New online tutorial: User Stories

This blog and my email updates have been quiet lately because I’ve been working on some online tutorial (in addition to working with clients!).

These tutorials differ from my earlier work in that they are autonomous, self-paced, async – I’m not there! – truly online.

Just my voice, my slides, my exercises and my wisdom.

At the moment there are two tutorial, “User Stories by Example” part 1 – an introduction and part 2 which looks specifically at acceptance criteria. Both use actual user stories I’ve collected over the years and both are derived from the online interactive workshops I ran during lockdown last year. Those workshops were themselves based on a physical workshop I’ve been running for several years, which in turn is based on my Little Book of Requirements and User Stories book.

I have plans for more tutorials covering user story refactoring stories (i.e. improving existing stories), story lifecycle and workflow, splitting stories and appreciating value. First I’ll wait for more feedback on these first two.

I’ve set introductory pricing at $59 and $49 (USD) but I expect those prices to rise as I add more modules. Part includes both the e-book and audio book version of Little Book.

Blog readers can get another 20% off with the coupon code “blogdiscount” until the end of July.

I’d love to get your feedback on these course so if you try one please complete the survey at the end and e-mail me if you have other comments. And if these courses are not for you, well, please e-mail me anyway and tell me what you would like to see me produce next.

Cascading OKRs and White Space OKRs

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the top-down or bottom-up question – “OKRs top-down? bottom-up? or ripples on a pond?”

The idea of top-down OKRs keeps cropping up: it needs a name. So please let me introduce Cascading OKRs, or C-OKRs for short.

I only just invented the term so I don’t use it in Succeeding with OKRs in Agile – although I do warn against the idea. The meme is in books and blogs I’ve read, in podcasts I’ve heard and it comes up again and again in Q&A sessions when I do presentations.

The Cascading OKRs idea goes like this: the people at the top of the organisation set OKRs. These are shared with people and teams “below” them. Those teams then write OKRs to support the delivery of the those above them. Their OKRs are in turn shared with “lower” individuals and teams who repeat the processes.

I’ve even heard it suggested that teams take the OKRs from above and use the key results as their objective(s). The key results they create around these objectives can then be used by “lower” teams as their objectives. Hence OKRs cascade down the organisation. (And we all know what Cascades look like don’t we?)

Undoubtedly this interpretation has its own logic – both in the top setting the master OKRs and the lower levels implementing them. It is after all functional decomposition. And I must believe from what I hear that some companies do it this way even if I have never seen it myself. One hopes that it works for these companies, I think it can be better.

C-OKRs are incompatible with the agile mindset because it deprives teams of autonomy. Each team must implement the objectives given to them regardless of what the team believes, regardless of what the team’s customers are asking for, irrespective of the research the product owner/manager has done.

In reducing, even eliminating, autonomy motivation is going to fall too, teams are no longer their own masters.

Nor will this way increase agility because each team must move in lockstep – or perhaps one step behind – the team above them. The cascading hierarchy injects delay.

Cascading OKRs may be easy to grasp, they may be easy to sell, they may follow the logic of hierarchy and management-by-objective but that also means they represent a lost opportunity to integrate OKRs and agile.

Having named Cascading OKRs I need to name the alternative: broadly the approach I advocate in Succeeding with OKRs.

I name this approach White Space OKRs, WS-OKRs.

Organisational leaders should set the vision, the big-hairy-audacious-goal, the ultimate objective, the massively transformative purpose. They should name the mission, they should set the culture and talk about the purpose of the organisation.

And they should leave copious amounts of white space – space for teams to fill.

Those visions should be light on how; they should be light on orders, instructions and mandates. That may seem odd but only by leaving these things out – by leaving white space – can individuals and teams, at all levels, decide how best they can support that mission, goal, purpose or whatever you call it. Planning is disabling.

Because teams decide how to support those goals – while supporting existing customers, legacy business and technology, plus other (potentially completing) demands – team retain autonomy, and autonomy creates motivation and flexibility.

