Key results should be verbs, not nouns

Posted on March 20, 2023.
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On a podcast recording earlier this week I was asked to describe what makes OKRs different. I naturally reached for my outcomes vs outputs conversation when a clarifying thought popped into my head: outputs are nouns, outcomes are verbs. Your key results should always be verbs. 

It makes grammatical sense

If our objective is qualitative and aspirational then the natural next question is, “How will we know we have achieved it?” Answering that question with a noun generally doesn’t make grammatical sense. Answering it with a verb does. Here’s an example:

Objective: Become the #1 online retailer of furniture in the United States by the end of 2023. 

Key Result as a noun: mobile app

Key result as a verb: increase customer revenue spent via the mobile app by 50%

Grammatically the noun just doesn’t fit as a good answer to the question. The verb-focused sentence does make sense. 

If you refine the focusing question a bit more to, “What will people be doing differently if we achieve the objective?” nouns make even less syntactical sense. It’s nearly impossible to answer this question with a noun. Verbs are action words. We want our key results to be action-oriented, measures of human behaviors. 

But what if…

Are there exceptions to this? Sure. You could break this rule with a key result written as, “deploy the mobile app.” There’s a verb in there, you’d tell me. It breaks your rule, you’d protest. And technically you’d be right. But “deploy the mobile app” is identical in activity to “mobile app.” It’s an output. My next question to you will always be the one above, “What will people do differently once we’ve deployed it?” 

Keep the spirit of this rule in mind as you write your key results. Is my key result action-oriented? Does it describe something a human does? Can I use a verb for it? If the answers are yes, you’re on the right track.