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?”.

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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.

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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.



About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

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