Agile working can be termed as a tactical approach to managing projects in which the workforce identifies and concentrates its efforts on projects of higher value. They will try to complete these projects cooperatively, evaluate their impact, and then constantly try and improve the results over time. Some of the terms commonly used in Agile are user stories, epics, and themes. These terms are there to simplify the discussions carried out during scrums.
The user story is something a user is looking for. However, agile user stories are more than plain text written on your index card. The reason for writing them here in the agile scenario is having a text written that is more understandable to the team, such as “Modification of tax figures on the sales reports” or “Reworking of the monthly sales report”. There are many teams out there who have learned the advantages of writing user stories in the form of “As a” or “So that”. However, the user story doesn’t need to be written in this way.
Epic is a term used to describe a big user story that cannot be completed in one sprint. However, there isn’t a magical step where we start calling a user story an epic. It’s just a series of steps the user must take that are more complex than a single user story. So, if your user story has one goal, but it is taking several steps to reach that goal, it becomes an Epic. For example, your user story might involve building a website for a client. This is clearly going to take several weeks or months, so it’s an Epic.
An agile theme is a collection of various user stories. It is like placing a rubber band around the group of user stories written for the monthly reporting and calling it a theme. Many times, it is helpful to think of the user story groups in terms of a single term. Using a movie analogy, the Western genre is a collection of Western-themed movies – you can think of an Agile theme in the same way – it’s a collection of activities that all fall under one umbrella, such as Marketing or Content Editing. This bunch is called a grouping or a theme.
Normally user stories are broken down into as small chunks as possible and this is done to reduce dependencies. But as you break down the user stories, they become inter-dependent. It is a constant balancing act. You need to stop breaking them down into smaller bits as it becomes pointless to do so. If a user story is created in less than 24 hours you can conclude that there is little point in breaking them down further. Themes are used to categorize these user stories under a single label and keep them together.
It is possible to keep a deck of cards together by paper-clipping them together. Alternatively, you may place a card that is representing a theme on the left of the whiteboard and keep all the user stories in the same row as that specific theme when you move across the board. Keep in mind that you must not ship any user stories until the chosen theme is completed. Try not to break down the user stories in such a way that they cannot function without each other.
Kanbanize has a useful guide to agile themes, which explains more about what an Agile theme is. We all know that project management is tricky at times, but Kanbanize is a handy place to find Agile, Lean, and Kanban solutions for managing projects.
Examples of Themes
A Login theme will have user stories for Register, Log In, and Forgot Password. All three user stories are related and are dependent on each other. These stories can be delivered independently yet work out if you execute them in the proper order. Many items are lying in the product backlog and themes may be used to categorize these items. For instance, on a website, there will be a range of user stories related to performance, SEO, re-styling, usability, and more.
It is always helpful when priorities are set top-down. For instance, let’s say that there is a commercial decision to be taken regarding the next few sprints of SEO, which is a top priority. You may grab the user stories having an SEO theme and provide a priority status to them. Remember, it is okay for a sprint to have items that are not a part of the theme. The theme is just the main area of concentration and not the whole project.
Themes can also be used in simple ways for outlining the broad priorities of a product roadmap, indicating the key areas that need to be focussed on. Remember, themes are just the main area of concentration and not the sole area of focus.
Once you have a grasp of the main terminology used in Agile working, managing large projects will be a piece of cake.