In the world of agile software development, it’s important to have a clear understanding of the terms and concepts that we’re using. Two terms that are often used interchangeably are “Epic” and “Feature”. However, in agile frameworks (such as Scrum or SAFe), these two terms have distinct meanings and are used in different contexts. In this article, we’ll go into the differences between Epic vs Feature in Scrum, and how they relate to the larger framework of SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework).
An Epic in Scrum is a piece of work that is too big to be completed in a single sprint. Epics are usually broken down into smaller pieces of work called User Stories, which can be completed in a single sprint. Epics are typically used to represent a large feature or a major component of a product. An Epic can span across multiple sprints, and may involve multiple teams.
Please keep in mind that Epics are not part of the formal definition of Scrum. You won’t find them mentioned in the Scrum Guide! You won’t find user stories there, either. These are techniques or ideas that people have commonly adopted in the Scrum world. But were never part of the official structure.
So keep in mind that epics (and stories) are optional in Scrum. They are not optional in SAFe however! (We will get to that in a bit).
Epics are used in Scrum to help teams plan and prioritize their work. By breaking down a large feature into smaller Stories, the team can focus on completing one piece of work at a time. And can make progress towards the larger goal over multiple sprints.
This can help with smoothing out delivery and velocity, and making sure things get done within a sprint.
A Feature is typically a self-contained piece of functionality that delivers value to the end user. A Feature is usually composed of multiple Stories, which are the smallest unit of work in Scrum.
Features are used in Scrum to help teams deliver value to the end user in a timely manner. By breaking down larger Epics into smaller Features, teams can focus on delivering a small piece of functionality that is complete and ready for release.
Much like Epics, features weren’t (and aren’t!) part of Scrum according to the Scrum Guide. They are an optional add-on, that some people use.
Some people use Epics and Features interchangeably. That is, they have stories and tasks (the small building blocks). And then above them, they might describe things as epics or features.
But according to the SAFe people, there is an important difference between the two.
SAFe, or Scaled Agile Framework, is a methodology for scaling agile practices across large organizations. In SAFe, Epics and Features play an important role in helping teams plan and structure their work.
Features in SAFe are used to represent chunks of work that can be delivered to the end user in a single Program Increment or PI. So it has to be something that takes less than three months for an agile release train to deliver. Features are typically defined at the Program level, and are composed of multiple Stories that can be completed by individual teams.
In SAFe, Epics are used to represent large bodies of work that span multiple teams and multiple sprints. Epics are typically defined at the Portfolio level, and are broken down into smaller Features that can be completed by individual teams. An Epic is something usually much bigger, that can’t be completed in a single PI (Program Increment).
So a Story is the smallest unit of work (fits within a sprint), then a Feature (fits within a PI), then an Epic (can’t fit within a PI).
Epics help teams align their work with the larger strategic goals of the organization, while Features help teams get an understanding of the bits they need to deliver in a PI.
SAFe has a whole system around how epics get discovered, defined, funded and prioritized. But that’s a topic for another day.
While Epics and Features are both used in Scrum to help teams plan and prioritize their work, there are some differences between these two concepts.
So as you see, the Epic vs Feature debate belongs more in the SAFe world than the Scrum world. Scrum only defines one type of backlog item, called simple “product backlog item”. You can call them stories or features or whatever you want.
And you don’t need to use features or anything in Scrum. Only if you want or need to.
In SAFe, it is quite different. SAFe builds on Scrum but fills in a lot of things and adds a lot of terms that aren’t in the original Scrum language. Like epics and features as backlog items.
So in proper Scrum, you can ditch both of them, or use whichever term you want. In SAFe Scrum, you have a hierarchy of Story, Feature, and Epic.
So Epics and Features are two important concepts in SAFe that are used to help teams plan and prioritize their work. Epics represent large bodies of work that are too big to be completed in a single PI, while Features represent smaller, self-contained pieces of functionality that can be completed in a single PI.
In SAFe, Epics and Features are used to coordinate work across multiple levels of the organization. Epics are defined at the Portfolio level and are broken down into smaller Features that can be completed by individual teams. Features are defined at the Program level and are composed of multiple Stories that can be completed by individual teams.
Understanding the differences between Epics and Features is important for anyone working with SAFe. By using these concepts effectively, teams can plan and prioritize their work more effectively, deliver value to the end user in a timely manner, and align their work with the larger strategic goals of the organization.
If you are doing pure Scrum, however, these concepts are optional. They are not formally defined in the Scrum guide. And there is no accepted consensus in the Scrum community as to which you should (between Epic and Feature). And how big or complex each one is. So use it how you want.
Have you had experience with using Epics and Features? Do you agree with this article? Let me know in the comments, I would love to hear from you.