Monthly Archives: January 2019

Scaled Agile for Practitioners – The Epic

As the invited trouble maker, my contribution to the inaugural SAFe Leadership Retreat in 2015 was to suggest a session entitled “Does the “A” in SAFE stand for Agile or Academic?”.

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 17.18.39

My challenge was that SAFe is “made up” ( “constructed” ) by Dean Leffingwell and his small team at Scaled Agile Inc. ( SAI ), whereas Agile practices have been tested in many contexts by practitioners in the Agile Community. Even though many of the individual practices in SAFe are tried and tested, practitioners understand that Agile is an eco-system with the success of one element dependent on another. In effect, even though the SAFe framework contains agile practices, the framework has not been proven to be agile.

Personally I am in awe of the product management skills of the SAI. Clayton Christiansen, one of the leaders of product management, describes disruptive innovation as satisfying the unmet needs of a group. The SAI identified the unmet need of a massive and lucrative group of customers… Consultancies whose business model were being disrupted by agile and who had no experience of agile. The SAI provides a number of short training courses to convert command and control consultants into experts in agile. Even better, they even changed the language so that the traditional consultants would sound aligned and the experienced agile practitioners would sound out of step.

This week a colleague of mine was confused by the seemingly incompatible definitions of “epic” as understood by Agile Practitioners and the definition from a big six consultant citing SAFE as the source.

Epics in Agile

To understand what an Epic is, you need to understand what a story is. A story is a small piece of work that delivers value to a customer. The popular story format (developed by Connextra) clearly identifies the importance of delivering value.

  • As a blah         <– The customer who receives the value. (Non negotiable, though the story might be split if it is discovered that more than one customer is involved.)
  • I want blah     <– The thing being delivered. (Negotiable)
  • So that blah    <– A description of the value being delivered. (Non negotiable, though the story might be split if it is discovered that more than one value is involved.)

In order to stabilise the velocity (expressed in stories or story points) of a Scrum/Kanban team, it is necessary to limit the size of any story to a fifth of a sprint. (In reality, most mature teams would have at least ten stories in the sprint.) With a team of seven and a two week sprint, that means the maximum story size is fourteen man days. Fourteen man days is not a lot, especially in an enterprise environment, and as a result we end up needing an epic.

An epic is a story that is too big and needs to be broken down.

There are no hard and fast rules but an epic might contain up to ten stories. Above twenty stories is definitely too big and should be split into one or more epics.

In the world of the agile practitioner, there are no business epics or enabler epics, there are simply epics, stories that are too big.

Epics in SAFE

This is the definition of epic taken from the SAFe web-site.

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 17.36.24

No wonder the SAFE definitions appeal to consultancies with strong heritage in traditional command and control.

Epics in Scaled Agile

As a practitioner working in the Scaled Agile space, I have experienced that enterprises have additional needs that a single team working in isolation do not. Some of these needs are:

  1. It is not always possible for a single team to deliver an item of value for a customer. Several teams may be involved in delivering something of value, an epic.
  2. Organisations need to limit work in progress for each team using a technique like capacity planning. This means (SWAG) estimates need to be held against each team within an epic.
  3. The organisation often needs to predict when items will be delivered so that they can manage capacity. This is where the Agile Gantt Chart can help, either using averages or Troy Magennis’s monte carlo estimation. Once again, SWAG estimates are needed for each team.

For those organisations using Jira, it is difficult to store a (SWAG) estimate per team at the epic level. Therefore, to satisfy these needs, we require a three level hierarchy for a story.

  1. A story
  2. An epic (single team)
  3. An epic (cross team)

To minimise the impact on the majority of the organisation, ( the development teams ), we call these:

  1. A story
  2. An epic
  3. Anything really. I like “Cross team epic” * however I have seen “Deliverable” and “Initiative” used effectively.

The organisation may need to create higher level hierarchy to group “Cross team epics” and report on them for organisational or regulatory reasons. These higher “funding” levels can take any form according to the whims of the organisation.

As an aside, When delivering value it is important when calculating the lead time that you know whether the value was delivered by a “Story”, “Epic” or “Cross team epic”. One way to do this is to create a “bucket” “Epic” and/or “Cross Team Epic” for each team.

Note: Systems other than Jira may be able to hold team level estimates for a single epic in which case, you not need the third level.


My take on the Agile Manifesto is simple, the first line is the manifesto.

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.

The introduction of any new technique into the Agile Playbook is met with suspicion and challenge until it has been proven. Normally that means it is proven by its opponents. I have personal experience of helping to introduce two techniques, Given-When-Then and Kanban. Both met very strong opposition and there was debate that lasted years, and in some cases, that debate still continues over a decade later. Much of the debate was to understand the context in which these ideas were most valuable, and how they fit together with existing ideas. Acceptance of these ideas as agile has been hard fought and the community is stronger for it. These debates have made the ideas stronger, often with opponents becoming advocates.

