The Icebox is where stories go to die

Chad Pytel

The Icebox, a term popularized by Pivotal Tracker, is the backlog of things that you aren’t going to work on any time soon but you don’t want to get rid of because you’re afraid you might want them in future.

Unfortunately, the Icebox can get out of control very quickly. It’s not uncommon for longer running projects to have hundreds of stories there.

And then the Icebox becomes a place where stories go to die. It becomes cognitive overhead that slows down the team and makes the roadmap unclear, making it harder to organize, plan, and estimate upcoming work.

How can we avoid this?

The Icebox is typically used to hold two kinds of stories:

  • Features or issues that need more discussion or planning before they can be started.
  • Features or issues that are currently out of scope or very low priority.

Items that need more discussion are legitimate, but when you put them in the Icebox you’re not prioritizing them relative to the rest of your backlog. They can also be hidden and forgotten in the Icebox. Instead, put these stories in priority order in your backlog and use a tag to make it clear that the story requires more discussion, definition, breaking down, etc.

It can be useful to have a staging area for new stories that come from users, external stakeholders, and team members where you hold items before discussion and prioritization. When this is necessary, we create it and call it “Inbox” or “Ideas”. Then on a regular basis the Inbox should be triaged, ideally weekly at the planning meeting as a group or independently by the product manager. Stories should be refined and moved from the Inbox to the prioritized backlog, with the goal of having an empty Inbox.

But what about the items that are very low priority and may never be done? Or items that seem like a good idea, but simply aren’t going to be addressed any time soon, because they aren’t a priority on the roadmap?

If an item isn’t going to be addressed any time soon, that should be communicated to the person who originated the story, and the item should be deleted or archived.

You may fear that good ideas will be lost and forgotten, but if something is a good idea or becomes higher priority, it will certainly come up again in the future.

Having a clear Inbox and a prioritized backlog that consists solely of items that should actually be done reduces the overhead for the team, provides better clarity around the current roadmap, and makes it easier to estimate accurate timelines.

There is a better way to plan and organize your development. Read more in our Playbook.