Navigating the world of Agile project management can be overwhelming, especially for those unfamiliar with the terminology. Choosing the right project management methodology can be challenging when faced with terms like Scrums and Kanbans. Transitioning to an Agile team structure might bring confusion due to new roles such as product owners and Scrum masters.
However, as we delve into breaking down Agile projects, the definitions become more straightforward. Your team likely has familiarity with certain terms like themes, epics, stories, and tasks. Regarding epics, the name itself offers a clue to their nature. To gain a comprehensive understanding of how epics integrate into an Agile team’s workload, let’s first explore what they truly entail.
What Is An Agile Epic?
The term “epic” has a fascinating history, originating from ancient Greece, where it denoted long poems recounting heroic deeds. Over time, its meaning evolved to encompass other lengthy works. In contemporary usage, “epic” has become a colloquial adjective to describe something grand or impressive. Merriam-Webster‘s definition includes it as a series of events or a body of legend or tradition considered a proper subject for an epic, closely mirroring the concept in Agile project management.
In the Agile context, an epic represents a collection of related user stories that together form a larger narrative. These user stories interconnect and contribute to a comprehensive storyline. While epics can span different teams and projects, they are unified under a broad banner label called a “theme.” An initiative, in turn, groups similar epics together, aligning them with a common objective within an organisation.
To provide a clear overview, let’s summarise these definitions:
- User Story: Represents a single request.
- Epic: Comprises a group of user stories.
- Initiative: Involves a collection of epics.
- Theme: Serves as a label for organisational goals.
In Agile project management, the responsibility of writing epics falls upon the product owner. They collaborate with essential stakeholders, including clients and investors, to ensure the epic aligns with the required needs.
Unlike a user story, an epic cannot be completed within a single Agile iteration. Its timeframe is not strictly defined but typically spans between one and three months, delivered across multiple iterations. Throughout this period, the epic remains open to regular adjustments based on customer feedback, aligning with the Agile Manifesto’s value of continuous improvement.
You can find more complete definitions in our comprehensive guide to epics, themes, user stories and tasks, and in our comprehensive agile glossary.
What Are The Benefits of Epics?
Having gained an understanding of what epics entail, let’s explore some of their key advantages:
Epics serve as a valuable tool to organise and consolidate your ideas, bringing all user stories into a single, cohesive space. This streamlined approach makes project management more efficient and helps prevent overlooking crucial requirements.
Better Time Management
Decomposing epics into sprints enables the creation of a well-structured project timeline. By assigning story points to gauge the level of sprint complexity, you can enhance the precision of your time estimation, adding an extra layer of accuracy to your planning process.
Focussed Client Priorities
Agile teams excel in delivering superior products when they possess comprehensive knowledge of client needs. The presence of multiple user stories, each detailing specific requirements, ensures a clear understanding of the final deliverables. However, reaping these benefits hinges on the initial creation of a well-crafted epic. So, the question arises: how can you achieve that?
How Do I Write A Great Epic?
When crafting your Agile project, it is beneficial to begin by writing the epic before delving into the user stories. This approach allows the epic to serve as a comprehensive headline for your overarching narrative, setting the stage for the more specific details found within each individual story. By doing so, you can efficiently determine the scope of your project from the outset while leaving room to conduct thorough user research for each requirement at a later stage.
Mike Cohn, co-founder of the Scrum Alliance, provides additional insights into this breakdown process. For instance, if asked about progress on writing user stories for the monthly reporting aspect of the system, he might respond that while they have been addressed, most of them remain epics. This highlights the importance of further breaking down these epics into smaller, implementable stories.
When you’re ready to embark on creating your Agile epic, follow these steps as a helpful guide:
1. Outline User Personas
Before delving into your project, it’s essential to identify the target audience. Are you aiming to enhance a product feature for existing customers, or perhaps refining your onboarding system to attract new users? To gain valuable insights, consider creating fictional characters for each user story, meticulously outlining their pain points and essential requirements. This approach will help you develop a user-centric perspective, ensuring that your project aligns precisely with the needs and preferences of your intended users.
2. Organize Stories
For every epic, a set of user stories will be assembled for delivery. By allocating each story to a specific iteration or sprint, you can establish a well-defined project roadmap. This organised approach enables you to estimate the timeline required to complete the epic successfully. For valuable insights on crafting user stories, feel free to explore our dedicated section on this topic here.
