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[Article]The Problematic Epic - the undefined term that cause confusion

Jimi Wikman

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Epic. It sounds so cool and people love to use it. It is that bucket of undefined things that is just...large, that we love to throw things into and proclaim that it is an Epic. But what is an epic? There lies the problem, because the term Epic is defined in many ways in different methodologies and in different levels of the organization. This makes the Epic arbitrary and confusing, because the value of the epic depends on the context, which is rarely known.

Most people are familiar with the Epic through a tool like Jira or ServiceNow. These systems have adapted the Agile, or rather the Scrum, which defines an Epic as "a big chunk of work, which can be divided down to smaller bits". Atlassian, the makers of Jira, takes that a bit further:


An agile epic is a body of work that can be broken down into specific tasks (called user stories) based on the needs/requests of customers or end-users. Epics are an important practice for agile and DevOps teams.
- Atlassian

So in both examples it is something big that can be broken down. In other words, it is something that has not yet been broken down fully and remain a bit vague because of that. This vague definition of something big, cause all kinds of problems, especially if what the Epics are broken down to are poorly defined.

In Jira for example you have a Story (Not User Story as defined on their website. A User Story is related to Requirements, not tasks), which in the best case will be defined as some form of work that can be done within an iteration (sprint most commonly). This means that you can have pretty much any size of task in a story, and it can be anywhere from full features to a small configuration.

Since much work starts on the business side even in Jira, then it is very common to have the Jira Epic turning into a Portfolio Epic...


Portfolio Epics in SAFe.

If we go up a bit within the Agile sphere, then let us see what SAFe says about their epics:


Epics An Epic is a container for a significant Solution development initiative that captures the more substantial investments that occur within a portfolio. Due to their considerable scope and impact, epics require the definition of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and approval by Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) before implementation.

Portfolio epics are typically cross-cutting, typically spanning multiple value streams and Program Increments (PIs). SAFe recommends applying the Lean Startup build-measure-learn cycle for epics to accelerate the learning and development process, and to reduce risk.


SAFe even have a specific definition to define that an Epic is not a project, which should tell you how vague the Portfolio Epic is in SAFe. It becomes even muddier when Portfolio Epics in SAFe leads to Business Cases with high level estimations, which projects also need. The difference seem to be that the Portfolio Epic is a funding without scope or time frame, which to me is the same as an extra budget for research and development or some form of business operation scenario.


Epics everywhere...

Epics can be found pretty much in all tools you look at, and in companies you will find that the term "Epic" is just as abused as the term "project" or "Initiative" as it is applied to everything. Are you working with strategic themes? I bet you have some strategic Epics as well, right? How about focus areas? Do you have epics there as well, maybe? How about your requirement process, I am sure you have heard your product owner talking about Epics on multiple levels as just things that are undefined in their mind?

Just to make things worse, you even have methodologies named EPIC.


Epics in traditional development.

In traditional development, we don't have Epics, but we can translate it based on the definitions used in Agile. I found this definition I thought fit pretty well:


This is most similar to a system specification or top-level requirements(TLRs). Because Epics can represent an end-to-end capability, they are also similar to mission threads.
- Parallel Worlds: Agile and Waterfall Differences and Similarities

I think Epics are more similar to top-level requirements, but I think the fact that they can also be similar to mission threads illuminate the problem with Epics. As a top level requirement it fit both the team or system based focus as in Agile methodologies like Scrum, but it also fit the SAFe Epic definition, which I think is interesting.

That would suggest that an Epic is defined on the level where it is placed and depending on how you divide between need and requirement the term Epic would be a top-level requirement in both situations, or they would be a top-level need when defined as a SAFe Epic.


So how should we think about Epics?

Regardless if you work in an organization that claim to be Agile or not, you will most certainly come across the term Epic. If not in your systems, then people will use the term based on how they have used it in the past. So you need to deal with them and you need to define them in a way that makes sense for every scenario.

My suggestion is that you define the term Epic as a level top-level requirement. This way you know that whatever is in that epic, it is not useful until it has been broken down into smaller pieces. As such, an Epic is a container that is meant to hold actual requirements once defined properly.

If you have Portfolio management, then define a Portfolio Epic as a top-level need. A need is a loose description that will lead to one or more requirements should the need be funded.

If you want an even more clear definition, then you can define the Epic as an operational Epic and a portfolio Epic as a strategic Epic. This should help define the level of the Epics and place them more clearly in the strategic and the operational areas.


Do not use Epics as Themes or focus areas.

If you start using Epics, of any level, as a way to categorize things based on strategic themes or focus areas, then you will start muddling the waters and the definition of an Epic as a top-level requirement or top-level need will be pointless.

Themes and focus areas are directional based, while requirements and need are action based. Having them become interchangeable means that you will either only work with directional goals with no actions defined, or you will only have action items and no direction. None of those scenarios are very good or healthy.

An epic should never be a direction or a goal, it should always be a defined activity that lead to a certain goal. So an Epic should always be connected to a theme or focus area, but it should not replace it or live in limbo without the connection.


Epic should be defined, or it is nothing.

I have spent more time discussing what an Epic is and is not when working with work processes than any other term. Without a definition, an Epic will cause confusion and frustration as it will become a change shifting monster that represent everything from a strategic theme to project to idea to design task. And beyond. It will be this go-to phrase for anything undefined that we don't want or have the experience to actually name correctly, or work with properly.

It will be everything and also nothing.


Epic in Jira could be a feature.

In Jira, I always define operational Epics as Features. It is a top-level requirement of something that once released add value as a separate feature. That means that when released, the Epic will be closed in Jira.

This is because I never have requirements in Jira, as Jira is a temporary work tool that should never, ever hold any documentation. In Jira, you should only have instructions on how to complete the task. That means that Epics in Jira should only be connected to top-level requirements in Confluence, not be the actual top-level requirement.

Unless your company have decided that you do not document requirements, then you don't need to define where to put them and can do whatever your team desire.


How do you use Epics?

I have seen many ways to use the Epics and even more ways to describe all kind of things as Epics, but I am always eager to learn more on how others use it.

So how do you use it, and why have you set it up that way?

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