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Structuring Work with Agile - Tasks, Projects, Epics, Initiatives, Themes

Agile management doesn’t treat all work homogeneously. Instead, it tries to build adaptive and transparent work structure to improve internal communication and traceability. Learn more.

Traditional project management treats all work homogeneously. All the work in a traditional project is typically driven by due dates and this is kind of a problem. It is okay big projects to have an aspirational time frame because it makes things feel tangible. Also, it is more than natural for teams and organizations to huddle around a date when it comes to projects. However, it is not okay to have a big project with hundreds of moving parts, and all of them having specific due dates. It may sound like a strong statement, but this puts a team into a failure pattern.

Having this in mind, it is really important to have a transparent and efficient way of breaking down work. From top to bottom. This will help you keep track of every task from the biggest objectives to the smallest details. We believe that Agile project management can help you with this because it doesn’t treat all work homogeneously. Instead, it tries to build an adaptive work structure, having in mind that different factors are influencing the system.

Agile Tasks Breakdown

You might have seen various ways of breaking down work. In the Agile world, you will meet different terms. Some of the most commonly used terms are for example epics, themes, projects, initiatives, campaigns, user stories, deliverables, tasks, so on.

To simplify things, we will get things down to the following terminology:

Theme / Initiative – think of this as long-term objectives with a larger focus, that will have the biggest impact on your company’s performance.

Epic / Project – this is a collection of tasks that have to be completed to achieve a certain goal or produce a deliverable. Think of epics/projects as the building blocks of initiatives/themes. An initiative/theme may consist of multiple projects.

Task / User story – this is the smallest piece of work in the chain. It could be anything that the teams are working on (new feature, content piece, design drawing, prototype, legal document, etc.)

Agile tasks breakdown

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

Also, the focus is on breaking things down to consumable pieces. These actionable deliverables are being 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.

Stick with us and let’s see how you can apply the Agile way of structuring work.

Agile Themes/Initiatives

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 into the following example.

Let's assume that you want to penetrate into a new market, for example the project management software market. This can be broken down into smaller and actionable projects.   

So penetrating into the project management software market is your Agile initiative/theme. Now you have to break it down and make it actionable.

Agile Epics/Projects

These are the building blocks of the upper mentioned initiatives/themes. They should be more specific and measurable, so you can see what’s their contribution to the main goal.

In the previous paragraphs, we gave an example of penetrating into the project management software market, which is the main initiative. Now, let’s break it down to two epics/projects that are:

  • New features - develop new features that can be helpful to project managers.
  • Optimize our current features to be suitable for project management.

See, these epics are directly related to the main theme/initiative goal, because they will support a potential penetrating into the project management software market.

We are almost there. But before we finish we need to break down the Agile epics/projects into small enough and actionable work items.

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Agile Tasks/User Stories

When you have an Agile project/epic 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. On this level, you may hear terms such as user stories (in software development), deliverables (in marketing) or just tasks.

Let’s go back to the example PM software example. We agreed that the Agile theme/initiative is penetrating into the project management software market and the epics are Developing New features and Optimize our current features.

Let’s breakdown the epic/project New Features for PM. 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/epic. On the other hand, the completion of the initiatives will help get you one step closer to the theme/initiative goal.

Why You Need to Structure Work the Agile Way

This is kind of a rhetorical question. Breaking down work the Agile way will help you keep track of every project and strategic initiative and it will bring transparency to the work process from top to bottom.

On one hand, breaking work to 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.

How we do it in Kanbanize?

In Kanbanize, we have something called the Hoshin board, which serves as the top layer. All strategic initiatives/themes are placed there. Then, we have the team Kanban boards (each team has its own board). Each team board has a timeline lane on top of it, where all the projects/epics are placed. And finally, there is the board where we put the smallest work items.

Agile tasks at Kanbanize

So, What Is the Bottom Line?

After all, organizations or industries use their own terms to define work. For example, in software development, you may hear the term user stories, in marketing deliverables, in other industries just tasks.

However, the important thing is to bring transparency to the whole work process and be able to correspond fast to the ever-changing requirements of the market. So, no matter what terms you use for your tasks, try to break down work to consumable size, visualize dependencies, and make it trackable.

Connect Strategic Planning and Project Execution

End-to-Еnd Organizational Visibility


In Summary

Breaking down work the Agile way have the following benefits:

  • Transparency - Everyone is able to see the top priorities of the company and how her 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 - the Agile way of structuring communicates everything from top to bottom: vision, details, assigned team members.
  • Maintains the vision at the forefront

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