3. Look At Your Quarterly Goals
Formulating epics aligned with existing company objectives is vital to ensure their relevance and meaningful contribution to the organisation’s overarching goals. By setting relevant epics, your team gains a clear understanding of how their efforts connect to the overall company objective. This alignment fosters a sense of purpose and cohesion, enabling the team to work cohesively towards achieving the company’s vision and objectives.
4. Breakdown The Task
After selecting goal-related epics, it is essential to provide your agile team with a comprehensive breakdown of your expectations. Here’s an example of specifications for an agile development team:
- Introduction: A clear explanation of the development project and the rationale behind choosing it.
- Product Requirement: A detailed description of what the team will design, build, and ultimately release.
- Technical Requirement: Determination of the programming language, operating system compatibility, and adherence to specific standards.
- Design Requirement: Considerations such as user interface preferences, customizability, speed, responsiveness, and ease of use.
By providing such detailed specifications, you ensure that your team has a solid foundation to work upon, minimising the risk of shortcuts that could lead to subpar product delivery.
5. Get Feedback
Continuous user feedback is crucial throughout the various stages of your epic. Actively listen to users’ suggestions and strive to incorporate them into your epic plan. If any user story requires adjustments or removal, this is the opportune moment to address it. By valuing and incorporating user input, you enhance the relevance and effectiveness of your epic, leading to a more successful and user-centric outcome.
6. Discuss With The Whole Team
While product managers hold the responsibility of writing epics and overseeing the specifications, successfully completing an epic requires more than a one-person effort. Although it’s theoretically possible to do it alone, the outcome might not be well-received by your customers.
Epics extend across multiple teams, necessitating collaboration with your teammates to create a captivating and seamless experience for your audience. As a product manager, involving your engineering, design, customer support, and marketing teams in crafting the specifications is essential. This collaborative approach ensures that every team is engaged and comprehends the overall objective of the epic, leading to a more cohesive and customer-focused outcome.
7. Estimate Timeframes
Every sprint in Agile requires a well-estimated timeframe; otherwise, your team could end up in an endless sprinting mode without clear boundaries. However, this is where Agile teams diverge from traditional project management approaches. In traditional project teams, specific due dates are typically set for projects, while Agile teams rely on estimation frameworks. Despite this difference, Agile sprints are generally completed within a week or two, providing a manageable and focused approach to project execution.
8. Create Metrics
Indeed, epics require well-defined metrics to gauge their success. When setting an epic, it’s crucial to determine the relevant business metrics that you want to track and enhance. Metrics play a vital role in transforming ambiguous customer requests into measurable targets, enabling teams to effectively measure their progress towards achieving epic objectives. Furthermore, aligning efforts with these meaningful metrics keeps the team motivated and stakeholders informed.
Consider two examples of agile metrics:
- Lead Time: This metric measures the total time taken from the moment a customer places an order until the order is successfully delivered.
- Throughput: This metric quantifies the total amount of work delivered within a specific period, giving insights into the team’s productivity and efficiency.
9. Visualise Progress
Utilizing workflow visualisation aids your agile team in monitoring progress, identifying potential bottlenecks before they escalate into delays, and enhancing team collaboration. An effective method for visualising progress is through the implementation of kanban boards. These boards serve as lean project management tools that streamline agile workflows by employing standardised task queues such as “To Do,” “In Progress,” and “Done.” This approach simplifies the tracking of tasks, ensuring a smooth and efficient project execution process.
10. Identify Blockers
Once your epics are in their final form, the next crucial step is to discern potential factors that could impede your team’s progress. Several examples of such progress blockers include software testing, acceptance criteria tests, quality review processes, clients disagreeing with the agile transformation process, and dissatisfied customers. However, merely recognising these obstacles won’t eliminate them on their own. Action must be taken to address and overcome them effectively.
How Can I Measure Epic Progress?
Agile epics can be effectively measured through various reports, including burndown charts, velocity charts, and cumulative flow diagrams. Each of these reporting tools offers valuable insights:
- Burndown Charts: These charts assist teams in monitoring the remaining work in a project and the time left to complete it. By visualising this data, the project’s progress can be managed more effectively, ensuring that it stays on track and avoids potential issues.
- Velocity Charts: Teams can utilise velocity charts to forecast the amount of work they can accomplish in future sprints. This helps in setting realistic expectations and planning for upcoming iterations efficiently.
- Cumulative Flow Diagrams: These diagrams provide teams with a clear visualisation of their progress over time, enabling them to identify any obstacles or bottlenecks in their workflow. This insight allows for timely adjustments and improvements.
