Explaining Themes & Initiatives in Jira

Goals typically come from ambition. We define them as the success criteria needed to achieve the desired outcome. But what if we wanted to put the ambition itself inside the Jira hierarchy levels in order to better track, organize, and respond to change while working in an agile manner on something grand or company-wide?

Enter Themes and Initiatives – your means of structuring Jira projects on a larger scale.

How themes and initiatives fit into the default Jira structure

By default, Jira has three elements in its project management hierarchy: 

  • Epic: Developers tend to use Epics in Jira to describe project features. For example, if you are trying to develop an e-commerce website, account management, shopping cart functionality, and integration with PayPal could be your epics. Every task you need to complete in order for the website to go live would become issues and stories in these Epics. Please note that an Epic is not necessarily the whole project, as complex projects are usually divided into several Epics. If we were to follow the example with an e-commerce website, filling the pages with content, working out the SEO, etc., could be separate Epics.
    Think of it this way: an Epic is a project management entity we use to break down complex work, prioritize, plan increments, and track the progress among one or several teams who are working together on the project.
  • Issue: Jira has several types of Issues like Bugs or Stories. They are small features that comprise an Epic. In this case, password reset and account deletion would be parts of the “Account Management” epic. 
  • Subtask: A Jira Subtask is used as a way to segment work and break down issues even further. If there’s a story for deleting an account, the subtasks could be:
    • A confirmation screen to delete the account
    • A Verification email
    • Background clean-up job according to GDPR rules
    • Test coverage 

However, when a project exceeds a certain scope, or you want to align your epics with your company goals, it would be wise to use additional functionality like Themes and Initiatives.

  • Initiatives: As you may have noticed, we have been going from big to small when it comes to structuring one’s projects in Jira. But what if there was a need to go bigger? Enter initiatives. The simplest way to look at an initiative is to think of it like an Epic for other Epics. They are much more of a strategic – bird’s eye view – tool that’s used to oversee the progress of several projects a company is running. An example of an initiative would be to increase the market share of a certain project in Spanish-speaking countries, like the aforementioned e-commerce store. This initiative is then broken down into smaller projects like establishing connections with new product vendors for better deals, investing more in marketing and advertising, or building a mobile app for the store.
  • Themes: Themes are what one may consider a label – a tool used for grouping work by categories. An example of a Theme would be adding a Spanish localization in order to reach a new market.

Initiatives are not available in Jira, but they are available in the Advanced Roadmaps as part of the premium package.
Alternatively, you can look for options in the Atlassian Marketplace. There are several add-ons like Structure by Tempo or BigPicture that allow you to add additional levels to the hierarchy levels in your Jira instance. 

How to add themes and initiatives to your Jira?

For starters, let’s take a look at adding initiatives that will serve as a parent to your Epics.
I will be using a Cloud Instance of Jira for this guide.
Note: You must be a Jira Premium user to access Advanced Roadmaps. The easiest way to check if you are a Jira Premium user is to take a quick look at the navigation bar at the top of your screen. If you have a dropdown option that says “Plans” then you are good to go.So the first step to adding an initiative is:

  1. Go to your Project settings
  2. Click on issues
  3. Click on the button to add an issue type. Add an issue type that will be your initiative.

Now, that you have the issue type you need, go to the project you would like to add an initiative to. I will be using a Company-Managed project for this example.

  1. Go to Project Settings and click on Issue Type in the navigation menu.
  2. You will see two boxes, one containing the issue types for your current scheme and another that says available issue types.
  3. Simply drag your Initiative issue type from the left box to the right. 

The next thing you would need to do is to actually edit your configuration using the Advanced Roadmaps.
To do so, click on the settings icon in the top right corner and select “issues” again. 

However, this time you will go to “Issue Hierarchy”. You can select this option in the menu on the left.

The Issue Hierarchy window will allow you to create a new level (or several). Give it a name that fits your needs and purposes and select an appropriate issue type. In our case, it will be an initiative. 

