Combine OKR and agile working to supercharge 2022

Objectives and Key Results or OKRs are really popular in all types of companies, especially fast growth tech companies where agile teams are the norm. What is all of the fuss about and why the huge popularity of the frameworks?

The answer is simple, to compete you need to move fast, learn fast and keep delivering value to customers. This means companies and teams need to:

  • Let the power of conversation help us prioritize what needs to be done
  • Have frequent conversations to re-align and solve issues as you go
  • Make work and results visible
  • Create forums for learning 

Agile work practices focus on output. For lots of agile teams this means the completion of a unit of work in short time blocks using methods like SCRUM. Kanban is another popular agile technique as well.

The outcomes that tell you whether your outputs made a difference can be expressed as OKRs and are what is keeping score. So OKRs describe the outcomes that would mean that the work done over a period of time had an impact. You can read more about the difference between outcomes and outputs here.

This idea of making and having a visible impact and change is one of the five learnings of the Google study into what makes a high performing team exactly that, high performing.

Interestingly the other learnings from the study also align with both OKR and agile working best practices. For example, Psychological Safety being the most significant driver of performance. The availability to share, take risks, be heard, and learn from mistakes is central to agile team culture. Goal, role and plan clarity in the same way is central to what OKRs are trying to achieve. 

Making both goals and execution visible

When OKRs, the measurable outcomes they capture, and the work being managed using your preferred agile methodology are connected and made visible across an organization, not just in a team, the outcome can also be transformational.

Silos can be broken down, cross functional alignment can be optimized, priorities can be discussed, set and acted upon. Suddenly, not everything is a priority and there is often a notable release of pressure in the system that comes with having the ‘right’ conversations and putting less important things down.

Becoming FASTer with OKRs

But surely all organizations set goals more often than annually because shorter goal cycles are obviously better, and surely all teams make their goals transparent because silos and obscured goals are a terrible idea. 

Unfortunately goal setting for most needs to evolve away from budgets, SMART and KPI based goal setting towards a FAST (Frequently Discussed, Ambitious, Specific Measurements, and Transparent) which is essentially what OKRs create with the added benefit of alignment being visible as they also have the ability to be linked in Parent / Child relationships, which is sometimes called a cascade.

OKRs & Agile Example

What does this look like in practice? Let’s imagine a product engineering team that has a challenge and opportunity to improve a SaaS product’s trial to customer conversion rate. The OKR might read something like this:

Help turn more trials to customers

Increase trial to customer conversions from 6% to 15%

Although it’s common to have 2 – 4 Key Results there are no rules on this so this OKR example is totally fine by the way.

There’s also a paradox at play here. Deliberate ambition or stretch also means that 15% is not the only desirable outcome. 10% would be alright as well. It’s what ambition triggers is what is needed. Ambition triggers better collaboration, enhanced learning and innovation.

When faced with this OKR the Product and Engineering Team can do what they do brilliantly – execute in sprints to start moving progress along.

Now let’s imagine that at the end of the quarter progress was showing that the conversion rate is 9%. An OKR retrospective can happen, success be retrospectively graded as ‘good progress was made’ not we missed the goal! Learning can be captured and a decision can be made as to whether to continue this OKR into the next quarter or work towards another OKR on the backlog – OKRs could also have a backlog.

There’s only good to be found here

The synergy between OKRs and agile are obviously easy to see. Whether you work this way across the whole organization of just the more agile orientated teams is up to you but the wider you push this the better as there is a huge set of performance benefits to be accessed. So if you’re not using OKR with agile working yet I’d recommend you check them out.

Author: Editorial Team

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