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

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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

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Developer becoming a product owner/product manager?

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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 infrographic

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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?

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

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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OKRs in Agile Q&A (part 1)

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I’m doing a lot of talks about Succeeding with OKRs in Agile at the moment. Last Tuesday spoke to Digital Transformation in London and Lean Agile Coaching London groups (a joint Meetup). At the end there were a lot of questions and I didn’t get to answer them all – in fact more have come in on mail and twitter since. I’ll try and answer them here, but there are so many questions I need to split this post in two.

If you missed the presentation the slides are online and there is a recording on YouTube. Alternatively I’ll be presenting again at Agile Newbury in April and the Craft Conference in May.

Q: You said “the companies which make the most profits don’t aim to maximise profits.” Do you have any references for that?

A: I’ve heard this argued several times, although its not a clear cut case because you can’t do an experiment and profit isn’t always the best measure of commercial success. You might look at share price, or earning per share or several other measures.

The most recent – and probably the best – evidence I’ve seen is from Alex Edmunds in his book Grow the Pie. Edmunds argues that profits are but one part of the value created by companies, those who focuses exclusively on profits neglect the other parts, society looses out, and profits are less than they could have been.

The good news is Edmunds presents lots of evidence, and counter evidence. The bad news is: that can make for a lot of reading – sometimes dry.

John Kay in Obliquity makes a similar point in a more readable book but one that lacks so much hard research. Another book worth reading on the subject of profits and value is Mariana Mazzucato, The Value of Everything.

Q: Where I’ve seen companies use OKRs they are set by the people at the top and passed down the organisation. Surely letting teams set their own OKRs would loose alignment?

Yes, I get the impression that this is what many companies do. But to my mind that is little more than a re-invention of MBOs (management by objective) and ignores agile. Agile demands that teams be given real responsibility and authority.

As for alignment I would rather the organisation put its efforts into removing the need to align, removing dependencies and building independent, autonomous teams. (I’ve written about Amoeba teams and the MVT model before.)

This is not to say alignment isn’t important but it is secondary. First you want teams which are delivering benefit, when you have that you can seek to optimise them.

Succeeding with OKRs in Agile

Q: How do OKRs work in organisations with large numbers of teams who need to resolve competing visions and priorities but who depend on each other?

Q: To what extent should OKR’s be negotiated – either between teams (where Team A is dependent on the output of Team B); or between senior management and Teams?

OKRs aren’t a silver bullet. Yes OKRs can help, because OKRs define an API to the team you can tell others what to expect. Better still, you – or your product owner – can consult and negotiate with those other teams and find out what they need.

The ultimate answer is not better co-ordination or even communication, it is removing those dependencies, making teams more independent. Conflicting OKRs will highlight those problems but aligning those OKRs will never be a complete solution.

What you absolutely must avoid is having one person, or a small cadre of people, decide what each group needs and issuing OKRs to others to fulfil it. That destroys team independence, the aim here – in agile, in the twenty first century, in digital business – is independence.

Some people talk about these ideas under the title “Descaling the corporation.” This about increasing team coherence and reducing coupling. Corporation need to reduce the connections and dependencies.

Q: How granular should OKRs be (in terms of departments), e.g. should you have separate OKRs for Product and Customer Success? Even though they are both partially responsible for renewals?

I’d have to look at the context here but in general I would rather remove that distinction between those departments. Your aim is “customer renewals”, the question is “what can we do to increase renewals?” – maybe that is best achieved through a product enhancement, maybe through helping customers succeed or maybe though something else. Don’t just span boundaries, rethink them. Start with the outcome and work back rather than starting with your own structure.

Q: How to start to introduce OKRs in corporate environment?

Q: What can be a first step with OKRs in deeply traditional company?

As always start small, run an experiment. However, there is a difference to agile. My approach to agile has always been very much “just do it.” There are lots of agile practices and you as an individual can just start adopting them, in time you can involve other people . Its far easier to introduce agile bottom-up than top-down.

