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Mar 25

New, flexible portfolio management in Jira BigPicture [Boxes]

Project portfolio management in Jira

— We’re building a five-level hierarchy to organize our portfolio of projects.

Project portfolio management is evolving in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Jira-based project managers wish to combine portfolios, stages, phases, projects, iterations and more in their custom, ‘irregular hierarchies’. This is why [Boxes] are arriving with BigPicture 8.0 in 2020. What does this new, flexible approach bring to the PPM in Jira?

Background: few projects are ‘black and white’

We’ve been hearing this for quite a while during Atlassian Summits, SAFe Summits, and our resellers’ Jira-related events: very few real-life projects follow the handbooks to the letter. What we commonly see when we visit our clients for Jira BigPicture training sessions are hybrid projects, i.e. mixed, waterfall and agile combinations. A blend or subset of Agile, SAFe, LeSS, waterfall methodologies are often used within a single organization. What’s more, companies tend to venture into ‘unknown’ over time, and no one wants to replace their PM software every couple of years. This is why we’ve brought the Boxes into BigPicture project management app. The extremely flexible Boxes module of BigPicture 8 replaces the proven, but somewhat ‘wooden’ Program Manager.

What [Boxes] are?

Think of the [Boxes] as Windows directories. You can put a collection of pdf, jpg, mp4 files into a directory, as well as a spreadsheet file and obviously some sub-directories, too. Now, imagine you have thousands of photos on your hard drive. You’d expect to have them categorized by journeys (≈projects) or people they pertain to (≈teams), and you would gather them in the ‘My travel photos’ folder (≈portfolio). Now, one of your trips was a round-the-world thing, so you further sub-divide that folder into stretches, continents, states or cities, etc. On the high end of the hierarchy, however, you could add other ‘portfolios’, such as ‘Family events’ and ‘Company events’.

The PPM world is indeed similar to your hard drive, and of course the bigger the organization, the more sub-sub-levels you’ll need. For instance, corporations, very typically, have their workflow split into portfolios, which are further divided into projects, then strategic initiatives, or SAFe ARTs, that are, in turn, sliced into Program Increments and, finally, iterations. To arrange them all in Jira BigPicture, you begin with the root box, and then you construct a custom, tree-like structure of boxes that reflect your portfolio or a collection of portfolios. Various building blocks are at hand.

Project portfolio management in Jira BigPicture, boxes

The new Boxes module in BigPicture. Notice the three portfolio-type items and that this is the ‘Home’ screen.


Box types

Now, it turns out that the BigPicture boxes are, in fact, very different from the quite generic Windows directories. The inside of each box may be organized differently and may accept selected contents only, they may also open and close in various fashions, and they may be labeled differently on the outside. What’s more, they may tolerate that they overlap each other (∼stages), or enforce that they sit in a row next to each other (∼iterations), and so on. The following are some box types in BigPicture:

Box type Sample characteristics Examples of what a  box can hold
Program (programme)
Phase (stage) highlights the Gantt chart and risk management modules, but has no agile board; permits overlapping and may last a month as well as a year
Iteration(s) have no room for Gantt charts; instead, they support agile working; last 2-3 weeks; sit in a row next to each other tasks but not other box types
ART, if you’re into SAFe Program Increments
Program Increments, if you’re into SAFe Iterations
or Requirement Area if you practice LeSS

Dozens of switches and config fields exist for each box type.



For whom are the boxes?

Well, try to locate your project management model on the below list. They are all very compatible with the boxes concept, and they are just examples of what you can model in the new boxes component of Jira BigPicture.

  • Agile project management: Portfolio2 → Project → Iteration
  • Waterfall PM: Portfolio2 → Project → Stage (non-sequential / sequential)
  • Waterfall PM: Portfolio2 → Programme → Project → Stage (non-sequential / sequential)
  • Hybrid PM: Portfolio2 → Project → Stage → Iteration
  • SAFe PM: Portfolio2 → ART, Agile Release Train → Program Increment → Iteration
  • LeSS PM: Portfolio2 → Requirement Area, with Feature teams → Iteration

2 Use optionally when you’ve got more than one portfolio.


Scheduling in the new Boxes / Program Manager component

Yes, the new Boxes component has the cleanly designed “Gantt chart” tab for rough planning, evident in the below screenshot. This by no means invalidates the black horse of BigPicture, namely its standalone Gantt chart module, which is still there, very strong, and much more advanced than the below simple chart (for instance, read on the new resources panel added to our full-scale Gantt chart). Obviously, the two Gantt charts keep in sync.

Gantt chart on the project portfolio management level

The clean design of the Gantt chart tab in the new Boxes module of Jira BigPicture.


How did it use to be in BigPicture 6 or 7?

The proven Program manager constituted a ‘hat’ on all the projects—programs. Check this video tutorial for a grasp of how it looked like and worked. What didn’t the previous program manager have, compared to the new [Boxes]? It was flat—no tree-like structure was available. The ‘Program’ was the only type available, so all you could have were one, two or more programs. Sure, you could freely select what epics, stories, tasks, and others, did these programs contain, by means of filters and JQL. Still, the tree-like hierarchy of higher-level elements, such as stages or projects—the much-discussed and valuable project portfolio management feature, was virtually absent.

On the contrary, you have that tree-like structure of portfolios, programs, projects, and so on, in BigPicture 8.

How to migrate from programs of BigPicture 6 or 7 to boxes of BigPicture 8?

Read a few remarks on is it worth to upgrade to the newest BigPicture in general. Once you’ve decided and possibly upgraded to BP 8, there is a question of what the programs should now become, since there is a choice of types in the new Boxes—program manager. So, each of your programs will become one of the two:

  1. a generic project,
  2. an ART, or Agile Release Train—if at least one Program Increment was found within the program.


Boxes in BigPicture vs. boxes in BigPicture Enterprise

BigPicture Enterprise extension gives you access to dozens of configuration parameters of the boxes, so you can add your own box types, as well as edit the predefined ones. Depending on your industry, you could, for instance, define the custom ‘Lap’, ‘Semester’ or ‘Plan’ types in BigPicture Enterprise.

BigPicture BigPicture Enterprise1
Predefined box types—portfolio, program, project, phase, ART, Requirement Area, iteration yes yes
Modify predefined box types yes
Create your own box types yes

1 Note that you need to have ‘regular’ BigPicture installed in order to use BigPicture Enterprise extension.


About The Author

With his automotive background Marcin goes beyond the 'Jira + software development' standard. He likes simple, up-to-five-sentence answers to complex questions.