What is an Agile epic? Do you need one?

Alicia Raeburn contributor headshotAlicia Raeburn19 April 20226 menit baca
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Summary

An Agile epic is part of the Agile methodology process often used by IT and product development teams. You can use Agile epics to break down complex projects into assigned tasks or action items. Your epics will help you ‌better manage and make progress on all Agile projects. Learn more about epics and how to apply them to your work below.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for project management. Linear methods, like waterfall project management, move projects through different phases in a sequential order. Agile project management methodologies, like Kanban and Scrum, use an iterative process, allowing teams to adapt and adjust the project as they work.

If you’ve previously used the Agile methodology, you know that Agile projects are broken into sprints, which are 2-4 week blocks of work. Before each sprint, team members pull to-dos from a product backlog—each individual to-do is called a user story.

Within this system, one of two things can happen:

1. The user story is too big for one person to handle, and needs to be broken down into smaller components.

2. The user stories are related and contribute to a larger goal. 

In both cases, you can use epics to organize user stories and work into more manageable components for each sprint. 

What is an Agile epic?

An epic is a large body of work, composed of smaller to-dos and user stories, that your team completes over multiple sprints. Epics create a hierarchy of work, connecting user stories to the long-term project goals, and making it easy for your team to understand the impact of each sprint. 

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How does an epic fit into Agile management?

Like all work, your epics ultimately connect back up into your overarching business goals. Let’s break it down, step by step, to see how exactly you do that: 

  1. Your team sets yearly goals.

  2. Those yearly goals are broken down into large initiatives (depending on the size of your team, you could have 1-3 initiatives per quarter).

  3. Each initiative is made up of a variety of epics—the large bodies of work within the initiative.

  4. Each epic is further broken down into a user story.

  5. User stories are stored as product backlog items.

By using epics and initiatives, you can clearly connect larger goals to individual user stories so your team always knows why their work matters, similar to the Pyramid of Clarity format.

Let’s look at launching a product update as an example. The overall outcome is the launch, but this doesn’t give much information to those working on the project. Team members looking at this goal don’t know how they can achieve it—it’s overwhelming. By breaking the project down into a product roadmap and, later on, epics, you can reduce this sense of overwhelm, boosting productivity and building morale.

Baca: Waterfall vs. Agile vs. Kanban vs. Scrum: Apa bedanya?

The benefits of using Agile epics

Agile epics move projects forward by turning large chunks of work into tangible tasks. Without them, projects risk becoming stagnant and teams can burnout by working with no end in sight. 

Break large workloads down into tasks

The large goals you create as Agile themes are great project guides, but they won’t help you get the work done. You’ll need more detailed tasks for that. In Agile projects, these detailed tasks—known as user stories—are housed in epics. By using epics, you can track progress towards your goals as team members complete their assigned stories.  

Define the who, what, when of projects

Breaking initiatives down into epics shows you how the work will get done. For each epic, you will also list the product owner, who’s responsible for completion, what tasks are involved, and a deadline. 

Provide an at-a-glance overview for stakeholders

Epics group user stories together under a larger umbrella. When external and internal stakeholders need access to information—be it a deadline or a progress report—they can simply check the progress of your Agile epics. This eliminates the need for unnecessary status meetings and daily interruptions. 

Make it easier to track work

Epics are timeboxed—meaning they have a goal start and end date. Through burndown charts and reporting visuals, you can use an epic to track the overall progress of the project. 

Reduce scope creep

When you develop your project plan, you’ll determine the scope of work and any deliverables. But Agile projects are flexible—it’s one of their primary benefits. This is great for inspiring creativity, but not so great for keeping to the initial scope. Epics help to prevent scope creep and overwork by outlining targeted tasks.   

Boost productivity

Huge, general goals can feel insurmountable. It’s hard to work on something when it’s still just a concept. To make progress on these types of goals, you need to transform the work into something achievable. Teams will be more motivated to complete epics than they would if they were just chasing larger initiatives.

Agile epic example

To better understand how epics work, let’s outline an example. 