But with OKRs things are a little different because OKRs are a team level tool. So right from the start you need to take your team with you. Second, because OKRs represent a communications interface – a team API if you like – and because Agile OKRs require respect for team autonomy you need someone a little higher up to support the move. That someone should be able to provide “air cover” for your experiment.

Once you have those positions in place then just try it, run an experiment for a quarter or two. Hopefully you will be able to see success which can propel you further and help enrol others.

One technique I’ve used before it a book study group: gather some people who are interested in learning and improving. Choose a book – my OKR book being the obvious choice! – and meet (lunch time if you want) every two weeks. Work through the book together, discuss every chapter.

I don’t think that prescription changes if the company is “deeply traditional” – although I expect the journey will be harder, you may have more trouble recruiting companions or securing air-cover.

Q: How do you deal with resistance of change in organisations?

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet. I feel introducing any change is often an exercise in throwing mud at a wall, or even banging your head on the wall. The level of personal perseverance can be very high, make sure you celebrate every win no matter how small.

Perhaps the best advice I’ve ever heard comes from the head of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, she was asked a similar question in a Financial Times interview last year: “The mistake we often make is to try to zero in on the naysayers and try to convince them, rather than empower and excite the agents of positive change and just ignore the noise.”

Q: How much would you like SMART kind of goals comparing to OKRs?

Most of SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relative and time-bound – works, although more at the key results level than the objectives level. I would take issue with the A though – achievable or attainable depending on your preference.

Really you want goals which are a bit more than you think you can do. Otherwise you get a problem that economists call satisficing: people aim low, they play it safe as a result the whole exercise becomes a game play.

Now each organisation needs to make a call on what level of balance they expect. Google apparently only expect 70% of OKRs to be achieved, they lean towards more risk, less predictability and more misses.

I do think it is important that leaders stand up and say very clearly what they expect from teams using OKRs. Is the company challenging teams to do their best and accept some failures will occur? Or does the company value predicability and accept some slack in the system? Both are valid choices.

Q: How do you come up with the hypothesis of the Key Results?

Good question, and it is not one confined to OKRs. I’m going to duck the question and suggest you read Barry O’Reilly on Hypothesis Driven Development.

Q: It sounds like you view OKRs as a “root and branch” replacement – its all or nothing?

Maybe. Hopefully.

No, I think you can add OKRs to an existing agile system – that is what I was part of originally. But, once you start working with OKRs and once you start following the logic of OKRs, that is where you end up.

I’ve arrived at a point where I hope OKRs are the basis for a big change in the way we do agile. As I said at the start, many companies do a form of “corporate agile” which lacks the high aims that many of us who dreamed of when doing agile in the first decade of the millennium.

Q: Why do you think the corporate agile virus exists and what is the cure for it?

I could give you a dozen reasons and the truth will still be something different. Let us be clear, corporate agile is better than what went before but it falls far far short of what we dreamed about at the start of the millennium. Right now the biggest problem is probably scaling, companies want a high R-value but in chasing agile working they are getting teams with a very low E-value (effectiveness.)

The cure is the one true test of agile, ask the question: Are we still working the same way we were three months ago?

If you are (the same) then you are not agile. Agile is about learning and changing, hopefully for the better but there will be some backwards steps. Learning creates change and change creates learning – experiments help. Keep learning, keep trying new things, keep changing.

Q: How is this different from the OKR we apply to Strategic themes in Lean Portfolio Management?

I’m not familiar with Lean Portfolio Management so I can’t really comment. Quite possibly it is an alternative implementation of the same ideas.

Q: What if a company has Vision & Mission, and KPIs (company wide, squad wide). should we implement OKRs also?

First: are those things giving you what you want? If so then leave well alone! You could conduct an experiment with OKRs, take a couple of teams, relaxed the other metrics and let them run with OKRs for a year then look at the results.

I don’t know how exactly you are using vision and mission but I would assume you retain them. OKRs are about delivering, in the next three months, progress against your missions which themselves build towards your vision. They should all be expressing your purpose in different words over different periods.

KPIs is more tricky.

