Themes Offer More Value Than You Think

I’m sure you’ve heard that when doing agile development, your team should start with themes (high-level objectives) and develop epics (high-level stories) that support the themes. The epics go into the product backlog. Later on, the epics will be split into small stories and then tasks suitable for implementation.

Just as epics can be broken down into stories, themes can be broken down into sub-themes. Those sub-themes can provide a goal or objective for a release or a sprint.

Simple enough (at least in theory). I’d like to focus some attention on themes because I think that themes often get overlooked or undervalued. That’s unfortunate because they can serve two powerful purposes when used effectively.

Themes help focus the development team.

Grouping a set of stories around a common theme helps the development team to coalesce around a small number of top-level objectives for the sprint. Rather than working on a discrete set of unrelated features, the team can share common objectives and be better positioned to self-organize and help each other.

I know that experienced agile teams will “figure it out” on their own. The themes will be obvious to them. Less experienced teams may not see the synergies among stories and may feel that the team is disjointed.

Themes help ‘sell’ the software.

The second area where themes add value is with the end users. It is much easier for the user community to understand what has changed in the software if you can group the changes around themes. They will be more inclined to investigate the new or upgraded features and try them out.

If the software is for sale, the marketing department will have an easier time selling the advantages of the upgrade if there are themes as opposed to random sets of changes and improvements. Themes will make a bigger marketing splash.

Everyone wins!

The next time you plan a release or a sprint, take a little extra time to group your stories into themes and see if it helps the team, the user community, and the company. Do you have any personal experience with themes that you can share?

Updated: June 13, 2011 — 10:12 pm