High Level Planning with Agile

Need a high level timeline and mile markers for your project? If your using an Agile approach, Epics might not be enough to accomplish this. Let’s say, your involved in a website/marketing project. You might have Epics like: Website, Marketing, SEO, and Video etc. How do you get the data you need for reporting against your high-level plans? Let’s set the stage, and see what your options are from Agile Best Practices.

As you know, planning/management activities center around specific subject matters and are typically managed by subject matter experts (SMEs). Even though sometimes we wear more than one hat, it’s still best practice to separate these matters of concern since individual tasks and activities will be driven by plans that interrelate and it’s important to understand the relationships.

Typically, a company will progress and report on their goals for the year (these are typically called “initiatives”.) Initiatives typically align to “departments” – but this is not always the case. For example: Increase sales, Improve awareness, Acquire new customers – these are Marketing goals. To accomplish these goals, work needs to planned and this work is broken into categories, called Epics (for example, 2019 E-Mail Marketing Campaign, 2019 SEO Strategy, etc.) The Epics are “dated” since reporting on the results of a campaign is usually an annual activity – but your needs could differ.

Since marketing initiatives are often progressed with the same Epic (it’s easy to see how a marketing campaign progresses multiple marketing initiatives,) tracking Initiatives in a project management system is usually not implemented. Instead, it is left up to upper-management to report against these at the end of the year. Oh, your also upper-management? Small companies can often substitute “Themes” for Initiatives. Larger companies would probably need both. But what’s a Theme?

Let’s backtrack for a moment… If we ignore Initiatives for now, that leaves us with Epics for each Department. But that is not the end of the story. Often, companies want to progress work towards a more lofty goal that is not reportable on any bottom line. For example: improve employee morale, build solid local business relationships, etc. These are called “themes”. These goals transcend departments and are often company directives from upper management. Department heads still need to report on what is being done in these areas but there is no direct relationship to Epics. Often more than one Epic will be involved in some aspect of a single Theme. Sound familiar? It’s much like an Initiative and substitution is easy.

In fact, the organization, “Initiative/Theme/Epic-Story” can easily become “Epic/Theme-Story” for smaller companies. How you report on Themes would be left as an “easy” end of the year (or period) task.

There is no direct relationship between Themes and and Epics. In fact, it is a many-to-many relationship. Epics can be broken into Themes and Themes can be broken into Epics. Consider the popular theme “Safety is our Number 1 Priority”. It is easy to see how this theme would encompass multiple departments/epics in this way. If your using only Themes, it’s easy to see how, for example, Improve Awareness, might be progressed by multiple Epics.

Those of you that are scrum masters, might wonder, “What does this mean for out beloved Agile kanban board?” Let’s assume that you are already associating your Stories with Epics. Assuming your using sticky notes, the time-honored analogy (and still an effective approach in some cases,) you might use different colored notes for each Epic. Now, to implement Themes, you could simply use additional colored stickers on the story card to indicate the Theme. So, for example, Pink notes might appear with a Red sticker, and/or a Yellow sticker, or No Sticker. Let’s explain… If a card has two stickers, the Epic is progressing at least two Themes. There could be others, but the story might only progress a subset, or none at all.

For additional reading, I suggest:
The top 12 marketing goals for your 2018 plan
Epics, Stories, Themes, and Initiatives