There is one more assumption underlying this which deserves mentioning.

White Space OKRs assume that the teams already exist. With WS-OKRs leaders don’t need to create new teams to deliver their goals because those teams already exist. In other words, the organisation is operating a post-projects model, e.g. product teams, continuous digital, Spotify, or maybe SAFe. That raises an issue of gaps and I’ll return to this another day.


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White space photo from Katie Doherty on Unsplash.

Sorry about the OKRs

Quick word of appoogy to regular readers who may not be interested in OKRs: sorry for all the posts about OKRs.

Its probably a natural effect of pubishing a book on the subject and then doing a bunch of presentations, webinars, workshops and Q&A sessions. Give me a few weeks and this will pass. Normal service will be resumed, with thoughts on agile, technology and such – I just don’t know when!

Our brains want more but less is more

Less is more – I say it so often but it is still a lesson I still have to relearn regularly. Go small. You could say that my most famous blog post is saying just the same thing in fancy language – Software has diseconomies of scale – not economies of scale.

So a couple of weeks ago I was fascinated to see an article in The Economist entitled “Why people forget that less is often more” (paywall) reporting on research published in Nature “People systematically overlook subtractive changes” (another paywall) – being Nature one knows this is serious science.

The researched showed that less is more applies mentally as well as physically. That is, people are far more likely to solve problems by adding elements than by subtracting them – even when subtraction is both viable and costs less (some of the experiments introduced the idea of cost.) The researches even go as far as to suggest this isn’t just a case of believing the additive (more) solution is better than the subtractive, it appears our brains are less likely to consider the a solution which subtracts elements to create a solution.

Last year when I was struggling to complete “Succeeding with OKRs in Agile” I found a solution in removing some chapters. Some were little more than notes, some were in draft and a couple were fully written (and edited). Removing those chapters made the book less, but it made my work load less too – which had an immediate benefit.

It also meant I could finish the book sooner. It meant the copy editing process was quicker and cheaper, and it meant that the book could be published on Amazon and start earning for sooner. But I also believe people like shorter books, I really believe that I’m selling more books because it has less than 200 pages than I would if it had over 200, let alone 300.

This has a bearing on the way companies organise themselves and their processes too. When I first started talking about #NoProjects (which became Project Myopia) I really saw this as a “just remove the project model” – keep doing all the other stuff but just drop projects. Part of me still believes that and while I recognise that some places need more structure I also believe that adding projects is simply overhead for many small companies.

I see it too in the “fear of coding” that many companies have – don’t let people code! Plan it, write it down, estimate it, find the cheapest supplier, argue about it – when simply doing it would be cheaper.

I see it too in the way “agile methods” have grown. Scrum, and XP, are barely viable development models. Compared to RUP they are miniscule. But they worked. Before agile we called them “lightweight”.

Now we have SAFe and other frameworks which bring big thinking back. Nobody would call SAFe lightweight – not with its 10 principles, four configurations and five versions. Perhaps we should have stuck with “lightweight development methods.”

I think it was Alistair Cockburn who once said “Traditional methods are tailored by removing elements, agile methods are tailored by adding.” If the research above is right it was only a matter of time before someone created an “agile method” as big as SAFe.

Finally, another example of less is more: I could write more in this blog but less is more.


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OKRs top-down? bottom-up? or ripples in a pond?

One of the great things about writing a book is that you get a greater understanding of the subject. So it was with “Succeeding with OKRs in Agile”. In particular writing the book forced me to think about how OKRs fitted with agile and hierarchal structures. I get the impression that many people are interested in using OKRs to align teams but not everyone has worked out all the nuances.

On the face of it OKRs are hierarchal: it seems “obvious” that someone, somewhere, is going to set a big goal, that goal will cascade down and every team will end up with their own mini version of the goal. As I said, this seems obvious, how else could it be? Especially in a large organization?

After all, is that how the not so distant ancestors of OKRs, Management-By-Objectives (MBOs), worked.

