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How to Use Themes, Initiatives, and Tasks to Breakdown Work in Agile Management?

In Agile, you can break down and structure work in different ways, including themes, initiatives, epics, tasks, etc. Unlike traditional project management, the WBS in Agile emerges over the course of a project and can constantly change.

Typically, all the work in traditional project management is homogenous and driven by due dates, which is a problem. While it's acceptable to have an aspirational time frame for a big project, it's not okay when all of its moving parts have specific due dates. It may sound like a strong statement, but this puts teams into failure mode.

With this in mind, it is essential to have a transparent and efficient way of breaking down work. Here comes Agile project management, which doesn't treat all work homogeneously. Instead, it tries to build an adaptive work structure, considering that different factors can influence the system.

So, let’s find out more about breaking down work the Agile way. We’ll discuss:

  • What is work breakdown structure in Agile management?
  • How to structure your work in practice?
  • Why does structuring your work the Agile way matter?

What Is a Work Breakdown Structure in Agile?

Agile work breakdown structure (WBS) refers to fragmenting complex work into smaller work items. WBS is a widely used tool in project management. Both prescriptive and adaptive methodologies employ WBS to simplify large pieces of work, visualize smaller work items, and create a work hierarchy between them.

Agile development teams, for instance, use a work breakdown structure to better organize their work with the help of themes, epics, features, or tasks. However, unlike traditional management, this Agile structure is not set in stone from the project’s initiation. Instead, it incorporates external or internal feedback, emerging work details, or changing requirements.

A transparent Agile hierarchy creates better alignment and boosts collaboration, as stakeholders and Agile team members can see the project's building blocks and the work at hand.

Elements of an Agile Work Breakdown Structure

In the Agile world, you will meet different terms. Some of the most commonly used Agile terms include epics, themes, projects, initiatives, user stories, tasks, etc. Let’s discuss some of them in more detail.

What Are Agile Themes and Initiatives?

The themes in Agile can represent different things in various scenarios. You can think of them as a wide collection of similar activities and long-term objectives with a broader focus that will have the most significant impact on your company's performance. Often, themes and initiatives are used interchangeably in Agile management; however, initiatives can be used to represent a set of epics or projects sharing the same goal but belonging to different teams.

What Are Agile Epics and Projects?

The epics in Agile are a collection of multiple tasks or user stories. They are usually responsible for producing a major deliverable, which may include various Agile features, for example.

The project, on the other hand, is a very tensile term. If its size and scope are big, then it might include several project epics. However, people often use "project" and "epic" interchangeably. In general, you can think of them as the building blocks of Agile initiatives and themes.

What Are Agile Tasks and User Stories?

This is the smallest piece of work in the chain. It could be anything that the teams are working on (new product functionality), content piece, design drawing, prototype, legal document, etc.). Keep in mind that a user story can also be comprised of several tasks.

Agile tasks breakdownExample of a basic work breakdown structure in Agile

No matter how you decide to call the different tasks, make sure to break down all the work from top to bottom and make it visible. This will help you create a transparent work environment.

The focus in Agile is on breaking things down into consumable pieces. These actionable deliverables are continuously shipped to the market without waiting for everything to be completed upfront. This way, you will be able to deliver value to the customers more frequently than usual.

Structuring Work in the Agile Way

Stick with us, and let's see how you can apply an Agile WBS (work breakdown structure) in practice.

Step 1: Define a Grander Goal Using an Agile Theme or Initiative

Let's treat these as strategic business objectives in the form of items. They provide business context for decision-making and help you navigate the course of your organization. They also affect the work items you are going to load in the different value streams. Simply said, Agile themes or initiatives sit on top of the work breakdown hierarchy.

To make this clearer, let's take a look at the following Agile theme example.

Let's assume that you want to penetrate a new market, for example, the project management software market. So, "Penetrating the project management software market" is your top-level Agile initiative or theme. Now you have to break it down and make it actionable.

Step 2: Break Down Your High-Level Initiative into Separate Epics or Projects

The word "epic" comes from literature. There, it represents a long narrative poem, which is usually related to some heroic deeds performed by the main character. But what is an epic in Agile?

In Agile project management, epics are larger bodies of work that can be the building blocks of the upper-mentioned initiatives and themes. They should be more specific and measurable so that you can see their contribution to the primary goal.

In the previous paragraphs, we gave an example of penetrating the project management software market as the main initiative. Now, let's break it down into two epics or projects:

  • New features - develop a new module for workflow performance reports.
  • Enhance our current features to be suitable for project managers.

These Agile epic examples will consist of several tasks, work items, or user stories that need to be completed over a more extended period.

Depending on their size, they can also turn into bigger projects. Regardless of how you choose to name them, the important thing here is to ensure that those epics/projects are related to the main theme/initiative and support the high-level goal of penetrating the project management software market.

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Step 3: Use Specific Work Items, Tasks, or User Stories to Fragment Your Agile Deliverables

When you have a project or an epic in Agile, you need to break it down to small requests that will go relatively fast through your workflow. In other words, this is the lowest level of your work breakdown structure. You may hear terms such as user stories (in software development), deliverables (in marketing), or just tasks on this level.

Let's go back to the PM software example and break down the epic "Develop a new module for workflow performance reports." What could be the possible tasks that are actionable and small enough? For example, these could be:

  • PM tools Research
  • New features design/concept
  • New features development

The completion of all these small tasks will help you complete the project. On the other hand, completing the initiatives will help get you one step closer to achieving your goal.

Initiative Epic Tasks

Penetrating the PM software market

Develop a new module for workflow performance reports

PM tools research

New features design

Features development

Example of an Agile work breakdown (WBS) using Agile initiative, epics and tasks

Why Structure Your Work the Agile Way?

Breaking down work in the Agile way will help you keep track of every project and strategic initiative, bringing greater transparency to the work process from top to bottom.

On the one hand, breaking work into the smallest possible size will help your team build a clear structure of tasks and focus on finishing work much faster. On the other hand, the whole structure will provide a guiding direction to the organization.

Building an Agile WBS with Kanban Boards

Let's give a practical example of structuring an Agile work breakdown using themes, initiatives, epics, tasks, or user stories on Kanban boards.

1. Visualize top management plans and company initiatives. 

For example, in Kanbanize, we have a Master Kanban board, which serves as the top layer of our work structure. There, high-level management plans, engages in collaborative discussions, and visualizes all company strategic initiatives/themes.

2. Track team projects supporting the strategic plans.

Then, we have Team workspaces, where every department builds team Kanban boards (each team has its own board). On top of these boards, team members create a timeline to track the specific Agile epics/projects they are working on. 

3. Track the progress of specific work items.

Finally, below the timeline, there is the Kanban board, where we track the flow of the smallest work items/tasks/user stories.

Agile work breakdown structure on Kanban boardBreaking down work using initiatives, team projects, and specific work items on a Kanban board in Kanbanize

The goal is to bring transparency to the whole work process and to be able to respond fast to the ever-changing market requirements.

So, no matter what you call your work items (tasks, deliverables, or user stories), aim to break down work to consumable size, make it easily trackable and visualize dependencies.

In Summary

Breaking down work, the Agile way has the following benefits:

  • Transparency - Everyone can see the company's top priorities and how their work relates to them.
  • Easy Tracking - Ideal for big-picture thinking. It's also exceptional at taking into account the details which will comprise the ultimate vision. Nothing gets lost as the project is executed.
  • Improved Communication - building an Agile project structure communicates everything from top to bottom: vision, details, assigned team members.
  • Maintains the vision at the forefront.

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