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It’s no secret that Jira Align is a BIG tool. At each level of scale, there is a collection of features and functionality, not to mention the many reports also included in the platform. In addition, there are a number of components—like Snapshots, Features, Dependencies—all related to each other, creating a web of connections in the back end. Overlay these complexities with the reality that implementing agile at scale is still unfamiliar to the broader number of users. This makes for launching an enterprise instance overwhelming and often drawn out.
The good news is through our years of working with enterprises, we have identified a pattern of success. Those companies that have seen success started with the basics, educating their users on 1. the core components within Align and 2. the relational ties between those data points. Equipped with this knowledge, users can drive consistent and best practices around properly entering work into the platform. And, these users can produce more answers than questions from the dashboards and reports.
If you are unfamiliar or still “fuzzy” on the details regarding Jira Align’s three hierarchies—people, work, and time—then here is your crash course. Throughout this article, we’ll use the diagram below to frame the conversation around each hierarchy and the relationships between each other:
Starting at the top of the pyramid, the Enterprise layer is where many of your executives operate. Here, they define strategy and flesh out questions like “What is our company’s mission?” and “What are our values and vision?” By going through these exercises, Goals are created and documented. Cascading hierarchies can be used to show the relationship between long-term (multi-year) and short-term goals (annual or quarterly). Measurements of success should be defined across Goals, with owners assigned to each to monitor and manage its health. Within Jira Align, Goals are encapsulated in a Snapshot timebox, 1-3 years, in which they should be achieved.
One level down lies the Portfolio level and your Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) team. This is where your Finance team, Portfolio Managers, and Enterprise Architects collaborate to prioritize and fund large initiatives in support of those organizational goals defined above. Here, Themes are the tip of the spear for the work hierarchy and act as a linchpin between enterprise strategy and the work. By setting up guardrails and bringing people to the work, the LPM team can tune budget around these Themes over time.
Beneath Themes are Epics (this is what we call a parent-child relationship. These relationships pertain to all work items). Epics are large bodies of work intended to deliver value in support of a Theme. Often, Epics are underpinned with a lean business case and have defined budgeting. Because Themes and Epics are considerable in size, they are completed over the course of multiple Program Increments. Also called a PI, Program Increments are a dimension of time within the platform which typically last 12 weeks / one quarter. Meaning that at this layer, work items will span 4+ months.
Most commonly, the Solution layer is reserved for those enterprises that support multiple Agile Release Trains within one Portfolio. Solution Train Engineers (STE) and Solution Architects (SA) play key roles in coordinating successful delivery across trains. Within the Jira Align platform, the work item for this layer is commonly referred to Capabilities. Be careful not to mix this up with another common term, Business Capability (structures that house a specific business activity). In agile at scale, Capabilities are solutions that span across Agile Release Trains (ART). While smaller than Epics, the extensive work involved is still sized to be accomplished over multiple Program Increments.
For many companies, the Program layer is where the majority of activity lies. Because of its unique position above the Team but beneath the Portfolio and Solution levels, the Program can be thought of as a dovetail, linking the work to the business alliance. Release Train Engineers (RTE), Product Management, and System Architects all team up to organize and deliver a single ART. This is accomplished through the planning and execution of Features. Features are the result of splitting Epics or Capabilities and sizing the work to fit within one Program Increment (12 weeks).
*Note: for any Jira users, Jira Align Features equate to Epics in Jira.
While Jira Align sits on top of team tools like Jira, it is important to note that the Team layer is where the work execution happens. Scrum Masters, Product Owners, and the Development team all operate at this level, working on Stories. Here, Stories are defined with Acceptance Criteria and weighted to drive predictability for planning at the Program and Portfolio levels. As the smallest unit of work, it is critical that Stories are appropriately sized to be completed within a single Sprint. Also called Iterations, Sprints can be timeboxes of 1-4 weeks, but most commonly are defined as 2 weeks, meaning 6 Sprints in one Program Increment.
*Note: for any Jira users, Jira Align Stories are the same as Jira Stories.
It cannot be stressed enough: understanding this model is critical for ensuring you and your teams are off to a successful start in Jira Align. It is the key for decoding reports and views as well as the framework for effectively loading work across the various scales. So go ahead and memorize this hierarchy or simply print it out and post it by your computer—whatever works for you.
As always, be sure to ask questions here or comment with insights you’ve gathered when working with Jira Align’s hierarchies.