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Best Practices: Thoughts on Issue Hierarchy in Jira Software

Issue hierarchy in Jira Software is a common point of confusion for new users, whether they're novices or seasoned agile veterans. Since confident utilization of work hierarchy is key to running effective development cycles, below, I'll cover how hierarchy works in Jira Software, and what its implications are for your work.

Issue Hierarchy

Issues are the basic unit of work in Jira Software and come in various types: story, task, bug, etc. There are two additional issue types - epic and subtask - that can possess a hierarchical relationship with the aforementioned standard issue types. Let's run through some quick definitions.

  1. An epic is a large work item made up of subsidiary stories. Epics will often span multiple development cycles, projects, and versions.
  2. A story is a single unit of work that, taken alongside a larger group of stories, constitutes an epic. A story should be small enough that it can be completed in a single development cycle.
  3. subtask is an even more granular decomposition of the work required to complete a story.

Alternatively stated, an epic can contain stories and stories can contain subtasks. So, hierarchically, imagine the overall relationship like this.



So what implication does hierarchy have on how you actually do your agile work? Let's cover this in two discreet topics: estimation and time tracking.

Estimation is the practice of sizing of your work and correlates to how you calculate your team's speed of work. In Jira Software, estimation occurs at the story level, which then rolls up into its parent epic.

You do not estimate at the subtask level.

Why? For Atlassian, in a well-rounded agile practice estimation should be sufficiently accurate that overall capacity will be understood without having to parse estimations at the subtask level. Subtask estimation leads to slowdown; agile is about speeding things up.

Time tracking in Jira, on the other hand, is a burndown of hours that will allow you to monitor progress against a unit of work. Tracking will typically possess a different value than estimation, i.e. you might estimate in story points but track in hours. One thing to note: in the case of tracking, you can establish original time estimates at the subtask level, the value of which will sum up into a parent story. However, tracking values will not roll up into epics.

For clarity's sake, here is the above diagram, again, with estimation in yellow and tracking in grey.


So, when you decide upon an estimation and tracking system, consider the above behaviors. What estimation and tracking statistics will you use? Do you want to track time or will you trust that work should be complete by cycle's end? While you're free to choose your own estimation and tracking statistics, separate statistics are preferable to make sure you aren't conflating the two metrics.

Additional Considerations

  1. There are no additional levels of hierarchy available in Jira Software beyond what's described above. If you're looking for a more hierarchical view, you might consider some marketplace extensions.
  2. Out-of-box, the only issue types that can be estimated are stories and epics. That said, you can add the estimation field to other issue types (tasks, bugs, and any custom types).
  3. For more on how tracking statistics can impact your burn down reporting, read more here.



if the hierarchy is such: epic - story - subtask, then why do I need tasks?

Matthew Wong Atlassian Team Jul 27, 2018

Hi Dim!

Good question. Tasks are on the same hierarchy level as stories in Jira. We create different "issue types" to create different categories of work. In this case, stories are meant to describe and articulate features. Tasks would, in theory, be more routine or rote work. Regardless, issue types are meant to provide flexibility in the taxonomy of your work.

Very useful for new users! Thanks.

Thanks Matt! 

Where is a Feature fits into this JIRA model?   


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