Epics in Agile — Everything you need to know to get started
Managing and delivering large projects is always a challenge. The longer and more complex a project, the more unknowns can occur — which can cause quality, cost, or delivery issues. And as customer expectations continue to increase, it’s only added to the complexity. According to our 2022 Digital Trends Report survey, poor systems integration and workflow issues affect almost all organizations trying to meet customer experience expectations, especially when there is pressure to deliver more projects faster.
Even the project roadmaps (which define project scope) can cause their own challenges. Historically, their lack of flexibility has made it a struggle to adapt to market trends — whether that’s understanding how consumers’ buying behaviors have changed, such as with COVID-19 and the rapid switch to online shopping, or simply seeing that a certain channel isn’t performing well in an ad campaign and needing to make an adjustment.
As a result, many organizations and industries have moved to Agile project management, which takes an iterative approach versus the plan-and-implement approach of traditional project management. Agile provides greater flexibility to shift direction as priorities change. It allows project managers and teams to identify and resolve minor issues along the way and stay on track by breaking large projects into small, manageable chunks.
Epics in Agile are one of the ways the project management methodology breaks up large projects, allowing organizations to manage projects with more flexibility and less risk. To help you better understand how epics fit into the larger Agile picture and how epics can benefit your business, this post will explain:
- What is an Agile epic?
- How epics fit into the Agile framework
- Creating Agile epics
- Examples of Agile epics
- Measuring Agile epics
What is an Agile epic?
In Agile project management, an epic provides the work breakdown structure, which details all the work that will go into completing a project. Epics can span across several teams, sprints, and projects. They are most often used in software development by product and project managers, though many industries now use epics to manage large, complex projects. Today, many Agile project management tools allow you to manage epics — regardless of the type of complex project or industry.
Because epics are broken down into bite-sized tasks or stories, projects can be completed incrementally. This increases transparency and efficiency while making it easier to shift the direction or priorities of larger projects than if projects are handed off only once the entirety of work is completed.
Manage projects more productively. Discover the key principles of Agile and how to effectively organize your teams and work into epics, user stories, and sprints.
How epics fit into the Agile framework
In an Agile framework, the project roadmap sits at the top of the hierarchical structure. Each roadmap may include a series of clearly defined individual goals or milestones that are visualized as a set of initiatives plotted along a timeline. Initiatives can consist of one or more epics. These epics are then broken down into smaller, even more manageable tasks called user stories.
To summarize, here are the definitions of the various hierarchal pieces involved in the Agile framework:
Theme — The project roadmap or overarching project goal
Initiative — A group of epics
Epic — A high-level user story
User story — A single task within an epic
Sprint — A one-to-two-week period in which one or more user stories are completed
The hierarchical structure of Agile project management
In Agile, an epic is part of a project's hierarchical organization that breaks a piece of a larger deliverable into smaller chunks called stories or issues. You can also think of these "stories" as tasks to be completed during a one-to-two-week sprint. Because an epic is comprised of multiple user stories, it will typically take several sprints to complete all user stories — but time frames can vary by team and project, and shorter epics could be completed within one or two sprints.
At the end of each sprint, the team gathers feedback on the user stories completed from stakeholders, executives, and clients. For example, if you launch a new product feature but get customer feedback that the feature is not intuitive to use, you’ll need to rework the feature based on this feedback. This process increases flexibility throughout the project, allows the project to be adjusted to keep pace with market trends, and results in a continuous cycle of improvement for the overall project roadmap.
The continuous cycle of improvement in Agile
The iterative approach of Agile enables constant feedback resulting in continuous improvement.
Creating Agile epics
To create an Agile epic, you need to ensure it is tied to the broader initiative or project roadmap. For example, if the project roadmap is to add a search feature to your ecommerce site, then the epic must include objectives that help move that goal forward. To do this, think about the roadmap your team already has in place. Determine what other objectives you are trying to accomplish this quarter or this year. Create your epics based on these objectives using the guideline that each epic should solve a specific problem from a client or stakeholder’s perspective.