This year, you’ve set an OKR to increase customer satisfaction. You receive customer feedback that some of your enterprise customers are not satisfied with your product’s visual reporting. Instead of just seeing percentages, they want a more impressive, professional look they can be proud to share. This is helpful information, but it’s too broad to work on as is. 

Goal: Increase customer satisfaction by 10% this year.

Initiative: Q1 product improvements

Epic: Create a better reporting dashboard for the end-user to track progress within the app.

User stories: 

  • I want to have a dashboard for reporting, so that I can quickly see data.

  • I want to ‌download reports, so that I can share them with stakeholders.

  • I want to have graphs to showcase the work visually, so that I can include them in formal reports and presentations.

  • I want to ‌add all stakeholders to my dashboard, so that everyone has access to project progress.

[Old Product UI] Sprint planning example project (boards)

How to create an Agile epic

When you create an Agile epic, approach it through a strategic lense. The epic will guide your work and daily tasks. It should be small enough to complete—this is not the ideation stage—and specific enough for you to measure its success. 

Step 1: Define your epic

To maximize the benefits of your epics, follow these best practices.  

  1. Follow SMART goal perimeters. Make each epic SMART—specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. When you’re creating an epic, you want to remove ambiguity and generalizations. SMART goals make epics focused and detailed, so everyone knows exactly what to expect. 

  2. Define how you’ll measure it. Or, put another way—how will you know when the project is done? This is where you decide on specific outcomes, both quantitative and qualitative. 

  3. Use a system to track and report on progress. Make sure you’re creating epics in a system where you can properly track and report on progress and monitor backlogs. When deciding what to use, consider the stakeholders, your priorities, and the team’s capacity. If you’d rather have one centralized source of information where everyone has access to the work, for example, look for a tool or structure that supports this. 

  4. Set a time frame. Epics should not be too long or too short. The deadline might move, but to be inclusive of multiple sprints, you’ll want to aim for anywhere from 1-4 months for each epic. 

Step 2: Break your epic into individual user stories

Ultimately, the goal of an epic is to bridge the gap between your larger goals and your smaller user stories. Remember: a user story is the desired result of the epic framed from the end user’s perspective.

For example, let’s say the large user story guiding your Agile epic is, “As a customer, I want to decrease the amount of time it takes for me to get what I need done in the product.” One small user story could be, “As a customer, I want to decrease the amount of clicks it takes for me to land on my personal dashboard.”

Step 3: Decide how to prioritize your epic

Most teams choose an Agile framework because of their flexibility. As you go through and break your Agile epics down into smaller user stories, remember that it should work for your team. These breakdowns are suggestions, not rules. To determine which breakdown you should use, consider the size of the epic, its priority level, and whether it has any dependencies.

By workflow

To use workflows for your epics, you’ll need to break them down into tasks. These tasks are then used to create a workflow, where you can add assigned team members, deadlines, and dependencies as needed. A workflow's main benefit is functionality, letting a project manager delegate, distribute, and prioritize tasks. If you’re using a project management tool, you’ll also be able to automate these workflow tasks and connect apps that better support your work.

By timeline

Time is a simple way to prioritize work. This allows you to look at the epic as a whole and decide if it can fit into a sprint or you should break it out into multiple sprints. Use this system when you need to use deadlines to prioritize work. For improved usability, you can visually structure the timeline as a Gantt chart as well. 

By role

Some epics are more defined by team roles than the tasks themselves. In this instance, the Agile epic will be broken down by role and team. You’ll structure the epic around the team you need. If you’re working on a feature launch, your role breakdown could be:

Agile epic: New feature launch

  • Role: Engineer

    • Tasks

  • Role: Product marketer

    • Tasks

  • Role: Designer

    • Tasks

Make your next project epic

Agile project management is a more flexible, adaptable way to plan work, and Agile epics help you get that work done. They help demystify work and clarify all aspects of the project, improving the workflow with each sprint iteration. With this clarity and direction, the team can do the work they do best, moving projects forward with less effort and more focus.

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