Epics or Integration Scenarios?November 25, 2014
Many teams I’ve worked with struggle to make sense of their huge backlogs of stories, struggle to explain the scope of a release and current work – and most importantly, struggle to explain how the stories they’re working on contribute to business value!
All of these problems are killers when it comes to joining up what a development team is doing to a corporate portfolio, governance and milestones. Features and business benefits seem to be too high level, stories seem to be to low level.
A common approach to trying to solve these problems is to use “epics”. Originally intended to just be another type of story (one that was too big for a sprint) “epics” are now commonly used in a requirements hierarchy by teams and organizations. I’ve seen loads of backlogs where every story had an epic “parent” – sometimes even a 1-1 mapping from epics to stories(!!!!). I know that some process frameworks recommend this approach, but I don’t and here’s why:
Stories can just be on a backlog
Stories don’t have to have a parent. A backlog made up of stories is just great, it doesn’t need a hierarchy that’s a Work Breakdown Structure using some agile-y sounding words to hide the fact. A backlog isn’t a gantt chart, stop trying to turn it into one by stealth!
Actual epics are useful for teams
“Epics” in their original form were simply stories too big for a sprint, sometimes that just creeps up on you so it’s useful to be able to tear up a big story and replace it with some smaller ones. By formalizing a Feature -> Epic -> Story hierarchy as an “agile at scale” process I’ve seen corporate processes become protectionist over epics, trying to use them to fix scope, counting and metricating them to the extent that teams can’t simply discover some of their stories are epics.
Bigger stories need more than a sentence
I know that a story can have more elaboration than the standard form of “as a user I want to…” but few stories in the wild have more than a sentence (you’re often lucky if you find some with acceptance criteria). I find that describing how various stories contribute together (especially when across several teams and/or systems) to deliver business value I need more than a sentence. I often need a diagram or a paragraph or two.
“Epics” sound silly
What’s in a name? Would a rose by any other name smell so sweet? Probably. Names shouldn’t be that important and yet they are, what we call things has a significant impact on how people represent them. “Epics” are part of the money spinning agile movement’s language. They either sound silly to businesses or as a way to pretend they’re doing “agile at scale” by adopting the term for their portfolio requests.
I like Integration Scenarios more
Ok, so this is clearly subjective and personal but that’s kinda my point. I don’t use process elements because someone told me to, and I don’t think that something like Integration Scenarios are always better than epics. I prefer to pick and choose different tools for different jobs. In my experience Integration scenarios are frequently a better tool for scoping, elaborating and agreeing end-to-end threads across a system or system-of-systems so they’re one of my “go to” tools.
So what are Integration Scenarios?
Integration Scenarios describe an end to end workflow across a Product or Product Family. Integration scenarios are threads across a number of low level requirements such as user stories that collectively deliver Business Value. They are ideally suited to describing the scope of Releases and providing the input for integration testing necessary to achieve higher levels of acceptance.
Integration Scenarios provide the context for discussions around User Stories
Integration Scenarios can be described in a number of ways, ranging from textual to graphical depending on the nature of the system and the best way to achieve clarity. In all of these examples we recommend using a meaningful title, not “Integration Scenario”!
One of our favorite ways is to draw an activity diagram of user interactions using GUI mockups in the nodes with references to features/use cases/stories as appropriate. We do not recommend strictly following a diagram format but using the visual or textual elements that will communicate the scenario as effectively as possible. Story-boarding can also be an effective way of describing Integration Scenarios.
When using a graphical view we recommend including links to stories or systems that are covered by the scenario and adding rich graphics to standard modeling notation to increase communication.
Integration Scenarios using textual formats are best described as a narrative with links to contributing stories or systems.
