• Huub Rutten

The Word EPIC

Dear reader, you know my background is in linguistic science, among which lexicology and sociolinguistics. The latter focuses on researching language usage in social contexts and circumstances. I thought the word EPIC is an interesting word from this perspective. In my daily practices of developing innovation management methods and software I cannot avoid the term anymore: nearly every development methodology or project management methodology uses EPICS as a kind of starting point for a development project. It started with Agile software development where it is used as an equivalent of the word Story, but meanwhile the term developed into a label for many different things. Let us have a deeper dive in it and ask ourselves if it is really a good starting point for development investments?


Of course with my background I first present the original term. What is an Epic in literature? Wikipedia: “Epic, long narrative poem recounting heroic deeds, although the term has also been loosely used to describe novels, such as Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, and motion pictures, such as Sergey Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. In literary usage, the term encompasses both oral and written compositions”

Note that this is the definition I learned: it is a long poem, it is long narrative, it describes heroes and their passions. It was a means to communicate values, history and context for and understanding of historical events, of course mixed with political propaganda, very subjective. It is important to realize that an Epic is not an objective narrative, is not a scientific definition of events. Till a couple of years ago this was my only definition of the word Epic. Then Agile appeared on the scene.


If you read the Agile Manifesto you will not find the word Epic. But if you look at the Agile Alliance you can read the following definition: “An epic is a large user story that cannot be delivered as defined within a single iteration or is large enough that it can be split into smaller user stories. There is no standard form to represent epics”. And then: “Epics allow you to keep track of large, loosely defined ideas” and .. “multiple user stories can make the Epic concrete”. If I compare this concept with the literature definition, an Epic is still a story, however restricted to a “user”. In the same text the meaning changes to “a vague idea, that can contain multiple “user stories”. Now it is not a “story” any more, but a container for “user stories”, whatever these are.


Then I looked into the Atlassian lexicon and here the Epic is not a story anymore: An epic is a large body of work that can be broken down into a number of smaller stories, or sometimes called “Issues” in Jira. Epics often encompass multiple teams, on multiple projects, and can even be tracked on multiple boards. Epics are almost always delivered over a set of sprints”. So a “large body of work”…containing multiple user stories… Now I start to assume that the word User Story can be linked back to the original term, but the Epic here I cannot connect anymore. I believe I should connect it to any idea, or theme, a strategy, something with a title. But not a narrative anymore. Confusing. The word Epic can be “anything” within the specific context of Agile software development.


In SAFe the term is even broader: “An Epic is a container for a significant Solution development initiative that captures the more substantial investments that occur within a portfolio. Due to their considerable scope and impact, epics require the definition of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and approval by Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) before implementation”. A “container” of significant initiatives -- investments: a folder with a name? It seems so.


I am afraid the term Epic has hardly any meaning anymore a such. It is an empty word. If you don’t know the very specific context you don’t know what it means. I don’t understand why the word Epic should replace terms like subject, topic, idea, theme, strategy, portfolio subject, a folder. It only leads to confusion. It will be very specific per company, or perhaps even worse - specific for a department of a company. Like the word issue, epic is now a so called “relative term”. In a company it can be very different from other companies. A couple of years ago I was hopeful that it really was a narrative, that tells you the story of the situation, the people in that situation, the timeline of events (=process) and within this the emotions, the economical, psychological and social characteristics. In Innovation insight in the real circumstances and background of your buyers, consumers, users, is very important and a good narrative can have great value for this. The original literary Epic is a great opportunity that Agile has missed. A shame.


It will be clear that for me Epic as used today is NOT a good starting point for investments. For me good starting points are: company strategies, market insights, socio-psychological analyses and narratives, VOCs, technology research and trends, iterative and continuous consumer and user orientation and interaction, participative research.


More about this in a next blog.

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