Team Strategy

Practical Tips For Reversing Anti-Patterns With Epic Owners

May 19, 2023
Michiko Quinones

With today's ever-evolving technology and dynamic business environments, achieving enterprise agility has become a critical factor for success. Organizations face increasing demands to respond quickly to changing market conditions and customer needs while maintaining high standards of efficiency, quality, and innovation.

However, during an agile transformation, it’s possible to run an anti-pattern. Anti-patterns are practices that work against the patterns you want to run. Most of the time, they surface unintentionally, usually as existing practices that don’t play nicely with more modern practices. 

Slide Decks Are Slowing You Down

A common anti-pattern that almost all organizations face is meeting their periodic reporting needs with a static medium like a slide deck. Decision makers say they want to move faster and pay for large agile transformations, yet they continue asking people to put metrics into a document.

This type of reporting takes a lot of time, adding little value to the value stream. As soon as it’s cut and pasted from a system into the document, it’s no longer real-time data. The anti-pattern is also  the need for decision-makers to have someone else interpret metrics for them. 

In businesses that move fast, decision-makers can understand a set of key metrics, evaluate them with real-time dashboards, and hold teams accountable to those metrics. Slide decks get laughed at and thrown out in these organizations.

Let’s explore another common anti-pattern we have seen in the Lean Portfolio Management space and take a look at how to reverse the anti-pattern.

The Epic Owner Anti-Pattern

The anti-pattern we have seen is that organizations think Epic Owners do all of their research as independent agents, that they aren’t accountable to a team, and that their communication and documentation work doesn’t lend itself to planned agile work.

It’s like organizations are telling delivery teams to make work visible, but not  Epic Owners, who are exempt from being transparent and from operating within an agile team. What inevitably happens is that conversations that need to happen don’t, which results in blockers popping up that should’ve been caught during the Reviewing or Analyzing phases.

The US Army is well aware of this issue during battle times. I used to do contract work at the Pentagon and had the honor of attending a council of colonels meeting post-Desert Shield when forces were still in Afghanistan. A Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) can run a whole battalion (about 1200 people), so they are pretty high up. 

Imagine a room lined with video calls and a large oblong conference table with the general at the helm. Each video call had one LTC reporting from a base and communicating with each other from their respective headquarters. They gave their reports, surfaced issues, made work visible, and were transparent and accountable to each other. Despite having a high-ranking position, they still had to operate as a team. 

Epic Owners usually don’t operate this way. They function independently, rather than as part of an Agile team.

Clearing the Anti-Pattern

Agile teams create features and stories that represent their work. During planning sessions, they talk through dependencies and remind each other of departments (billing, compliance, etc.) and people to connect with. They think through historical blockers and how to avoid them.  

Together they uncover potential issues or roadblocks that they couldn’t see as individuals. Agile teams also make their work visible via information radiators and hold each other accountable by reviewing progress on a daily basis. 

Epic Owners operate independently and have traditionally been successful to the extent that they have developed organizational acumen and relationships. While establishing relationships with other people is necessary to be successful, it can also be a pitfall.

What they know stays with them and what they don’t know never gets to them. Without a team that requires transparency and accountability, it’s easy for Epic Owners to miss important issues, dependencies, risks, and blockers. 

What I’m suggesting is that instead of thinking of Epic Owners as independents, they should operate as part of an Agile Team.


Practical Tips for Planning Work as an Epic Owner Team

To clear this anti-pattern, I propose that Epic Owners should be part of an Agile team and work within the same tool that the team uses. Most Epic Owners are familiar with creating an Epic in a tool like Jira Align or Rally, but they should also know how to create features and stories as well. 

Epic Owner teams should also be Kanban teams, not Scrum teams. The communication flow is beholden to a myriad of schedules that you can’t control, so it would be nearly impossible for the Epic Owner to plan communication work within a two-week sprint. 

However, this doesn’t mean the work can’t be made visible. Epic Owners would absolutely create features and stories for their work, even if completing that work takes a while. 

If we put the idea of thinking of Epic Owners as Agile teams into practice, it might look like this:

  1. The Epic is created in the Funnel State.
  2. During the Funnel state, the Epic Owner Team plans their work as a team. As a team, they would meet to share knowledge and to make their communication and documentation work visible.
  3. Ideally, the Epic Owner team would have the very first features under the Epic. One example could be to have features that represent the communication work and the outcome required from that communication work. For example, maybe two features:
      1. Conversations
      2. Outcomes

For each Conversation feature, the stories would represent the conversations that must be had. So there might always be a story for talking to the billing department, for example. Similarly, there might always be a story for talking to legal.

The Outcomes feature could highlight things that came out of the discussions that need to get done to achieve the desired results. This might include action items like creating a dependency, adding key information to a requirements document, or setting up a meeting between developers and billing so that solutions match the department’s needs instead of becoming blockers. 

Finally, an exit criteria should be added to the Portfolio Kanban that will say something like “Conversations and Outcomes features have been accepted.”

  1. The Epic Owner team should have an established cadence for syncs and should make their updates within the Agile tool for improved visibility. 

Visibility of these features alone will probably save hours of status reporting time in Portfolio Syncs. Epic Owners can let people know who they are talking to. This enables other parts of the organization to know that they will be part of the conversation and also notifies those folks that aren’t involved but need to be, to make time with the Epic Owner to communicate needs. 

Using this kind of transparent method can significantly reduce the downstream gotchas that cause big initiatives to come to grinding halts.

Help Your Teams Achieve Agile Transformation

Achieving agile transformation takes an investment of time, training, coaching, and technology. However, the return on that investment can be huge, impacting your organization’s entire ecosystem–from employees to customers. While this type of organizational change doesn’t come easy, it’s completely possible with enterprise agile transformation consulting that takes a multi-dimensional approach to implementation and improvements. Praecipio has the expertise and the scale to help you achieve every dimension of enterprise agility, bringing together your people, process, purpose, and technology to execute your organization’s strategy. 

Want to know more about how to achieve agile transformation by way of connecting strategy to work execution? Download our whitepaper, "The Connected Enterprise: Close the Gap Between Business Strategy & Execution.” You can also watch this on-demand webinar about how to bridge the gap between leadership and teams to drive enterprise agility.

After supporting hundreds of enterprise clients in scaling their businesses, Praecipio is here to help. Book a technical call and we can discuss how we can enable enterprise agility within your organization.

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