SAI has avoided this challenge and debate, preferring to focus on its target customers who are mainly outside of the Agile community. Even worse, its marketing division has attacked and trolled many who dared to challenge it. SAFe has failed to understand that challenge is one of the key benefits of Agile. SAFe has presented a fully formed framework with “marketing style” experience reports. It has not built up a set of experience reports for challenge, describing the failures and associated learning. It is telling that SAFe has had several major revisions which included significant changes whereas Agile practices have tended to evolve with small revisions. This would indicate significant failures of the framework have not been shared with the wider community.

Three years after the leadership retreat, the SAFE franchise is still controlled by a small group, and there has been no attempt (that I am aware of) to engage with the wider agile community outside of the SAFe franchise and its franchisees. The definition of an epic can only be considered as academic and out of touch with the wider agile practitioner community. However the success of SAFE in the market place would indicate that they fully understand their customer’s needs. Causing confusion within companies plays to the strength of consultancies lacking deep experience in agile, and alienates those pesky agile practitioners who know what they are doing.

Can SAFe become Agile?

SAFe is here to stay. Its loyal customer base will ensure that their formerly unmet needs continue to be met.

To my knowledge, SAFe has not been endorsed by a single signatory of the Agile Manifesto. Neither has it been endorsed by a single winner of the Gordon Pask Award. In fact, I am unaware of a single leader in the Agile Community that has endorsed SAFe.

In order to gain credibility, the SAFe community needs to engage in debate with the wider Agile community.

Until SAFe engages with the wider community, people should understand that the “A” in SAFe stands for Academic. If SAFe wants to earn the right to use the word “Agile”, it needs to welcome the challenge and engage in debate.

* “Cross Team Epic” and “Single Team Epic” are terms that Andy Carmichel came up with.



Balancing the portfolio using Cynefin

The Cynefin framework can be used to assess whether the current and planned portfolio are balanced appropriately.


There are three patterns of portfolio investment depending on the maturity of the product.

  1. A startup would have a portfolio dominated by investments in the Complex domain as the organisation strives to understand customer needs and whether there is a viable product.
  2. A teenage organisation would see the majority of investment shift from the complex to the complicated domain as it seeks to scale and exploit its knowledge of customer’s needs.
  3. A mature organisation would have a portfolio dominated by investments in the complicated domain with a healthy slice of investment in the complex domain providing knowledge for the next generation of investments in the complicated domain. These investments in the complex domain allow the organisation to better understand customer needs as they evolve. Although an organisation should have a portfolio where the majority of investment is in the complicated (and obvious) domain, a portfolio with no investments in the complex domain will probably lead to the organisation losing touch with its customers and driving off the cliff.

Investments in the chaotic and obvious domains will normally be significantly smaller than investments in the complex and complicated domains. In times of crisis, investments in the chaotic and obvious domain may dominate.

  1. When the company loses touch with customer needs, investments in the chaotic domain may dominate. In such situations, normally heralded by a significant increase in churn, the organisation will be forced to focus a disproportionate amount of investment into addressing the issue. In this situation, the portfolio will naturally shift back to a healthy balance.
  2. In times of crisis, when the industry is forced to change by regulators, investments in the obvious domain may dominate. The Chief Product Owner (CPO) must ensure that the portfolio returns to a healthy balance and “crisis investment” does not dominate beyond the crisis. Managers responsible for Investments in the obvious domain tend to have a “Just Do IT” / command and control attitude. These managers “know what is needed” and do have regard for those who want to understand customer needs. The CPO should ensure that valuable people who research and understand customers are not lost during the crisis. These kind of managers find it hard to give up the significant resources at their command after the crisis, and the transition back to a balanced portfolio will require strong leadership.

Investments are in the disorder domain when the product organisation may not agree on which domain some of the investments  are in.

  1. “Four corners contextualisation” can be used to better understand the investment and how it should be treated.

Automated Test Coverage as a goal is at best, misguided

Setting Automated Test Coverage as a goal is at best, misguided. Automated test coverage is useful as a strategy or as a diagnostic metric, however using it as a goal is idiotic and will lead to waste and the wrong behaviour.


For any IT system, there are three options for testing:

  1. Automated tests
  2. Manual tests
  3. No tests

Lets pop the why stack on automated tests. Automated tests are faster and more reliable than manual tests. Automated and Manual tests are normally safer than no testing. So the reasons for automated tests are:

  • Reduced lead time.
  • Reduced variability in lead time.
  • Lower probability of a production incident.

Our goal should be to improve one of these metrics, normally reduce lead time. Lead time and automated test coverage are correlated. If you attempt to reduce lead time, one of the strategies you are likely to apply is to increase automated test coverage. As such automated test coverage is an excellent diagnostic metric to help the team identify ways to reduce their lead time.

There is not a causal relationship between automated test coverage and lead time. Increasing automated test coverage does not automatically reduce lead time. Many years ago I worked on system with no automated test coverage. Management imposed a 100% test coverage goal for all systems. Everyone on the project stopped working on anything else and spent a few days writing tests. As the business analyst I was given a list of classes and told how to write standards tests for each method to ensure the test coverage tool would register us as meeting our 100% target. We achieved 100% automated test coverage but no improvement in lead time or anything. The activity generated no benefit to the organisation, it was pure waste.

If you set reducing lead time as a goal, you will likely see an increase in automated test coverage. If you set increased automated test coverage, it is possible you will see no benefit.