You can add one, two, or essentially however many levels you want there, and you can rearrange them at will. That said, most teams will only need one level above the Epic. Just remember to select your Initiative issue type in the Jira Issue Types column.

Pro tip: You can quickly hit the “G” button on your keyboard twice. This shortcut will open a popup window from which you will be able to configure your issue type hierarchy.

The only readily available article about the Themes report – a tool you will need to create new themes – is this guide. Unfortunately, it is hopelessly outdated to the point where the buttons mentioned in the interface do not exist.

There was a workaround where you could disable the updated interface to access the legacy view. It used to have access to the themes report. Unfortunately, this option was also scrapped as part of Jira’s effort to phase out legacy plans.

However, there’s a workaround that can actually work: you’ll need to add another level on top of the initiative level and use it as a theme. The #how-to is above.

Jira Align
In layman’s terms, Jira Align is Atlassian’s Enterprise version of Jira Software that is tailored to meet the needs of larger organizations (500+ users). This product will have the themes functionality out of the box, no workarounds are needed.

The alternative
Several add-ons from the Atlassian Marketplace can serve as an alternative to Jira’s Advanced Roadmaps.

Advanced Roadmaps VS Add-ons
When both Advanced Roadmans and third-party add-ons offer access to Themes and Initiatives functionality for planning, the choice between either option narrows down to two basic criteria one should consider:

  1. Price: Yes, you’ll need to pay extra for any of the options, but the final price will vary. Structure by Tempo, for instance, will cost you $6,325 (cloud) for up to 500 users, while Jira Software Premium (the package that includes Advanced Roadmaps) will cost you $51,000 per year (cloud). The standard edition of Jira will cost you $31,500 per year, which is a more cost-effective option even if you add the cost of a plugin like Structure by tempo.
  2. Functionality: While the barebones functionality of adding an extra layer to your Jira hierarchy is available in every option, it’s the additional features that allow for traceability, automation, and thorough planning that can highlight important dependencies that can make or break the deal. For instance, Structure by Tempo allows you to get real-time reporting with sum-ups and formulas, or it can offer a spreadsheet-like overview of cross-project work. Please look into the functionality and available documentation of every option in order to make an informed decision on whether you would like an add-on or access to Jira Software Premium.
  3. Availability: Certain portfolio management add-ons on the Atlassian Marketplace – like Swanly – are only available on Jira Cloud, whereas Data Center and Server options are not supported.
Jira AlignAdvanced RoadmapsAtlassian Marketplace Add-ons
Team sizeWorks best for large organizations (500+ users)Works best for up to 20 agile teams working together (50-150 users at a time)Can be fine-tuned to work with as many users as needed. However, cross-instance work between various teams is challenging
Concurrent Jira instances supportedAcross multiple instancesPer 1 instancePer 1 instance
AvailabilityCloudCloud, Server, DCVaries between add-ons
Agile methodologiesScrum, Kanban, Scaled Agile Framework® (SAFe®), Lean Startup, Spotify, LeSS, Value Engineering, Scrum@Scale, hybrid or custom frameworksScrum, Kanban, customMethodology-agnostic
Cross-projectOptional per add-on
PermissionsCustom permissionsRole-based permission managementRole-based permission management
ReportingLimited to a selection of filtersConfigurable reporting on multiple levelsDeeply customizable
ExportingLimited to Atlassian products, such as ConfluenceFlexible exportingFlexible exporting

Why use Jira for Themes and Initiatives?

Data is king. If keeping all of your business process and structure-related information in a centralized hub that allows for traceability, and advanced reporting is an option – a business should always go for it.
In addition to the functionality Jira offers by default, Advanced Roadmaps or third party plugins will offer a series of additional benefits that can impact your planning and decision-making: 

  • Visibility of the scope;
  • Clearly defined dependencies;
  • Ability to solve scheduling conflicts;
  • Availability for customizable automation that will allow you to monitor and analyze resource capacity and task distribution.

Everything is simpler when the process is well-documented and the progress is visible at a glance. 

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