To my mind KPIs are a measuring tool, they are a way of saying “We are 1.4 meters high.” In that sense they are compatible with OKRs because you would just have an OKR to advance an KPI, “Objective: increase KPI to 1.8m.”

However, if you are using KPIs as targets things are different. They are overlapping with OKRs, in which case use one or the other.

More worryingly you might hit Goodhart’s Law, goal displacement or satisficing. These are problems I discuss in the book in-relation to OKRs but they are not confined to OKRs.

Finally, mission, vision and KPI already sounds like a lot of competing techniques, if you are going to add OKRs please look again at how you manage “objectives” (in the broadest sense). You may have too many mechanisms. If you are adding OKRs be ready to remove something.

Q: What would you say is the biggest regret / challenge in Succeeding with OKRs in Agile? Something you wish you could have done differently?

Half of me wishes the book was smaller: I believe people are more likely to read (and buy!) smaller books. In terms of getting this message out there I think smaller is better.

The other half of me wishes the book was longer: there is more I have to say, some chapters were left “on the cutting room floor”. So there may be a sequel with these and some new chapters. Plus, a rewrite of a few chapters were I think the message could be reduced and made clearer.

Q: What is / will be the #-tag for these better smarter corporate agile virus enhancing OKR?

Ha ha, I was burned by #NoProjects, it made me famous but I still have the burn scars. So I am absolutely no going to say #NoBacklogs – although you could read that into some of my work.

Increasingly I think Agile needs to lay claim to bottom-up OKRs, not the MBO-lke top-down OKRs which I see some adopting and even hear being advocated. So maybe #AgileOKRs.


Succeeding with OKRs in Agile is available now in print and e-book versions from Amazon.

Audio book coming soon


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Purpose over Backlog

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

Backlogs are a good idea. Backlogs ease the transition from the old “requirements up front” world to the new more dynamic agile world. Backlogs provide a compatibility layer for agile teams to interface to more traditional project management and governance. Backlogs even allow you to take a stab at done date!

Backlogs allow you to even out work between the quiet periods and the busy times. Backlogs give you a place to store good ideas which you can’t do just now. And because stakeholders can see their request is not forgotten they don’t need to shout for it today.

Yes backlogs are good. I’ve seen them work well myself and I’ve taught many teams to effectively use backlogs.

But – you knew there was a but coming didn’t you? – but…

Backlogs have problems, too many teams are labouring under the Tyranny of the Backlog, they have become backlog-slaves and practice something we might call BLDD – Back Log Driven Development.

(To be clear, when I say “backlog” I am primarily thinking of the product backlog – the long list of all the things the team (might) do in the future. This is different to the sprint backlog (iteration backlog). The sprint backlog is a shorter list of things the team aims to do this iteration. I am using Scrum terminology but the ideas are pretty much “generic agile” and I’m thinking more broadly than Scrum. Many implementations of Kanban feature a product backlog of sorts so while Kanban is less prone to these problem it is not immune.)

1) Lump of Work Fallacy

There is usually an assumption that the backlog represents all the work to be done – an impression reinforced by early implementations of Scrum. In the short term that leads to agile teams being seen as inflexible and prioritising process over need because new work is not allowed in.

In some cases teams even struggle to get started on work because a big-up-front requirements gathering and analysts activity is required to create a backlog. In the worst cases that work is even estimated and end-dates forecast before a line of code is cut or developers hired.

In the longer term it is simply unrealistic to assume the backlog is fixed. Even with more and better analysis it is impossible to foreseen future requests. The agile adage “it is in doing the work that we understand the work” cuts both ways: coders understand what they need to build and customers/stakeholders/analysts understand what they want.

Work will arrive after you begin, any system that does not incorporate that truth will fail one-way or another.

2) Bigger then you think

Not only does the backlog grow with completely new work the work in it changes – and grows. There are many reasons this happens: new opportunities appear, hidden ones become clear, requests require more work than expected and so on.

Humans are very bad at estimating, especially about the future, and, it turns out, they are also very bad at estimating time spent in the past. If you want accurate forecasts you need to invest in them, you need to make structural changes and you need to use statistics.

