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What Are Tasks, Projects, Themes and Initiatives in Agile?

Discover how Agile teams structure work in practice using different manageable work items.

Agile Work Breakdown Elements: Themes, Initiatives, Projects and Tasks 

In contrast to traditional work management, where all work items are treated equally and are driven by due dates, Agile encourages building a flexible work structure. An Agile workflow considers that different factors can influence the system.  

To understand how to use Agile to structure your work and why it matters, let’s first define its building elements. Some of the most commonly used Agile terms include epics, themes, projects, initiatives, user stories, tasks, etc. Let’s discuss some of them in more detail.

Agile Themes and Initiatives

Agile themes represent a wide collection of similar activities and long-term objectives with a broader focus that will have the most significant impact on your company's performance. Often, themes and initiatives are used interchangeably in Agile management. However, Agile initiatives can be used to represent a set of epics or projects sharing the same goal but belonging to different teams. 

Agile Epics and Projects

The epics in Agile are a collection of multiple tasks or user stories. They are usually responsible for producing a major deliverable, which may include various Agile features, for example.

The project, on the other hand, is a very tensile term. If its size and scope are big, then it might include several project epics. However, people often use "project" and "epic" interchangeably. In general, you can think of them as the building blocks of Agile initiatives and themes.

Agile Tasks and User Stories

Agile tasks are the smallest piece of work in the chain. Tasks could be anything that the teams are working on (new product functionality, content piece, design drawing, prototype, legal document, etc.). Keep in mind that a user story can also be comprised of several tasks. 

Agile tasks breakdownExample of a basic work breakdown structure in Agile

No matter how you decide to call the different work items, make sure to break down all the work from top to bottom and make it visible. This will help you create a transparent work environment.

The focus in Agile is on breaking things down into consumable pieces. These actionable project deliverables are continuously shipped to the market without waiting for everything to be completed upfront. This way, you will be able to deliver value to the customers more frequently than usual.

Why Structure Your Work the Agile Way?

Breaking down work in the Agile way will help you keep track of every project and strategic initiative, bringing greater transparency to the work process from top to bottom.

On the one hand, breaking work into the smallest possible size will help your team build a clear structure of tasks and focus on finishing work much faster. On the other hand, the whole structure will provide a guiding direction to the organization.

Tasks, Themes and Initiatives in Practice 

Now that we know what each term means let's see how you can apply an Agile project structure in practice.

1. Define a Your Strategic Goal 

Let's treat these as strategic business objectives in the form of items. They provide business context for decision-making and help you navigate the course of your organization. They also affect the work items you are going to load in the different value streams. Simply said, Agile themes or initiatives sit on top of the work breakdown hierarchy.

To make this clearer, let's take a look at the following Agile theme example.

Let's assume that you want to penetrate a new market, for example, the project management software market. So, "Penetrating the project management software market" is your top-level Agile initiative or theme. Now you have to break it down and make it actionable.

2. Break Down Your High-Level Initiatives  

Agile epics or projects can represent the building blocks of the upper-mentioned initiatives and themes. They are more specific and measurable so that you can see their contribution to the primary goal. 

In the previous paragraphs, we gave an example of penetrating the project management software market as the main initiative. Now, let's break it down into two epics or projects:

  • New features - develop a new module for workflow performance reports.
  • Enhance our current features to be suitable for project managers.

These Agile epic examples will consist of several tasks, work items, or user stories that need to be completed over a more extended period.

Depending on their size, they can also turn into bigger projects. Regardless of how you choose to name them, the important thing here is to ensure that those epics/projects are related to the main theme/initiative and support the high-level goal of penetrating the project management software market.

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3. Fragment Your Agile Deliverables

When you have a project or an epic in Agile, you need to break it down to small requests that will go relatively fast through your project workflow. This is the lowest level of your work breakdown structure. You may hear terms such as user stories (in software development), deliverables (in marketing), or just tasks on this level.

Let's go back to the PM software example. We agreed that the Agile theme/initiative is penetrating the project management software market, and as an Agile epic example, we will use "Develop a new module for workflow performance reports".

Let's break down the epic/project. What could be the possible tasks that are actionable and small enough? For example, these could be: 

  • PM tools Research
  • New features design/concept
  • New features development

The completion of all these small tasks will help you complete the project. On the other hand, completing the initiatives will help get you one step closer to achieving your goal.

Initiative Epic Tasks

Penetrating the PM software market

Develop a new module for workflow performance reports

PM tools research

New features design

Features development


3 Steps to Build an Agile Project Structure 

Let's give a practical example of structuring themes, initiatives, tasks, user stories, and project epics in Agile from our own experience.

1. Visualize top management plans and company initiatives. 

For example, in Businessmap, we have a Master Kanban board, which serves as the top layer of our work structure. There, high-level management plans, engages in collaborative discussions, and visualizes all company strategic initiatives/themes.

2. Track team projects supporting the strategic plans.

Then, we have Team workspaces, where every department builds team Kanban boards (each team has its own board). On top of these boards, team members create a timeline to track the specific Agile epics/projects they are working on. 

3. Track the progress of specific work items.

Finally, below the timeline, there is the Kanban board, where we track the flow of the smallest work items/tasks/user stories.

Agile work breakdown structure on Kanban boardBreaking down work using initiatives, team projects, and specific work items on a Kanban board

The goal is to bring transparency to the whole work process and to be able to respond fast to the ever-changing market requirements.

So, no matter what you call your work items (tasks, deliverables, or user stories), aim to break down work to consumable size, make it easily trackable and visualize dependencies.

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In Summary

Using tasks, epics, themes, and initiatives enables teams to build not only a comprehensive work process but also unlocks some key benefits of an Agile environment, such as improved collaboration and flexibility. 

  • Agile themes and initiatives: Use them to define your strategic goal or initiatives;

  • Agile epics and projects: Apply them to break down the initiatives you defined;

  • Agile tasks and user stories: Use these small work items to fragment your work deliverables.


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