The EBER Project -- Epics and Stories

One of the things that appealed to be most when I first learned about Agile was that they had epics and stories (and themes too, though I don't usually work with those). Since I take a narrative-focused view of life and magic, it makes sense that these terms would appeal to me.

In the last EBER project post, we walked down from strategic to tactical as far as goals. But it's not always a clean jump from a goal to the day to day things you need to do to meet the goal.

I'm going to steal an example from Dave Ramsey's Getting Things Done (tm) method here. I don't like everything about his method (his hoarders-level attitude to saving paper, for example) but there are lots of good nuggets in the system. He talks about how you probably have items on your to do list that never get done like "clean the garage." This is because "clean the garage" isn't granular enough. It's too overwhelming. You really need to break it down to much smaller bits (place ad to sell old lawnmower).

For the record, this isn't our garage... yet. But we do need to clean it.
If this theoretical garage is anything like ours, you can't just call cleaning a task. It's much bigger than that. In agile terms, it's an EPIC (maybe not on par with throwing the ring into Mount Doom, but close).

An EPIC is a discrete item -- a goal -- that you would like to accomplish, but that's way too large to just jump in and do. In the software world, an epic might be something like: Users can save their data and access it later.

Underneath that epic, you have one or more stories. In agile, they are called stories because they are literally supposed to be phrased as a little story. So: As a new user, I want to create an account with user name and password to save my data. As an existing user, I want to log in with my account to access my data. As a user, I want to update my account with new log in information. The user doesn't even have to be a person: As a server, I want to store user data using secure encryption so that data isn't compromised.

The format is As a {type of user}, I want {goal} so that {reason}.

For our garage example:
As a homeowner, I want to be able to find my tools so I can fix stuff around the house.
As a mechanic, I want the car to fit into the garage so I can work on it.

Notice that we are still in the realm of goals here. This is something you want to accomplish, it doesn't say how you will do it. They're sub goals effectively.

Also, note that this format may be too heavy handed for personal project use because they typically refer to you or your household. So endless stories that start with "As Ivy..." or "As a household..." get kind of redundant.

But there is something critical about the rest of that story format that I want to highlight. It not only notes what you want to accomplish but WHY. This is huge. Back to cleaning out the garage. As you turn that epic into stories, it forced you to think about your vision for the garage (what you want it to look like when you're done) and your values (what you want to do with your garage). For example, you might picture your garage as a place for home improvement projects and crafts -- because you value the do-it-yourself ethic. Or you may want your garage to be neat and clean because you just love order and value having a calm place to come home to at the end of your crazy commute. Maybe the garage will become a gym to meet your need for physical fitness.

What we're doing here is creating a link between your project goals and the values / vision you have for your life. This is where most projects, particularly agile projects, get lost in my opinion. You want to be flexible and adjust course as you do, but none of that will do you any good if you lose sight of who you are and what you value.

The EPICs and stories form a little hierarchy below your goals. Remember, my EBER project is a three year project. There are a lot of big goals here and one of the critical items for me it to break then down into doable chunks of work. And from stories, it's a really short hop to tasks -- the stuff you actually need to do.

From "I want to be able to find my tools so I can fix stuff around the house" you get:
* Collect all the tools from all over the house
* Sort them and get rid of duplicates and broken ones
* Buy a toolbox where they all will fit

So in our example, we end up with:

Vision -- An organized life - spend less time hunting for stuff and more time doing what I care about
  Value -- Do it yourself / self-sufficiency
    Epic -- Clean the garage
      Story -- I want to be able to find my tools so I can fix stuff around the house
        Tasks -- Collect all the tools...

Before we wrap this up, I'm going to give you an example from my own EBER project:

Vision -- I am strong and healthy -- mind and body -- as I age
  Value -- Caring (about myself and others)
    Epic -- I want to by physically fit
      Story -- I want to get additional regular exercise to increase strength and stamina
        Tasks -- Take the dog for a run instead of a walk...

Backlogs are for next time and so is a sampling of my "bitches get shit done" techniques for actually doing stuff -- you know, instead of just planning it.


  1. I like this comparison a lot. An epic has a lot of steps and stories inside of it — the visit to the village elders, for example; or the wandering in the wilderness — and a lot of tasks, like the 40 push-ups a day (and the training montage, where you learn to work up to 40 push-ups a day... sigh).

    This is sort of what the gold stars in our daily planners are for, in a sense — noting the training montage where we build up toward our Epic goal.

    Sitting at home in front of the fireplace last night (and listening to the squirrel rooting around in the roof, gulp!) I realized that any vision or value I create for myself has to include working with other people. I really enjoy making things — quilts, costumes, accessories, bags, and so on — but I genuinely miss working with others. So that's part of the overall vision, or it should be.

    1. Sounds like you are working on vision and values right now. For example, I can see that Hands on Learning might be one of your values, but so might be Hands on Teaching.


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