However, because of the lump of work fallacy and the belief that humans can make estimates, poor end-date projections get made and when they are missed (because they were wrong to start with) everyone gets upset.

3) Fallacy of Done

Backlogs come with burn-down charts and an assumption that there is an end; and that end is when everything is “done.” The team will be done when the backlog is empty. That assumption is baked into BLDD, traditional project management and even governance.

I have long argued that software is never done. I’ll accept that I might be wrong, but in the digital age, when business runs on digital technology (i.e. software) your products are only done when you business is done. The technology is the business, and the business is the technology. Stop the backlog growing, stop growing you technology and you kill the business.

4) Backlog Bottomless pit

Put all those reasons together and the backlog becomes a bottomless pit. In the early days of agile, when I managed teams myself, the backlog would often sit on my desk, written out on index cards and held together with rubber bands. I could get a sense of how big the backlog was my looking.

Today everyone uses electronic tracking systems. Not only do these allow an infinite number of items they rob us of perspective. To paraphrase Comrade Stalin: “2 outstanding backlog items is tragedy, 200 is a statistic.”

5) Backlogs obscure strategy & purpose

With so many backlog items it is easy to get lost – you can’t see the wood for the trees. Arguments over what will be done next start to resemble deciding who should get a lifeboat place on a sinking ship, add in the demands “when will you be done?” (plus explaining why the date has changed) and “the bigger picture” gets lost.

In Back Log Driven Development the sense of purpose and strategic goals is lost as teams struggle with the day-to-day demands of just doing stuff.

6) Powerless product owner (i.e. backlog administrators)

Tyranny of the backlog seems worst were product owners lack real authority and skills. They are little more than backlog administrators. They spend most of the week adding requests to the backlog, then passing a few chosen items to developers in planning meetings. A vicious circle develops, the product owner can’t win so people trust them less, their authority wanes, and the backlog spirals.

Few organisations give product owners the power needed to get a grip on this situation. Indeed, many product owners are plucked from the ranks for development or support and given a battlefield promotion to product owner but lack the skills required. (See The problem with Product Owners.)

A solution?

For years I’ve been suggesting teams throw away the backlog – you will not forget the important things. But then how do you know what to do?

Take a step back, start with your purpose, your mission, the reason you team, your company, your organisation exists. What should you be doing? How can you fulfil that purpose and sever your customers?

This is where I see a role for OKRs and jobs to be done. Both these techniques – together, or separately – can be used as story generators. Every time you need to more work, more stories, you return to your OKRs and ask “what can we do now to move us towards our objective?”

When writing Succeeding with OKRs in Agile I became more and more convinced this is the path to take. Increasingly I sum this up as Purpose over Backlog.

Step 1: Clarify your purpose – what is your overarching reason for existing?
Step 2: Clarify how your existing strategy builds towards that purpose, and if you don’t have a strategy create one.

Repeat steps 1 & 2 annually.

Step 3: Think broadly, set your OKRs as a team so you build towards your purpose by following your strategy.
Step 4: Spend the next 12 weeks executing against those OKRs

Repeat steps 3 & 4 every 3 months.

Step 5: In each planning meeting take stock of what you have done and progress against OKRs
Step 6: Ask “what do we need to do next to move towards the OKRs?”

Succeeding with OKRs in Agile

Repeat steps 5 and 6 every 2 weeks

And if you are Kanban’ing then keep steps 1, 2, 3 and 4, adjust 5 and 6 as appropriate.

Having finished, completed, published Succeeding with OKRs I really wish I had been clearer in the book. The ideas are there but with time they have become so much clearer… maybe I need another book.

Buy Succeeding with OKRs in Agile at Amazon today.


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Technical Debt: Engineers, you are not alone

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

I don’t read many books about software or technology these days, I tend to read outside the domain: economics, business and management – which after all is much of what I do in the technology world these days.

