The Journey is the Destination

What do User Sto­ries, Sto­ry Points, and Objec­tive & Key-Results (OKR) have in com­mon? The obvi­ous answer that all three have some­thing to do with Agile is too sim­ple and does­n’t count. And no, I’m not doing cheap SEO here with these buzz­words in the first sen­tence of this arti­cle. Instead, it is about a com­mon mis­un­der­stand­ing in apply­ing these meth­ods. This mis­un­der­stand­ing involves reduc­ing the method to the respec­tive arti­fact, although col­lab­o­ra­tive devel­op­ment is much more impor­tant than the results. The writ­ten user sto­ry, the esti­mat­ed sto­ry points, or the fin­ished OKRs are only man­i­fes­ta­tions of shared under­stand­ing. The jour­ney is the destination.

The Promise of a Conversation

Alstair Cock­burn described the user sto­ry as the promise of a con­ver­sa­tion. That’s why Con­ver­sa­tion is one of Ron Jef­fries’ three Cs for good user sto­ries. A user sto­ry was nev­er intend­ed to be a mini-spec­i­fi­ca­tion, but inten­tion­al­ly had to cope with the lim­it­ed space on an index card or sticky note (Card as anoth­er C by Ron). So the goal is not to have the user sto­ry writ­ten, but the jour­ney of joint clar­i­fi­ca­tion of what might be meant and how best to imple­ment that. The notes are then just the thought sup­ports for the team.

The Value of an Estimation

One of the most pop­u­lar meth­ods for esti­mat­ing user sto­ries is Plan­ning-Pok­er. Here, each team mem­ber is giv­en a set of pok­er cards with the num­bers for so-called sto­ry points, which are usu­al­ly based on the Fibonac­ci sequence with its increas­ing spread of dis­tances, for exam­ple, 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, often sup­ple­ment­ed by a card for “no idea” and a card for “pause.” After the prod­uct own­er presents the user sto­ry to be esti­mat­ed, each team mem­ber choos­es the num­ber that best reflects the com­plex­i­ty of this sto­ry (this works bet­ter the more sto­ries the team has already esti­mat­ed and imple­ment­ed, since these then can serve as a ref­er­ence for this type of rel­a­tive esti­ma­tion). Then every­one reveals their cards at the same time. Most of the time, there are out­liers in the esti­mates, either up or down, and it is essen­tial to dis­cuss the assump­tions or fears behind them with the team. After this clar­i­fi­ca­tion phase, the esti­ma­tion and, if nec­es­sary, the clar­i­fi­ca­tion is repeat­ed. Typ­i­cal­ly, the num­bers con­verge bet­ter with each iteration.

The pur­pose of plan­ning pok­er (and relat­ed esti­ma­tion meth­ods) is not the actu­al num­ber of sto­ry points but the con­ver­sa­tion required to deter­mine and agree on them. Esti­mat­ing itself is only one pos­si­ble struc­tured process to lead the con­ver­sa­tion called for by Ron Jef­fries and Alstair Cockburn.

The Path to Objectives

The Objec­tives & Key Results method orig­i­nat­ed in the 1970s under Andy Grove at Intel. How­ev­er, OKR came into vogue when John Doerr intro­duced this type of goal set­ting in 1999 at Google, where it is still used con­sis­tent­ly today. OKRs (like their pre­de­ces­sor, “Man­age­ment by Objec­tives”) help align an orga­ni­za­tion and its employ­ees around com­mon goals. In the case of OKRs, these goals are described by qual­i­ta­tive and ambi­tious objec­tives, each with key results rep­re­sent­ing qual­i­ta­tive indi­ca­tors of progress toward the goal in question.

As with user sto­ries and their esti­mates, OKRs risk being reduced to just this result, i.e., the most coher­ent and com­plete frame­work pos­si­ble with objec­tives for­mu­lat­ed accord­ing to the method. Much more deci­sive, how­ev­er, is the process of joint­ly defin­ing and devel­op­ing the objec­tives and key results at all lev­els. It makes a mas­sive dif­fer­ence whether objec­tives are com­mu­ni­cat­ed and cas­cad­ed in a tra­di­tion­al top-down man­ner or joint­ly devel­oped and agreed upon in an inter­play between top-down and bot­tom-up. In both cas­es, there will ulti­mate­ly be a more or less coher­ent frame­work of goals at the var­i­ous lev­els, but com­mit­ment and own­er­ship will only exist with involve­ment. The jour­ney is the des­ti­na­tion. This is pre­cise­ly why John Doer­r’s orig­i­nal pre­sen­ta­tion at Google 1999 said that at least 60% of the objec­tives have to be bot­tom-up (from this work­shop by Rick Klau):

What oth­er exam­ples of mis­un­der­stand­ings of this kind can you think of? Where else does fix­a­tion on the out­come lead to short­cut­ting the all-impor­tant process of collaboration?

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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