By leveraging these reporting tools, teams gain valuable information about their progress and proximity to achieving their goals. Additionally, the metrics from these reports help identify blockers and ensure everyone is well-informed and aligned in their efforts.
7 Tips To Agile Epics
Agile epics don’t adhere to a fixed template; they can be crafted in any suitable manner that aids in work planning and effective communication with agile teams and stakeholders. Regardless of whether you follow Scrum, Kanban, or a hybrid development process, epics serve as valuable tools for work planning and reporting. To ensure your agile epics are most beneficial, consider the following tips:
1. Use A Top-Down Approach
A user story map is a valuable tool for identifying your epics efficiently. By using this approach, the top-level activity on the user story map can be transformed into an epic, while the lower levels can be divided into user stories, tasks, and acceptance criteria. When developing a completely new product, starting with epics and progressively elaborating on them allows you to track completed milestones and outstanding tasks effectively. Agile epics often align with features or significant improvements (such as a product redesign), but the structure and organisation of your epics are entirely flexible and depend on your preferences and needs.
2. Use Good Names
When naming your agile epics, consider the audience who will be using this information. It is essential for your agile development teams to comprehend what they are building, and at the same time, your stakeholders should be able to grasp the progress being made. While a user story focuses on describing an end-user need, it is advisable for the epic to articulate the desired outcome you aim to achieve through it. This practice ensures clarity and alignment of objectives throughout the development process.
3. Make Your Epics The Right Size
An epic serves its purpose when the work required for a backlog item extends beyond a single sprint. It can be broken down into numerous user stories, provided that the overall list can be effectively managed. Striking the right balance is crucial; an epic should not be excessively large or too small. A general guideline is to aim for an implementation timeframe ranging from a few weeks to a few months, as this allows for meaningful progress reporting.
When epics become overly large, progress tends to be slow, with minimal percentage increases over a two-week sprint, rendering the reporting less meaningful. Moreover, if an epic takes an extended period to implement, frequent changes to requirements can undermine the significance of progress reporting, making it somewhat futile.
On the other hand, creating epics that are excessively small leads to an overwhelming number of tasks to manage in the backlog or roadmap. Maintaining a high-level view of numerous smaller tasks can become challenging. Additionally, if epics are completed in an extremely short time, such as within a single sprint, they add unnecessary overhead without delivering substantial value. Striking the right balance in the size of epics ensures efficient progress tracking and effective backlog management.
4. Use Epics To Structure Your Backlog
Epics offer an effective approach to organising a product backlog, which can often be quite lengthy and include numerous user stories. While not every story needs to be part of an epic, smaller tasks can be completed within a single sprint. However, structuring larger work items into epics offers two primary advantages:
- High-level View: Epics provide a concise and high-level overview of the significant items in your backlog. By grouping related user stories together, teams can better understand the broader context and objectives of these larger initiatives.
- Relative Size Comparison: The size of an epic is determined by the sum of story points of all its constituent user stories. This allows for a relative comparison of the scale and complexity of different initiatives, aiding in effective prioritisation.
Additionally, the list of epics can be leveraged to create a product roadmap that offers a high-level perspective for senior management. This strategic view helps stakeholders gain insight into the overall direction and progress of the product’s development.
5. Use Epics To Coordinate Multiple Teams
Epics prove highly valuable in coordinating work across multiple agile software development teams. By consolidating tasks from various product teams under a single epic, it becomes easier to manage reporting separately for each team while also tracking progress comprehensively across all teams. This approach fosters efficient collaboration and provides a holistic view of the project’s advancement.
6. Include Success Metrics
When formulating an epic, it’s essential to consider the success metric that can be linked to it. Ultimately, every product deliverable aims to provide value to end-users. Incorporating a success metric into your epic ensures that both development team members and stakeholders have a clear understanding of the intended outcomes for that piece of work. Some organisations employ OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) to set quarterly goals. By referencing an OKR metric in an epic, you establish a strong connexion between the epic’s objectives and the broader business goals, enhancing alignment and strategic focus.
7. Make Epics Flexible In Scope
An epic encompasses a high-level work item that spans several weeks or months, making it susceptible to evolving insights and technical complexities throughout its progress. Hence, it is crucial for an epic to maintain a flexible scope. The scope of an epic is determined by the associated user stories, typically measured in story points. As new requirements surface during the development process, additional user stories may be introduced, expanding the epic’s scope accordingly.