This also fits the engineer’s mind: the product team have a goal, and all the supporting teams – whether contributing components or services – make their goals subservient to the one goal. The classic inverted tree with each team doing what the node above asks.

But, top-down conflicts directly with reality and with agile. Teams don’t have one goal, they don’t answer to but one leader but to multiple leaders, multiple customers, multiple stakeholders and these don’t always agree. Agile folk have long railed against command-and-control from above while advocating self-managing or self-organising teams. Surely OKRs go against this philosophy?

So, if we are to use OKRs in an agile environment these positions need to be reconciled. In Succeeding with OKRs I described the process as more bottom-up than top-down. Thus, rather than a big boss saying what should happen and that being cascaded down the origanization to provide goals at every level, I describer the big boss setting out a vision, a goal, an objective but not describing details. Then they say to the teams: “Help, how can you help more us towards that goal?”

Now, only a few months after I wrote that my thinking has moved on. I don’t disagree with myself but I see the need for a more nuanced explanation and a revised model.

First off, I’m guilty of using the language of hierarchy: top-down and bottom-up. In so doing I’m supporting the view that hierarchies are the natural state of things and creating a, possibly false dichotomy: one thing or another. For years I’ve been thinking of organisations both as federal entities and as solar systems. While the leadership team may be central to decisions they are not all powerful . Teams have their own paths, leadership and leadership teams are the sun and teams/divisions orbit them. (If I recall correctly I picked this idea up in the Henry Mintzberg book Simply Managing.)

Bear in mind, as I say in everyone of my books: team are autonomous. We stive for independent teams with devolved authority. Each team exists to deliver a product or service and each team has multiple stakeholders – of whom the big boss is but one. Each team therefore has to decide how best to deliver benefit to (potentially competing) stakeholders. Sometimes that means co-ordinating with other teams and even other companies.

Put that together: teams are creating OKRs but they are not doing it in isolation, they are listening to the big bosses at the centre but also the teams they need to work with.

Recently I’ve started to think of these concentric circles less as planetary orbits and more as waves, or ripples to be precise. The big boss at the centre makes big ripples that carry out to the edges.

But leaders are not the only ripple makers. Teams, customers and other stakeholders also have an effect – like rain falling on water. Sometimes these waves some together and magnify each other, other times they cancel each other out, more often than-not they are out of sync and disrupt each other in ways too complex to predictable.

We think of leaders as single water droplets but inreality there are lots of drops making lots of ripples

OKRs are the messaging system that allows teams to signal what ripples they are creating and which they are reacting to. Teams are iterating – OKRs reset every 13 weeks – which means every quarter teams get a chance to react to other ripples and rest their own.

Thought of like this you also get a scaling model. Not so much a model of “how to do this to scale” but a mental model which describes how to think about scaling.


I have some upcoming presentations and webinars about OKRs if you would like to know more

Or, buy the book “Succeeding with OKRs in Agile”


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Presentation & speaking engagements

Agile on the beach

The attention Succeeding with OKRs in Agile has got means I’ve had a lot of invites to speak about, well, Agile and OKRs. So I am at a number of meetup groups and conferences, and odd conversation, over the next few weeks, most of which are free to attend online.

An up to date list of public speaking engagements can always be found on my website. In addition to public speaking I regularly deliver private presentations too. So please get in touch and book a date your team or company.


Reawakening Agile with OKRs

When: 6 May, 5.30pm Sydney, 8.30am London

Online presentation

Organized by SAFe Sydney, free, booking required


Reawakening Agile with OKRs

When: 11 May 2021, online presentation

Organized by BCS Change Management group – booking required (free to attend)


Succeeding with OKRs

An online conversation with Adrian Reed, 20 May 2021.

Organiser and booking with BlackMetric


Reawakening Agile with OKRs

When: 27 May, online presentation

Organized by Cambridge Agile Exchange, free, booking required


Reawakening Agile with OKRs

When: 30 June 2021, online presentation

Organized by Future of Work in Scotland, booking required


Allan Kelly at Agile on the Beach
Allan Kelly at Agile on the Beach

Reawakening Agile with OKRs at Agile on the Beach conference

First live, in person, event since March 2020 – with beach party!