When defining an epic, keep these tips in mind:
- Develop epics for high-priority initiatives first
- Keep your epics simple and manageable
- Break each epic into smaller user stories that can be completed in a single sprint
- Expect epics to take several sprints to complete — but don't make them so long that they take longer than a couple of months
Examples of Agile epics
Here are a couple of examples to help you better visualize what epics look like in practice.
1. Launch a major marketing campaign to boost SaaS subscriptions by 25%.
A marketing team is launching a major campaign to boost SaaS subscriptions and help their organization. Because the marketing plan will target both new and current customer bases, involve multiple channels and assets, and have an overall budget of $1 million, it’s clear that it will not only be a large, multi-month project, but it will require a clear plan of who will accomplish what and when. To achieve the highest ROI from the project, working in an Agile fashion will allow the team to incorporate feedback throughout and shift tactics or channels if necessary.
- Plan the marketing campaign
- Deliver the campaign
- Measure results
From here, each epic is broken down into user stories.
User story for epic #1:
- Identify target audience, channels, and types of assets
- Determine the campaign timeline
- Set KPIs for the campaign
Once all the user stories have been completed, you can move on to the next epic, which in this example would be the delivery of the campaign. You can also continue to gather feedback from product stakeholders on the first epic, such as if they feel that you are targeting the right customer audiences and channels. Based on feedback, you may find that you make some tweaks to your campaign plan before you implement.
2. Adding a search feature to an ecommerce site.
To improve the customer experience, a web development team and a product team are planning to add a search feature to their business’s ecommerce site. This will make it easier for customers to quickly find products they’re interested in. Part of the complexity of the project is ensuring that all products are included in the search database and tagged in multiple search formats to ensure that the closest match to the intended search is served to the customer.
- Map the schema for search
- Implement search on the front end
- Add advanced search features
With these three epics defined, the next step is determining each epic's user stories.
User stories for epic #1:
- Create a database file of products
- Upload the database file to search wizard
- Build product index
Measuring Agile epics
To keep projects on time, manage resources effectively, and identify bottlenecks before they happen, you need to carefully measure how projects are progressing. Reports like burndown charts, velocity charts, and cumulative flow diagrams allow you to measure the progress of your epics. These reports are easy to create and customize with the right Agile project management tool:
- Burndown chart. A simple chart that tracks a team’s work progress against the time remaining to complete the work.
- Velocity chart. This chart compares the work committed to the work completed to show the rate (or velocity) at which your team is delivering on the project.
- Cumulative flow diagram. This diagram visualizes the entirety of your workflow and helps to diagnose problems or bottlenecks to reduce your average cycle time, better manage your work-in-progress limits, and increase your team’s throughput.
Source: Adobe, “Burndown Chart.”
In addition to having the right reports to evaluate the progress of your epics, other reporting and dashboard features can further increase visibility and transparency across all project teams and stakeholders. When looking for the right Agile project management tool, consider the following features:
- Real-time data gives complete visibility into the progress of your epics at all times.
- Customized reporting and dashboards make it easy to create reports and project views according to how your organization or project managers manage Agile projects.
- Automation allows you to deliver reports automatically to different stakeholders so the right teams or team members always have the most up-to-date information.
- Alignment between stories and strategic goals gives you a better view of the big picture so executives can make data-driven decisions and project managers can resolve bottlenecks before they happen.
Get started with Agile epics today
Complex projects aren’t going away. As the complexity of the world we live in increases, so too will the complexity of the projects we’re tasked with executing at work. The path to project success is to embrace the complexity but also break it down into manageable chunks, iterate, and continuously improve. This is why Agile projects have a 64% success rate compared to projects managed under the waterfall methodology, which only have a 49% success rate.
If you're ready to reap the benefits of Agile and increase your organization’s success at project management, consider your existing project tool. Determine whether it can support the Agile methodology and provide the flexibility you need to manage your projects productively and efficiently. If not, Adobe Workfront may offer the capabilities you need.
How Adobe Workfront can help
Workfront is a work management application that supports multiple project management methodologies, including Agile. Fully integrated with Adobe Creative Cloud and Adobe Experience Manager Assets, Workfront streamlines project planning and execution through automation, templates, and real-time reports — all within the tools creatives know and love.