To Create More Effective OKRs, Write Them Like User Stories

March 2, 2022 Terry Danylak

Every January, I ask myself the same question. What do I want to accomplish this year? It helps me plan out my work and focus on what matters most. To help me answer this question, I turn to my favorite goals framework, the OKRs. 

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are a goals framework created by Andrew Grove and popularized by John Doerr. OKRs are used widely in tech companies like VMware, Google, and Intuit, and they are increasingly being adopted by IT leaders in other industries to track their organizations’ strategic progress and direction. Each OKR consists of two parts: an objective and several key results. An objective is a concrete goal you want to achieve. A key result is a marker that you will use to measure if you have accomplished that objective. 

Here's an example of an OKR.

Goal: Grow my company 

Key Result 1: Grow quarterly revenue to $100,000

Key Result 2: Launch new marketing campaign on Instagram

Key Result 3: Reduce customer returns by 5 percent this quarter 

You can see that OKRs can be an effective way to write down goals. Key results serve as a valuable measuring stick to check your progress. But often, having OKRs isn't enough to help you achieve your goals. 

As a product manager at VMware Tanzu Labs, one of my day-to-day roles is to write user stories that developers will use as a guide when developing software. 

User stories are a concept that has been around for a couple of decades. It comes from a conviction that, before building software, a developer must understand the user and the reason behind the user's need for some functionality. At Tanzu Labs, we have found that writing user stories is so effective at driving good product design and development that we advocate for using them even when working on internal, API-based products that don’t have traditional end users.  

A user story has a simple format. It requires you to have a user, the desired functionality or feature, and the reason for building that functionality. For example, a developer is given a task to make a feature that lists past quizzes a student has taken. A developer might write this story like this: 

Create a list of previous quizzes for a student. 

It is short and to the point, but it is missing something. It is missing the reason why we need this feature, the context. 

A better user story includes that context:

As a student, I want to see the list of my old quizzes so that I can review them to help me prepare for a test. 

This user story is longer. It takes longer to write, and it requires you to think about the user and why that user would want that feature. It requires you to go and ask the user about this feature and validate that it is a valuable thing to build. However, this type of user story is beneficial for several reasons:

  1. You can come back to it six months later and understand what it is all about.

  2. You can immediately grasp the reason for this functionality.

  3. The user story format forces you to provide context for the story. 

User stories provide context and a reason. Unfortunately, OKRs, goals, and objectives are almost always missing this kind of context.  

Take the goal from the example OKR above: Grow your business. At first glance, it looks good. However, it is missing the reason for the goal and context.

In our lives, context is everything. First, context helps us understand each other better. Context changes the meaning of our words, actions, and thoughts. Finally, context helps us make decisions about what to focus on next. 

It is rather curious, then, that goals rarely have context in them. 

To achieve a goal, we have to have a good reason. And in the beginning, we usually do. But a month or six later, that reason may have changed, we have forgotten it, or it has become irrelevant. So we stop caring about the goal. 

What if we could capture the context in our OKRs? 

This is where the concept of story objectives can help. A story objective is an objective that provides context and the direct reason for it. 

It has a format of: 

As a <who>, I want to <achieve an objective> because <reason for it>.

It has the same format as a user story. So how can we apply it to our OKR from above? 

Objective: Grow my company

Story Objective: As an owner, I want to grow my company because I want to expand into new markets. 

There it is: context and reason behind the goal. The story objective is a more effective method to express your business and personal goals. It makes it much easier to understand your goal and remember the reason behind it, no matter when you look at it again. 

We can also rewrite key results as story objectives. For example: 

Key Result: Grow quarterly revenue to $1,000,000

Story Key Result: As a sales director, I want to grow quarterly revenue to $1,000,000 because we want to help the company expand into new markets. 

The <who> part is different from the objective’s <who> section. This key result is important to a sales director, and it is immediately clear. There is a similar <reason> to the objective's reason. The sales director can now be more effective at coming up with action items to achieve this key result. 

This is the power of story objectives. It brings meaning and context to your business and personal goals. So give it a try; rewrite one of your personal goals as a story objective. 

If you’re interested in reading more about the art of writing user stories, check out “Writing User Stories Worthy of a Saga” (a free webinar available for replay) and best practices for writing user stories, published by Tanzu Labs.


About the Author

Terry Danylak

Terry Danylak is a senior product manager at VMware Tanzu Labs, the software consulting services branch of VMware Tanzu. Prior to joining VMware, he spent 15+ years in product development, working for various start-ups and government organizations. He likes to focus his writing on strategy and strategic, long-term planning.

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