Sept 2, 2021, tickets on sale now

Developer becoming a product owner/product manager?

Product Owner choosing postits

A few weeks back I had an e-mail exchange with a blog reader about the product owner role which I think other readers might be interested in, it is a question that comes up regularly with clients. In this context the product owner is a product manager (regular readers know I consider product manager to be a subset of product owner).

Reader: This makes me think that the [product owner/manager] role is indeed super hard. Do you have a view on hiring versus training internally?

I’ve had great success with moving people from development into product owner/manager roles – I did it myself once upon a time. And I remember one developer who’s face lit up when I asked if he would like to move to a product role. A few years later – and several companies on – I got an e-mail from him to say how his career had flourished.

When to many the move looks obvious it is actually far harder than it looks and there are pitfalls.

The key thing is: the individual needs to leave their past life behind. Changing from developer to product owner/manager is changing your identity, it is hard.

The mistake that I see again and again is that the individuals – sometimes encouraged by those around them – continue to wear a developer hat. This means they don’t step into their new identity. They spread themselves thinly between two roles and their opinion divided. They seem themselves as capable of everything rather than specialist in one so don’t devote the time to both learn their new role and mentally change their perspective.

Imagine a hybrid developer/product manager comes back from lunch and has three or four hours spare – of course this never happens but just run with this thought experiment. Are they best: (a) pulling the highest priority item from the backlog and getting it done, or, (b) reviewing the latest customer interviews, site metrics, and perhaps picking up the phone and calling an existing customer?

Coding up a story clearly adds value, it reduces the backlog and enhances the product directly. Picking up the phone and analysing data may not have an immediate effect or enhance the product today, the payoff will come over weeks and months as better decisions are made and customers served better.

Product owners/managers need to empathise with customers and potential customers, they need to feel the pain of the business and see the opportunities in the market. Skilled coders feel the code, they hear it asking to be refactored; they dream about enhancing it in place; they worry about weaknesses, the places were coupling is too high and tests too few. In short, coders empathise with the code.

It is good that product people empathise with customers and coders with the code. But what happens when those things come into conflict? The code is crying out for a refactoring and customers demanding a feature? Ultimately it will be a judgement call – although both side may believe the answer is obvious.

If the code is represented by one person and the customer by another then they can have a discussion, balance priorities and options. If you ask on person to fill both roles then they need to have an argument with themselves, this is not good for their mental health or the final decision.

These problems are especially acute when the developer in question is either very experienced or very good – or both. They come to represent the product and champion it. But that makes the balancing act even more difficult. It also means that those understand when a No is a no because there is no business justification and when No is no because the code is a mess.

Hence I want the roles of developer and product specialist kept separate.

In a small company, say, less than 10 people, it can be hard to avoid this situation. And when the product is new technology or and API it is often difficult to disentangle “what the customer will pay for” from “what the technology can do” but those traps make it more important that a company addresses this when it grows.

So my advice is simple: the key thing is that the individual changing roles needs to put coding behind them – and step away from the keyboard. I know that seems hard but to fill the product owner/manager role properly one has to live it.

I usually recommend the person in question away for training. And I do mean away (lets hope we can travel again soon!). The person changing roles needs to immerse themselves in their new life. Sitting in a classroom with others helps make the psychological switch.

When I did it – with Pragmatic Marketing (now Pragmatic Institute) – the training was difficult to get in Europe so I went to the USA which added to the experience. Product manager culture is more developed in the USA than elsewhere – and even more developed on the West Coast simply because it has been there longer.

Going somewhere different and immersing yourself in a new culture and new ideas is a great way of breaking with your past and creating a new identity for yourself.


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OKRs in Agile infographic

I am indebted to Yoan Thirion for created this infographic to illustrate Succeeding with OKRs in Agile. He’s done a brilliant job on both the graphics and the summary – undoubtedly better graphics than I could have done and probably a better summary than I would too, sometimes one can be too close to a thing.


