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GitHub Issues Can be Agile if You Do it Right

An Agile Project Management Workflow Just Using GitHub Issues

Although GitHub Issues doesn’t have many of the features that you’d normally want in a project management system, you can still use Issues to create a lightweight Agile workflow. All it takes is a bit of finesse and some self imposed structure.

Agile Components

These are the core components of an agile system that you can implement using GitHub issues (you might want to skip ahead if you’re already an agile ninja).

Stories (a.k.a User Stories)

Stories are the smallest unit of work to be done for a project. The goal of a story is to deliver a unit of value to the customer. In Agile-land, common syntax for writing stories is:

As a <type of user>, I want <some goal> so that <some reason>.


Sprints are fixed-length iteration cycles, usually lasting one, 2 or 4 weeks. The goal is for the team to deliver a working piece of software by the end of the sprint (a potentially shippable increment).

Sprint Backlog

The sprint backlog is the collection of work that is scheduled to be tackled during a sprint. At the beginning of the sprint, the team decides what work they should do during the sprint and moves those stories from the global backlog to the sprint backlog. Stories in the sprint backlog should be organized by priority so the team can pick off the top tasks as they work through the sprint.

Global Backlog

The global backlog is a prioritized list of work (stories) that has not been scheduled to be completed. As new work comes in, it gets added to the global backlog and prioritized. In an Agile workflow, the development team pulls from the backlog as opposed to a manager pushing work onto the developers. The goal is to keep the backlog as small and as organized as possible.

Mapping the Agile Components to GitHub Issues

Now that we’ve laid out the Agile components, here’s how you can implement them in GitHub Issues.

Global BacklogOpen, Unmilestoned and Unassigned Issues
Sprint BacklogOpen, Milestoned and Unassigned Issues
Stories Issues

If you make an issues the same way as you would make a story then you’ve got this one in the bag.

TIP: One nice thing about stories that isn’t often adopted with GitHub issues is that stories have a consistent syntax. Feel free to abandon the typical user-focused story titles if that’s not your jam but it does make life better to have a style guide for issue titles!

Sprints Milestones

Unfortunately, GitHub doesn’t have sprints. Instead, if you want to group a set of issues together you have to use milestones. Luckily, milestones on GitHub have start and end dates, so they can be a surrogate for sprints since they fulfill the requirement of having due dates and allowing you to group issues together.

Sprint Backlog all open, unassigned issues that are on a milestone

GitHub doesn’t have a place to store your issues in a way that resembles a proper sprint backlog, but that needn’t stop you having one in your mind’s eye. All you need to do is remember that any issue that is on a milestone, is open, and is not assigned to anyone is in the sprint backlog. You can view you sprint backlog in GitHub using their issue search. Search for all the open and unassigned cards for any milestone and the resulting list is your sprint backlog.

TIP: Priority is a bit of a problem here. Normally you’d like to be able to arrange your issues so that the more important issues are at the top of the list. Since this isn’t possible on GitHub, you can use labels as a hack. To do this, create a set of priority labels (P1, P2, P3). If you’re uncertain of how many to create, just make P1, P2, and P3. As new issues come in, label them with a priority. Then when it’s time to decide what to work on, you can use GitHub’s issue search to filter by your priority labels.

Global Backlog all open, unassigned issues that are not part of any milestone

The concept is the same as the sprint backlog. You can use the GitHub issues search to find only those issues that are open, unassigned, and not on any milestone. This is your global backlog. Once again, use priority labels to indicate precedence.

A Basic Agile Workflow

Our Agile workflow will have five stages: global backlog, sprint backlog, in progress, in review, closed. Cool? Let’s go!

The Global Backlog

All new issues should go to the global backlog which means they should be unassigned and unmilestoned. Everyday, the team lead should look over the new backlogged issues and assign them a priority. Remember, in order to find your global backlog issues, use the GitHub issue search to display open issues with no milestone and no one assigned.

The Sprint Backlog

Next, it’s time to decide what to work on so you should create a new milestone on GitHub. If due dates are your cup of tea, give the milestone a due date. As I said above, one, 2 and 4 weeks are common durations of a sprint. It really depends on how your team like to work and what you’re currently building.

As a team, work through the issues in the global backlog and add the appropriate issues to the sprint backlog. You move issues from the global backlog to the sprint backlog by milestoning the issues. It’s pretty easy to just do on the fly when you come across an issue that you want to work on this sprint cycle. Remember to leave the issue unassigned, or you’ll inadvertently skip the sprint backlog, which is not cool in Agile land.

TIP: As you build up your sprint backlog, update the priority labels on the issues to reflect their priority relative to the other issues in the sprint backlog. This indicates what tasks the team should be working on first. Also, if you want to add story points to the issue, now’s the time to do it! Create another class of labels for your points and use those to weight your issues.

PRO TIP: When to label? In general, using labels to indicate the status of an issue in the pipeline is a bad idea. It’s difficult to keep the label up to date with the actual status of the issue. Bad data = lots of noise = irritated team. If you’re feeling tempted to use labels for the status of an issue, it’s probably time to add a proper project management tool to the workflow.

In Progress

When an open issue is assigned to someone, that means the issue is in progress.

Once your sprint begins, your team starts by pulling tasks off the sprint backlog, starting with the issues with the highest priority (and the lowest point values if you want to hyper-optimize your flow efficiency). When someone grabs a task, they assign it to themselves to indicate the work is in progress. It’s best if your team members only have things assigned to them if they are actually working on them. This way the team knows what everyone is working on and what issues are still available for them to bang out.

In Review

Moving issues to the review stage starts by opening a pull request. Give the PR a descriptive title that fits with your team style guide and reference all the relevant issues. Something like, “Adds widget to new feature - closes #1, closes #2” is awesome because when the pull request is merged, those referenced issues will be closed as well. Make sure the milestone of the pull request is the milestone you are using for your current sprint, and remember to assign the PR to the reviewer.


Once a pull request has been merged, you move all the resolved issues to closed. If you referenced your issues correctly in your pull request, your cards will automatically be marked as closed when the pull request is merged. Leave the milestone and assignee set on the issue as a record for later reference.


Ideally, the team should have code that’s ready to ship by the end of your sprint. Any open pull requests for the sprint should either be merged, closed or moved to the next milestone. Any open issues from the sprint should either be moved to the next milestone (if it’s in progress) or back to the global backlog by unmilestoning and unassigning the issue.

You finish your sprint by closing the milestone. Set the milestone state to closed and leave any notes about the sprint in the description section of the milestone. Some good things to record here are number of issues that had to be pushed to the next sprint (and point values), what was accomplished and what was not, and any problems that came up. Then, party!

Here’s a handy chart for the state of your issues in each stage

Gloabl BacklogSprint BacklogIn ProgressIn ReviewClosed













pull request reference


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