They should ideally be no more than a couple of paragraphs that describe interactions between actors across a number of stories. Sometimes adding extra alternative or exceptional flows can be useful, in the style popularized by use cases, but if there’s a lot of “flow logic” involved then we recommend using a diagrammatic form (e.g. workflow) to avoid convoluted textual documents. Similarly adding a non-functional section indicating non-functional requirements or constraints that apply across the stories making up the scenario can be useful.
Integration Scenarios describe the dynamics between stories and how they collectively contribute to delivering business value. To that end we recommend highlighting and directly linking to the stories that make up the integration scenario. In this way Integration Scenarios add context to the mass of user stories and provide a sound basis for scoping a system, describing a release, functional architectural mechanisms, integration testing, and product acceptance.
Regardless of format we recommend that Integration Scenarios are described from the user perspective and focus on achieving business value. The choice of formats should be driven by the type of Product being developed (e.g. graphical/user facing vs. back end service) and further influenced by team experience and available tooling. We strongly advise not being concerned with the constraints imposed by formal modeling languages, the communication is important not the notation.
Sometimes we wish to use Integration Scenarios as part of diagrams, even workflow/activity diagrams (e.g. for Value Stream Analysis) in which case the full text version might be a bit big. In these situations we recommend using a “zoomed out” view which just lists a title and the related stories. In fact this “elided” form of an Integration Scenario is sometimes useful for simply gathering up a collection of stories into a larger chunk for planning purposes. Story lists in these diagrams don’t have to be exhaustive, just indicative.
Textual Integration Scenarios can be crafted in and decent rich text editor that allows for hyperlinks. We recommend trying to keep them short since the detail of the requirements should be in lower level stories or UX designs/storyboards. Instead the Integration Scenario focuses on the dynamics between requirements. A good rule of thumb is that they should be only a couple of paragraphs, and at their biggest if alternates/exceptions and nonfunctionals are included they should only be 2 or 3 pages. Creating a large number of fully documented Integration Scenarios prior to any development effort is a very bad idea as it will introduce the problems inherent in waterfall development, however elaborating the Integration Scenarios for a Release prior to development iterations/sprints or continuous flow development (with customer representation and team representation) is an excellent way to align collective understanding of scope and requirements.
Each Release should have no more than a couple of Integration Scenarios in it, if there’s more and they are not too interdependent then they can be delivered in separate Releases enabling earlier feedback cycles, (even if they are internal Releases rather than operationally deployed customer release.
Links to other elements
Integration Scenarios provide a mid-level requirement type, higher than User Stories but lower than Portfolio Requests containing a lot more information than a Feature. As a result Integration Scenarios provide a unit of incremental business value which can be used for Release Planning, tying in milestones for programme/portfolio tracking and governance.
Because Integration Scenarios are constructed in a narrative form that describes a scenario, tried and tested scenario based testing methods can be applied for Integration testing.
Integration Scenarios also provide a useful starting point for understanding Solution Architecture, in the case of Product Families or systems of systems, and even System Architecture in terms of indicating structure and identification of mechanisms. It is possible to resonate architectural structure with Integration Scenario structure although there is a risk of inappropriately introducing a Homomorphic force to the architecture.
By aligning Integration Scenarios with Integration Streams, Releases and Milestones we can focus the various views of Portfolio Management, Programme Management, Project Management, Architecture, Delivery, Quality, Deployment, Acceptance and and Business Change onto Releases at the center of the H-Model de-conflicting business management and technical delivery. Providing a context for requirements, planning and delivery Integration Stories are a common currency for the entire IT organization to work with.
Integration Scenarios can also be used as part of Integration Modeling (creating scope diagrams) to indicate which actors/systems sets of requirements interact with, helping to clarify overall scope and identify potential gaps in scope.
If using Integration Modeling we recommend color coding Integration Scenarios based on priority (e.g. Musts, Shoulds etc.).
A Scoping Diagram is used to draw a picture of the primary requirements and users/interacting systems.
What are your experiences of “Epics”, “Integration Scenarios”, “Scoping Use Cases” or other alternatives?