In this illustration, the epic pertains to the creation of a new mobile app for an online beauty retailer. To address the diverse user needs, a dedicated app development team will be formed to handle various user stories. Some of these user stories might encompass features such as augmented reality functionalities, enabling customers to virtually try on makeup, the implementation of a chatbot for handling minor queries, and the inclusion of discounts and promo codes for loyal customers. Once all the user stories are successfully completed, the mobile app will undergo thorough testing and preparation before its official launch.
Agile Epic Template
While there is no fixed format for an epic, considering a few key elements can be highly beneficial, as outlined above:
- Choose a Clear Name: Select an appropriate and descriptive name for the epic that conveys its purpose effectively.
- Provide a Comprehensive Description: In the epic’s description, offer a rough outline of its scope and what it entails. Additionally, link it to relevant company goals to showcase its alignment with business priorities.
- Define Success Metric: Include a specific success metric that outlines what will be measured upon the epic’s completion, providing a clear measure of its impact.
- Utilize Big User Story: Incorporate a big user story to encapsulate the entire epic, documenting how it contributes to enhancing the overall user experience. This helps in understanding the broader context of the epic’s objectives.
What Is An Epic in Agile?
An agile epic represents a substantial body of work that can be further subdivided into specific tasks known as user stories. These user stories are formulated based on the requirements and requests of customers or end-users.
What Is An Epic In Scrum?
An epic is essentially a sizable user story that cannot be accommodated within a single sprint. To make it manageable, this high-level story is typically divided into smaller, sprint-sized user stories. Consequently, an epic serves as a compilation of user stories united by a common objective. As there is no predetermined format or template, epics can be written in a flexible manner based on the team’s needs and preferences.
Agile Epic Vs Feature
An epic represents the paramount and overarching goal of a project, offering crucial direction and context for teams to adeptly plan the development process. Features, on the other hand, delve into more specific details about how the product should be constructed. Meanwhile, user stories provide even further granularity by outlining the specific tasks and responsibilities assigned to each team member. Together, these elements ensure a well-structured and comprehensive approach to project development.
Agile Epic Vs Story
In work management, a story represents a single, straightforward narrative, while an epic comprises a collection of interconnected and interdependent stories. Similarly, as related stories are completed, they contribute to the fulfilment of an epic. Just as narratives come together to form an epic, the completion of interconnected tasks drives the successful achievement of larger project objectives in work management.
Agile Epic Vs Sprint Backlog
An Epic represents a substantial work item, typically too extensive to fit within a single Sprint. In contrast, a Sprint is a designated timebox dedicated to completing a planned amount of work. Epics are cohesive and conceptually unified, encompassing large-scale objectives, whereas Sprints are focused timeframes during which work is diligently executed to achieve the specific Sprint goal.
What Is The Hierarchy Of Agile Work?
The Agile Hierarchy preset enables the visualisation of projects, whether singular or multiple, in a traditional Agile hierarchy format (Epics > Stories/Tasks > Sub-tasks). This preset seamlessly works for both Company-managed and Team-managed projects, offering the flexibility to integrate both types of projects into a unified and coherent structure.
What Is Above an Epic in Agile?
In agile development, a theme serves as the most extensive unit of work, encompassing all related epics, stories, and tasks under its umbrella. By doing so, themes effectively link the development team’s efforts to the overarching product and business goals, ensuring alignment and focus throughout the development process.
Agile epics are a versatile asset in your agile toolkit. When embarking on a significant new development, it is beneficial to identify the substantial work components needed for its completion and define a few key epics. This approach allows you to gradually create user stories within these epics as you progress, providing a more organised and comprehensive view compared to an unstructured backlog. Epics can be utilised in various ways, adapting to the specific needs of your agile teams. I am eager to hear about your experiences and insights on using epics in your agile approach in the comments.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, we’d recommend diving into the following other posts in this Agile series:
- An Introduction to The Agile Methodology
- Themes, Epics and User Stories – The Core Components Of Agile
- Embracing Agile Team Dynamics
- What is SAFe Agile and Why Should I Use It?
- What is Waterfall Development?
- What is Lean Development?
- What is Scrum?
- A Deep Dive Into Epics
- Exploring The Power of User Stories
- How Can I Use Personas?
- Decoding Agile Estimation (Story Pointing)
- Agile Transformation: How Can My Business Start Using Agile?
- The Spotify Approach To Agile Development
- What Is Agile Portfolio Management?
- Agile Glossary
- Agile Statistics