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What is it with Business Agility?

Top of my Slack channels is the Business Agility Institute, just below that is the old #NoProjects slack that sometimes comes to life. Recently someone on #NoProjects asked:

Q: What do you guys think about Business Agility?

My reply: Business Agility, bit like apple pie, how can one not be in favour?

Of course, what flavour of business agility is another question. Lots of people seem to use the words “business agility” but I’m not sure there is a consensus on exactly what it is. I am a member, and supporter, of the Business Agility Institute which was founded by Evan Leybourn who also published a NoProjects book.

Evan and I were in regular communication while we were writing our books, we both saw the flaws in the project model and both arrived at the conclusion that as the business world digitalises business is never done therefore technology is never done. In essence that is the genesis of Continous Digital. While I wrote a book on the subject Evan founded the Business Agility Institute.

Q: So whats your take or how you think business agility is different from no-projects? is people just rebranding stuff to BA now?

My reply: Business Agility is good, it makes sense to go “up” from software to the business. Now look at the things you might want from Business Agility:

▪ Quick to market

▪ Fast to deliver

▪ Responsive to customers

▪ Reactive to trends and changes

▪ Efficient/effective

▪ … add your own here…

Isn’t that what any business wants? Whether you call it Business Agility or not? – these are apple pie things, hard to argue against and if you read (almost) any management textbook in the last 30 years they say the same things.

These aren’t #NoProjects, that is a very specific critique of the project model. Some people may have believed that projects facilitated those things, however what #NoProjects says is: the model is flawed, if you want those things you need to find another way. For me that other way is Continous Digital, which is why my presentations talk of #NoProjects evolution: it is not enough to say “projects don’t work”, one needs to suggest an alternative.

So how is Business Agility different?

First off: even if the things Business Agility offers aren’t new the rise of Business Agility is a new opportunity to push an agenda which is good, sometimes things need to be “rebranded” as new to get attention. Should’t be but there you are.

Second, the methods have changed: two forces at work here, Digital and “Millennials”

Digital tools – driven by Moore’s Law and the falling price of CPU power – have changed the way business works, it means that the things executives often want to avoid, software development, is now the power house of your business.

Hence, “the business is the technology and the technology is the business.” Think Uber: how do you separate Uber’s technology from Uber the taxi company?

This is why I have take to saying “IT is dead, IT’s Digital”. Information technology in business is no longer a cost centre, it is no longer “just” and enabler for business services, Digital means it is the business, it is were innovation happens and it is a driver of revenue and profitability.

That also means “Agile Methods” (a la software engineering) come into focus because a) you need to create software and b) as digital tools permeate every aspect of business life agile becomes more applicable.

Agile methods are the processes that maximised the benefits of digital tools. Agile started with software engineers (and friends) because they had early access to digital tools (email, IM, VOIP, web, wiki, etc.) and are able to create “missing” tools

Millennials: those born about 2000 are said to want more meaning, purpose and autonomy in their work. Personally I’ve always wanted these things and I think everyone does. Whether I am right or not this is a trend which has been running for a while, millennials exhibit this most clearly. (Plus the pandemic adds to this)

This too fits with agile because agile methods recognise the people aspect, people in agile are not plug compatible (although we do encourage a more team based approach.). Agile considers motivation and recognise those doing the work as experts in their own right – are better at addressing that need.

Hence, and a point I’m making in my “Reawakening Agile with OKRs” presentation which I’m delivering this year, we need to think more about purpose driven development – PDD. Our software needs purpose so our people have purpose.

Ultimately, while business agility might not be anything new there is a greater need for it.


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OKRs in Agile Q&A part 2: The Backlog

Continuing from my last post and more questions arising from my Reawakening Agile with OKRs talk.

In my OKR book I advice teams to forget about the backlog and instead use the OKRs as a story generating machine. As I expected, this grabs people’s attention. For many this might be the most surprising piece of advice in the boo, and perhaps the most controversial.

