Why and how OKRs works for us!

I’ve tried to implement the OKR framework on three different occasions, and just finally got it right. Looking back at my other attempts, it is crystal clear what we got wrong before and correct this time.

The pillars of OKR (and Scrum)

OKRs are a simple way to create strategic alignment inside an organization. Simply defined, the “Objective & Key Results” framework helps you to define yearly goals, align quarterly objectives and track all their outcomes.

How does OKRs work?

OKR could be defined as an Agile practice as it relies heavily on the values of transparency, inspection and adaptation. It is very simple to understand and extremely difficult to master, and in many regards share similarities with Scrum. It also finds its home as a Management 3.0 practice.

Just like Scrum, the OKR framework is based on an iterative and incremental approach with a fixed time cycle, typical a quartal, and where each cycle’s outcome builds on each other in order to reach a yearly goal. Just like Scrum, at the end of each cycle, you review the progress toward the objectives you’ve set yourself and finally you inspect and adapt the whole process in order to become better at it.

The OKR Process

Your Objectives are derived from your company vision, mission and yearly goals. The Key Results are concrete, specific and measurable actions defined toward an Objective and describe how you want to achieve it. They are typically measured on a percentage scale, where 70% is a total success. This encourages the organization to overachieve their key results and derivatively to overachieve the attached objective.

The main differences between the OKR framework and something like Management is Objectives are the strong emphasis on cycles and the fuzzy natures of the Key Results. When an objective is not reached, what matters is how to do better next cycle, and not who is to blame.

Why we tried OKRs?

At XITASO GmbH, we started experimenting with OKRs at the end of 2019, when it became clear that we needed extra alignment between our Communities of Practices.

Each of them has the ultimate goal to share and spread knowledge on a defined topic, such as Frontend Technologies, Sales Best Practices or Agile Methodologies. They work great, but as our organization grew, we noticed that each CoP’s efforts were taking different directions: Some were writing internal guidelines, some were going on events and some were mainly writing blogs posts.

To make sure that their efforts were adding up to our organizations yearly and long-term goals, we needed to create a strategic alignment between the CoPs. The OKRs framework seemed like a perfect fit so we started experimenting with it.

“Being Speaker at X events” was one of our Agile Community’s OKR

Why it worked for us!

After running the framework for three cycles, I can now say that it really does work for us. We noticed that the objectives of each Community are getting somewhat similar, while their key results were diverging quite a bit. It shows us an alignment on the “Why” and “How” parts of our strategy, as well as a full ownership of the “What”. Compared with my previous experimentations with the OKR Framework, there is some important learnings that I can extract:

1- Avoid interdependency!

A tool is just as good as its use case: you wouldn’t use a hammer to screw. Although you could technically do it, your success rate wouldn’t be really high. The same goes with OKR: This is a framework to manage strategic alignment between independent units based on measurable outcomes. You could use it for managing interdependent or component teams, but this would open the door to circular key results dependencies, excuses and ultimately failure.

2- Strategy =/= your daily job!

What could happen when a Team set themselves the objective to actually do their job? They will most likely do their job, no more and no less, and that’s a huge issue! The fuzzy nature of the Key Results is here to allow teams to over-achieve their objectives by going out of their typical way; and it should never be a description of their daily tasks. OKRs should help you to align and improve your whole organization, not to aim and inevitably repeat the Status Quo.

3- Inspect AND Adapt!

Talking about improving, here is the most important piece of advice I have: don’t forget to learn! An organization is not likely to ace the OKR framework from the get-go which is why iterations lie at the heart of it. Fully utilize the Alignment, Review and Retro events to check how you are using OKRs. Cycle after cycle, you should gather feedback, inspect the process and plan how to get better at running it. Then make sure that the improvements are discussed, agreed upon and implemented. The key phrase is “inspect AND adapt”, not only of them.

That’s all folks! I hope this will be useful to your implementation of the OKR framework. Please note that we are still learning and experimenting with the OKR framework, so share your thoughts and ideas with us.

Baptiste.

I’m an Agile Coach that wants to inspire you to seek happiness in your work and your life, by changing the way we do stuff.