Epic Backlog

In a sense, stories and epics in agile are similar to stories and epics in film or literature. A story is one simple narrative; a series of related and interdependent stories makes up features, which in turn makes up an epic. The same is true for your value delivery, where the completion of related stories leads to the completion of an epic via completing features. The stories tell the arc of the work completed while the epic shares a high-level view of the unifying objective.

On an agile team, stories are something the team can commit to finish within a timebox iteration. Oftentimes, the implementation team would work on dozens of stories a month. Epics, in contrast, are few in number and take longer to complete. Teams often have two or three epics they work on to complete each quarter/Program Portfolio iteration.


Prioritizing Your Epics in the Backlog

Is it Necessary to Be Systematic?

Undoubtedly, the processes of gathering information from your customers and brainstorming have resulted in a collection of new initiatives, Epics for new products and product line enhancements. Tons of great Epics and a variety of interesting projects that sound like they would make great addition to your business.

You could go with your own instincts, or even with the group’s gut feelings; However, a systematic method of determining which activities have the highest value impact helps to eliminate internal issues such as unconscious bias or false assumptions, group politics, scattering the team’s energies on individual pet projects, or solving a hard problem just to be able to say we did.

Because there is an opportunity cost for everything we do, we don’t want to our spin wheels working hard on projects that are unappreciated by our customers or which don’t bring a very high return on our investment of resources.

By systematically identifying those activities that have the highest value with the least complexity, we can determine what activities will yield the highest return on our investment, and keep our team focused on maximizing the return on their efforts while improving our ability to make financial forecasts.

Rate Value and Complexity

In order to systematically rank your Epics for workload, you will consider both the Business Value and Complexity (or the Effort and Reward) of the idea, and develop objective ranking so that an idea can be categorized. Your Epics for workload activities will be sorted into four major categories: Low Value, High Complexity; Low Value, Low Complexity; High Value, High Complexity; and High Value, Low Complexity.

Each of the products and projects you’ve brainstormed based on your user research and product reviews will vary in its complexity, based on (among other things) the amount of effort required to do it, the time it takes, and required capital investments. Each of the products and projects will also deliver value, whether measured in brand awareness, leads, revenue, or some other way. Prioritization will represent these Epics on two axes, with the business value on the X-axis, and the complexity of implementation including the risks, unknowns, and effort of execution, on the Y-axis.

You will need a set of objective questions to ask about each idea in order to rank them on the axes. Use a variety of metrics that each of your stakeholders can use to evaluate the Epics, including: does this generate customer goodwill, or what is the consumer demand for this product, or what is the cash flow profile (business value); does this idea require capital expenditure, or involve multiple departments for execution, or align with existing strategy(complexity).

Note: It’s important to ensure that all stakeholders are involved to provide input in the prioritization process so that all viewpoints can be factored in for an accurate evaluation of the value and complexity of executing an idea. For example, the owners and servers at a restaurant would like to take steps to bring in more revenue by bringing in more customers by increasing the available seating, and/or by advertising. However, the cook sees that the kitchen is too small to handle more orders without creating a backlog, which is a layer of complexity that the other two stakeholders hadn’t considered.

With your Epics ranked based on the criteria you set for determining the value and complexity of the idea, you can plot them on the axes as described before:

Divide the plotted points on the axes as shown:

Set Your Priorities

The four quadrants inform the priority placed on each of the products, projects, or initiatives. Those that are assigned high complexity but low value are assigned the very lowest priority, and in some cases stricken from the queue altogether.

Those with low complexity but high value are easy to achieve and provide a high return on investment so you would not be wrong to assign highest priority to that category, especially if your resources are very limited.

However, other philosophies would instead assign the highest priority to those Epics with both the highest complexity and the highest business value. Some think that because those Epics would take the most effort, time, and resources to do, they should be done first because the result could be game-changing.

The priority given to the other two quadrants is also dependent upon your available resources as well as your business philosophies.

One might argue for assigning the next highest priority to the low complexity and low value items. These are items that are the “nice to have’s” that customers might have requested, the small yet numerous enhancements that seldom bring in revenue but reinforces brand loyalty by demonstrating application of customer research.

If the business is in a maintenance phase and not a growth phase, or if there are issues of public perception or customer defection, then this quadrant might certainly merit the next highest consideration. However, if the strategy is calling for revenue or growth, then that priority might not be appropriate for this quadrant, instead 2nd priority might be more appropriate for items in the high complexity, high value quadrant. Items here may require in increased investment of time, team effort, or cash, but the value represented here could be longer-term or even result in a paradigm shift.

A blend of the two is also advisable, with development downtime available for evaluating low-complexity, low-value items for the possibility of increasing the value they represent, and for surveying whether the your ranking has considered all the angles.

Sometimes business value is not the only metric that deserves to be considered when measuring “value.” GIK is an example of a low-complexity, but low business-value product: it is a drug that does not cost much to produce because it is made from off-the-shelf items (a combination of Glucose, Insulin, and Potassium) and its potential for revenue is also limited. (Rath, 2016) As a low revenue product, it is not manufactured by any drug company, although its early administration has been shown to decrease  cardiac arrest and death caused by heart attacks. It also decreases heart damage caused by heart attacks by 80%, and that is of enormous value to society. Overall value to society or other moral values may be metrics you want to consider as well.

However, you elect to assign priority to the your Epics, products or projects, using a tool to formally rank the possibilities at hand will assist in making sound business decisions that result in less wasted effort and outcomes that should please your stakeholders.


Brown, A. (2014, July 13). Calculating Business Value: Unlocking Your Delivery Potential. Orlando, Florida, USA: Scrum, Inc.

Lombardi, V. (2006, August 1). Weblog. Retrieved from Noise Between Stations: http://www.noisebetweenstations.com/personal/essays/value-complexity/value-complexity.html

Product Arts. (2009, March 6). Blog: Assessing Market Opportunities. Retrieved from Product Arts: http://www.product-arts.com/blogmain/articlemenu/23-assessing-opps

Product Arts. (2009, June 14). Blog: Your Product Management Challenges Poll Results. Retrieved from Product Arts: http://www.product-arts.com/blogmain/blog/253-pm-challenge-results

Rath, A. (2016, September 23). This Doctor Is Trying To Stop Heart Attacks In Their Tracks. Retrieved from National Public Broadcasting website: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/09/23/495027377/this-doctor-is-trying-to-stop-heart-attacks-in-their-tracks