So it is hardly surprising that there were several questions around this:

Q1: If the backlog isn€™t a reflection of what we need to do in order to move towards our vision what is it for?

Exactly. If the backlog does not reflect your vision then what is the point of a backlog?

First off, if the backlog is aligned with your vision, and things are working well then why change? Certainly don’t add OKRs unless they are addressing a problem, and when you add OKRs see if there is anything else you can remove. If OKRs are simply repackaging the backlog then why both? Why add to the tools and processes in use?

For a few fortunate teams that is indeed the case. However, for many teams the backlog also contains a multitude of work which is not part of the vision and requested fixes. The backlog long ago became a dumping ground for requests.

Yet removing work from the backlog becomes hard. Product Owners feels they lack the authority or confidence to actually say “No, we will not do that.” At the same time the teams performance is judged by “how much backlog” gets done. Success or failure come down to “is the backlog done?” Thus the backlog comes into conflict with the OKRs.

In the book I introduce Jeff Bezo’s “Day 1” approach where company works as if today is the first day and questions what they are doing. OKR setting needs to be a day-1 experience.

Q2: Backlog needs reviewing to align with OKRs, surely?

That is one approach, set the OKRs and then before or during every planning meeting comb through the backlog and find work which will move you towards the OKR. That will work if you have a few dozen items in the backlog but what if you have a thousand or more? What if the backlog has been passed down from a previous product owner or a requirements document? In both cases that work will be harder.

The bigger problem is: what if you think of something that is not in the backlog and will move you towards the OKRs?

Do you say No?
I expect not, I expect you will quickly write it, slip it into the backlog and say “look what I just found”

Now the backlog is a collection of ideas which might, or might not, help achieve the OKRs but which you might not do.

At which point, what is the point? Why not just brainstorm what you can do?

Q3: Isn’t OKR then a guidance to create Backlog? or prioritize it?

Create a backlog, yes, the OKR is guidance to create a backlog – its a story generating machine. So what is the point of having 500 stories which describe work not related to the current OKRs? Will not get done anytime soon? And likely will never be done? But which confuse the governance process and drawn everyones morale because “we still have 500 PBIs to do.”

Once you have your OKRs then there is little point in creating any more backlog then you will do in the next three months. You may generate 12 months of work but since OKRs are reset every three months the chances are three quarters of those stories will be thrown away.

So every quarter reset the backlog and start over. That is pretty much what I’m advocating.

Prioritizing the backlog, see Q2 above.

Q4: How have you approached the removal of backlogs? small experiment?
Q5: Have you done this in real life? How did you persuade people?

OK, you found me out, we didn’t actually throw the backlog away. There was some history in there which was useful and more importantly it would have drawn too much attention to the team. Instead we just ignored it.

This started as a small experiment between me – as Agile Coach – and the Product Owner: we just opted to ignore it.

We set the OKRs based on current priorities and strategy. Then in the planning meetings if we knew of a story in the backlog we pulled it up. But actually, this turned out to be more work than it was worth. Plus, by challenging the team we got better answers and more involvement.

It didn’t take long before the team noticed what was happening but I don’t think they minded much. Again they might say “O I know there is a story in there to do…” but more generally we just wrote new stories there and then: the OKRs were a story generating machine.

In the book I describe a further experiment I ran with another coach, as a result she came to the same conclusion: OKRs before backlog. While we shared this with other coaches – and indeed anyone who wanted to talk about it – we didn’t make a big fuss or publicise it. I’m doing that now.

Succeeding with OKRs in Agile

I see this approach as the logical conclusion of working with OKRs so I don’t think you need to make a fuss. You can just do it and I expect more teams to reach this conclusion. Except of course, those backlog-slaves who are labouring under corporate agile to burn-down the backlog!

Succeeding with OKRs in Agile is available in print or ebook format from Amazon now, an audio version will be out in the next few weeks. I will be repeating Reawakening Agile for Agile Newbury next month and discussing OKRs with Adrian Reed in May.


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