How to Manage Epics as an Agile Tool in Planning

how-to-manage-epics-as-an-agile-tool-in-planningAs part of a large project, you may have a complex product to develop. Whether for intangible (software, games) or tangible (hardware, electronics), there is a need to structure your backlog by level of complexity and size. Although we typically do not go so far as creating Epics in all agile instances, they can prove to be a handy agile tool if created and used in an organized fashion.

The idea behind Epics are to create a sense of commonality between multiple user stories. It is important at this stage to be sure your agile team members are not using the terms for Epics interchangeably with other terms that could drive confusion in day-to-day communication. But along with this defined approach, all team roles (product owners, business analysts, scrum masters, developers, etc) should think of Epics structures and how they will be used going forward. Here we look at Epic examples in hierarchies for Features, Themes or Requirements.

Features in Epic Hierarchies

One way to look at an Epic is to identify it as the high-level feature. As an example we are referring to the physical features of a landing page on a website. It would have a header, footer, content, images, media, etc. With that you can further breakdown the characteristics with user stories, and then tasks to look like the following:

Epic(Feature) —> User Story —> Task(s)
Example: Header —> As user, I would be able to use a search bar to search the site content… —> Investigate Search Bar functionality

Themes in Epic Hierarchies

Epic —> Theme —> User Story —> Task(s)
Example: Landing Page —> Page Structure —-> As a user, I would see 3 columns… —> Create left column, Create right column, Create center column

Requirements in Epic Hierarchies

If you were developing a series of websites for instance, you would need to repeat a set of requirements for each website. In this case you would likely re-use the requirements as you start each website, and then vary those features. The following example would facilitate re-use of the requirements from one website to the next.

Epic(Requirement) —> Feature —> User Story —> Task(s)
Example: Website Landing Page —> Website Page Navigation —> As a user, I will be able to navigate to all site pages from the landing page… —> Create Navigation Bar

There is no definite way to use Epics, these are simply examples. The variations can be infinite and can vary from team to team, project to project, or product to product. But as we know that Epics are typically large user stories, and represent a level above the user story. One thing that needs to remain stable is that the agile team must agree to structure that makes sense for them.

Using Epics to Stay Organized

Using Epics as an agile tool to organize the stories, can enable easier overview of the different product components (features/requirements/themes). As the sprint backlog can list tasks to be developed by multiple agile working teams on different features at the same time, the overview of each Epic can help the Product Owner prioritize stories and interlinking dependencies with each other.

Another useful setup that helps in the structuring of swimlanes for your Sprint/Kankan boards is to have them created according to your Epics. This makes the horizontal divisions clear on the common groupings. It also adds another dimension to manage on your board, but it certainly would be helpful in larger sized projects.

The most important part in creating structures, is to keep it simple. If there is too much team discussion and confusion where everyone is lost in managing the structure, it means that it’s not simple or clear enough. Of course, if all else fails, keep in mind that Epics are not essential. If your team doesn’t see a need for them to exist in your agile product management scheme, just leave them out, as they might not be required due to your project not being as large or complex as originally thought.

[Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at]

How to Prioritize Backlogs with Agile Teams

When we look at a long list of tasks to complete, we sometimes lose focus on deciding which ones really matter with regard to any specific criteria that would give us the intended outcome. The simple answer is to say that everything on the list is urgent and important, but it isn’t always true. Sometimes level of importance changes with time and it is for that reason (or at least one them), that we have separate backlogs for each sprint in an Agile project. There’s a list of tools that we can use in Agile that would allow us to sort it out, however we need to change our mindset first before we go there.

How do we know what needs to get done first?

When we look at all features we would like to build into our product, we tend to get an indefinite sense of their importance. Common thinking will naturally lead everyone to say that everything in that backlog will need to be done. It may be true, but as we know there are factors to consider before giving all items in a list a high priority. The other issue is that most of us think we know what we want, but then are influenced by factors that are not necessarily our own. From a business stance, we may be acting on behalf of another group of stakeholders, so outside influence might be a consideration to some extent. In certain cases, where there is very little known about a product we are about to develop, an event called an Agile Spike used to elaborate and analyze the feasibility of a suggested product.

Can We Determine the Difference Between Urgent and Important?

prioritize-backlogs-agile-teamsThe first, but often skipped step in prioritizing agile solutions, is to create backlogs with an order based on a fixed set of criteria. Even then, we tend to group items that are urgent and important into the same batch. If we look at the list during agile planning and think in terms of reducing risk, we may be able to get a clearer idea of which items we need to address first. Also keep in mind that risk and value have an inverse relationship, wherein if we reduce risk, we are also increasing value. To think of this in other terms, if we had a usable product that was absolutely risk-free after purchase, we would certainly value it more than it’s risk-prone alternatives.

The second way to look at prioritizing our feature list of items is by looking at potential return on investment (ROI) especially as part of agile release planning. When we get a feature that resolves the majority of risk, but also gives us a monetary return, it should be included as part of a strategic agile product management plan that increases potential for profitability and long-term sustainability. Hence by prioritizing we give ourselves the benefit of continued growth to the business.

Lastly, we can look at what to prioritize from the current market outlook. This would either be in regard to latest or upcoming technologies, purchasing trends, expert insight, demographics, etc. If we anticipate that there are certain events that will take place in the near future, we can give priority to our backlog items.

Recommended Tools:

MoSCoW method, High-Medium-Low, 1-2-3-4-5, Priority-Impact Matrix, Action-Priority Matrix, NPV.

How do we narrow it down?

As always, agile processes are constantly evolving and this is where regular agile courses and agile consulting can add value to your entire organization. There are numerous ways we can prioritize a backlog and structure the thought process. The main point to consider is that we should not base it on a random set of criteria, but rather a more decisive one in which an agile working team can have a fixed set that is used throughout prioritization activities. Your criteria should resonate with overall business goals and targets. The key is to avoid making it overly tedious try to establish the activity as an agile games session (i.e. planning poker), and establish a set of 3 to 4 criteria that everyone agrees on that would facilitate prioritization and make your efforts worthwhile.

[Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at]