Initiatives vs. Epics vs. Features
March 16, 2021

Initiatives vs. Epics vs. Features

by Brian de Haaff

Have you ever worked with a disorganized product manager? It almost sounds like an oxymoron. The best product managers I know take pride in bringing order to product plans. Grouping units of work into initiatives, epics, and features provides a structure that helps you align on what you will deliver and why it matters.

However you organize your work, you need a view of how everything rolls up to your strategic goals.

There are plenty of agile or agile-adjacent think pieces that go into intense granularity about the "right" and "wrong" way to think about and manage work. If you are solely focused on the labels in the taxonomy, then you are likely spending more time on the process — how the work will get done — than why you are doing it in the first place.

But for the sake of this post, let's start with some definitions. Initiatives are major areas of investment that contain epics or high-level themes of delivery needed to achieve specific goals. Here I will focus primarily on how initiatives are used in product management, rather than for major efforts at the company level. Epics contain features that span multiple releases and help deliver on the initiatives. And features are specific capabilities or functionality that you deliver to end-users — problems you solve that add value for customers and for the business.

You can think of it like this:

  • Initiatives: Areas of investment that support overall business and product goals

    • Epics: Larger bodies of work that are comprised of many features

      • Features: Functional components of the product that support specific use cases

There are some other structural layers here — such as requirements (granular parts of a feature that must be implemented) and releases (the containers for work that will be delivered in a specific time frame). You might encounter others like specifications, user stories, and tasks.

It really does not matter what terminology you choose — you could use any word really. What matters is the "why" behind the structure.

But there can still be confusion — particularly between initiatives and epics. Is an initiative really just a big project? Is an epic just a long user story? So let's break down the differences between initiatives, epics, and features even further:

Purpose

Initiatives are key pieces of strategy, along with vision and goals. Business initiatives help you achieve high-level company goals, while product initiatives include work that impacts customers — such as new sets of features or performance improvements. Once set, initiatives are fairly fixed although the supporting epics and features will evolve as you go.

Epics are focused on major areas of functionality and help define what a user will experience. For example, last year we unveiled new interactive dashboards in Aha! Roadmaps so that customers could organize reports, charts, and custom roadmaps into a single view. This effort (or epic) was broken down into several features.

Features are discrete pieces of functionality that provide a corresponding benefit to the user. In the example above, each dashboard enhancement — such as the ability to add different types of reports and roadmaps or filter by workspace — can be defined as an individual feature within the epic.

Components

Initiatives set a high-level direction for the product and can have all kinds of details baked in, including:

  • Associated goal: Business or product goal(s) that the initiative supports.

  • Description: Summary or theme and how the work will help you realize your goals, usually involving cross-functional responsibilities and resources needed.

  • Time frame: Quarters or yearly halves — often aligned to strategic planning periods or when budgets are allocated.

Epics can range from in-depth descriptions like what you would find in a traditional product requirements document (PRD) to a quick summary of a feature set. But expect to see:

  • Associated goal and initiative: Product goals and the initiative the epic rolls up to.

  • Description: How the related features come together to deliver a new experience to customers. May cover what the user will be able to accomplish with the new set of features as well as when the work will be delivered.

  • Scope: Details on what the team will design, build, and release.

  • Time frame: Typically weeks, months, or quarters — depending on the number of features within the epic.

Features are epics broken down into user-focused parts. The exact components vary depending on what you are building and how your team works. You might have very detailed feature layouts that include all sorts of pertinent information. But expect to see:

  • Associated goal, initiative, epic, and release: The product goals, initiative, and epic that the feature rolls up to as well as the release in which it will be delivered.

  • Description or user story: Description of what the feature will do, often from the user's point of view. For example: As a [type of user], I want to [perform some task] so that I can [achieve some goal].

  • Estimate: Days, hours, or story points.

  • Requirements: Capabilities that need to be built in order to deliver the feature.

Ownership

Initiatives are typically owned by a product leader. This could be the chief product officer, a portfolio program manager, or product manager. Ownership may involve being the spokesperson within the company for the direction of the product portfolio and guiding decisions about which initiatives to invest in.

Epics are typically owned by the product manager or product owner. This person is responsible for prioritizing the features within the epic, clarifying requirements, and keeping track of progress.

Features are typically owned by the product manager, product owner, or business analyst and then prioritized and assigned to an engineer or designer during sprint planning. Product managers may own tens or hundreds of features at a time — coordinating them across many teams and dependencies.

When to use each

Use initiatives when:

  • You are determining strategic areas of focus for a product or efforts that span multiple products and business units.

  • You want to define high-level programs to invest in and align teams around common themes.

  • You want to link releases, epics, and features to the strategic direction they support.

Use epics when:

  • You are planning large-scale product enhancements but have not defined the features yet.

  • You want to organize related features (that span multiple releases) and track them on a roadmap.

  • Your team is agile and you want a way to group user stories.

Use features when:

  • You want to define a discrete functionality that can be built on its own.

  • You are describing individual features that will be part of an upcoming release.

Every initiative, epic, and feature should work in concert to move product goals forward — so you can meaningfully impact business-level goals.

So let's return to the questions posed at the beginning. Is an initiative really just a big project? Is an epic just a long user story? The answer is not a simple yes or no. And really, these are not the most important questions.

Do you know where you intend to go and what it will take to get there? That is what you want to ask yourself and your team. Use initiatives, epics, and features — or whatever you choose to call them — to create a shared understanding of how you will reach your goals. When you do, you make the team and the product stronger.

How do you organize work to support product goals?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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