every car, right?” So, instead of checking the fuel gauge, I started to check the odometer instead.

And then it hit me, if I can’t count on the readings of the fuel gauge, who says we left Marrakesh with a full tank after all? Needless to say, I started to feel a bit stressed. I wasn’t looking forward to getting stranded somewhere in this desolate mountain range with two small kids. 

Now, just as you don’t want to drive around in a car without a fuel gauge, you shouldn’t want to do projects without any goals and measurements. Teams that operate without metrics are basically doing the project equivalent of driving around without a fuel gauge, speedometer or navigation. They don’t know if they are heading in the right direction, how fast they are going and for how long they can continue. Without measurements, it’s hard to know if you are successful. Yet, many project teams do just this. They operate on a hunch, a feeling, an assumption.

Past year, I was part of a self-steering, self-organizing team where I finally had the change to play around with a new type of backlog I’ve thought up a while ago: the Results Driven Backlog. In contrast to regular backlogs, this type of backlog doesn’t consist of just one list of prioritized items. This type of backlog is more like a dashboard of all kinds of gauges combined with multiple backlogs. The general structure of a Result Driven Backlog looks like this:


Assuming that every project has a vision and sub-goals in between to reach this vision, backlogs are created for all these sub-goals separately. By adding metrics and targets for each of these goals, an overview arises which shows the progress of the project. The metrics are objective and shows results in a specific area. Targets define what the team feels the metric should, eventually, be.

A Results Driven Backlog shows project teams where to direct their attention. They can empirically determine which goals need to be worked on next. The goals for which the metrics are furthest away from their targets are likely to be addressed first. By picking up work from the related backlog, they directly influence the measurements related to the goal.

As you can see, a Results Driven Backlog isn’t a backlog in the traditional sense: just one list of prioritized items. A Results Driven Backlog consists of multiple backlogs, one for every goal. On top of that the backlog is extended with space for a definition for How and Why. In theory, you don’t need the latter two to implement a Result Driven Backlog, but in practice I’ve experienced that it can be very valuable to have your project’s Why and How close to your backlog. This allows the team to often reflect if the activities they do actually benefit the end goal of the project.

If you are already working with an Alignment Canvas and/or OKRs, this type of backlog actually combines great with those. But if you don’t, no worries, you don’t have to. It can just as easily be used without them.

As for my adventure in Morocco. After another tense 25 kilometers, we were lucky. We passed a small village with a gas station. We pulled in and filled our car up. The rest of our holiday we used nearly every opportunity to load up on fuel; just to be sure. Don’t take changes, make sure you have a working fuel gauge for your project.

If you’ve implemented a Results Driven Backlog, please let me know in the comments how it worked out for you.

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