Recently I’ve been reading Winning now, winning later by David Cote and find really interesting. He hardly mentions software and never mentions agile but he is giving me a new perspective on technical issues, particularly technical debt (or technical liabilities as I prefer to call them). He talks about issues which have similar characteristics to tech debt but are completely different, legal issues for example. He sees these issues as conflicts between short-term thinking and long-term thinking.

Cote’s argument is that short term actions should support, not conflict, with long term goals. I agree. It might not be easy but if actions in the hear-and-now conflict with longer term goals then the chances of reaching those goals is diminished.

Cote is writing about his time as CEO of Honeywell – a US industrial conglomerate if you don’t know. Unusually Cote is honest about many of the dirty problems the company faced when he took over – a lot of business books glossy over such problems or talk about “challenges” or “opportunities”.

For example, Cote describes how Honeywell managers were chasing numbers and targets every quarter. They had no time for long term improvements because they were so busy “making the numbers”. One of his managers cut down a forest to sell as timber in order to make the end of quarter numbers. Sales people would give products away to new customers or offer large discounts at the end of the quarter. However customers knew this would happen so delayed orders until they were sweetened.

Making the short term numbers meant the company undercut itself so lost revenue next quarter. Management time was spent finding accounting tricks to “make the numbers” rather than improving the business. And since targets ratcheted up the next quarter was more difficult and required more diversions.

Other examples included legal cases Honeywell was fighting: spending time and money on lawyers, building up bad will with customers, politicians and local people. This in turn made it more difficult to get support when the company needed it.

I read these examples, and others, and I hear an engineer saying “Technical debt.” That is exactly what it is.

A software engineer who does a dirty job on a code change because they feel under pressure stores up problems for themselves and future engineers who need to do the next change. Which is exactly the same as a factory which dumps waste into a lake as a quick fix and then needs to clean up the late later.

Actually economists have a term for this: externalities. These are the costs which are forced onto other payer, e.g. the factory saves money on waste disposal but the local government has to pay to clean the lake. I’ve long thought a lot of “technical debt” could be considered an externality because it pushed the cost onto someone else.

Today it is probably harder than ever to escape these cost – in code, in law, in financing – because there are more and more people out there looking for these things. Environmentalists look at waste in lakes, society expects companies to pay if they pollute and courts make companies pay. Smart investors will look closely at a firms accounts and discount the firm, or short them, if they see dubious practices.

This is Cote’s argument: in the short term it might save or generate money to fight legal cases (deny deny deny), sell off forests, discount sales and such, but, in the longer term – and the longer term might just be weeks – it will costs. And when it costs it will damage growth.

Doesn’t that sound just like technical debt/liabilities?

Naturally it is hard to see a company that chases numbers, pollutes and fights all legal claims caring about the quality of code. Engineers will have a hard job fighting for technical excellence there.

Cote argues, and I agree with him, that it doesn’t have to be this way. Acting responsibly and thinking about tomorrow – whether that is pollution, sales, accounting, code quality – will make it easier to grow later. Just because it is difficult to act in a manor that meets todays needs and make the world better for tomorrow does not allow use to ignore it: all of us need to think harder and find a solution that doesn’t mortgage tomorrow.

And sometimes the right answer is to accept the slow path, take it on the chin, pay the cost you’ve been avoiding. For Cote that mean settling legal cases and accepting some costs, for software teams that means doing the refactoring, rewriting a module or just saying No to more changes.

As I’ve said before: in software the long term comes along very soon.

As as I’ve blogged before there is no such thing as quick and dirty, only dirty and slow.

We might talk about debt/liabilities but really we are talking short-term v. long-term, a pay-day loan v. investment. Engineers have an unfortunate habit of talking about technical debt as a binary good v. evil debate with no other options.

Finding these less obvious paths which satisfy the short-term and long term is hard(er) but also offers the opportunity for higher, and longer, term improvement, something which is itself a competitive advantage.


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Warning signs of a failing outsourcer

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly Associates

It is 2021 and unfortunately on Friday I felt the need to repost “Dear Customer, The Truth about IT“. Little has changed in the 10 years since I wrote the original – if I was writing it today probably the only thing I would change is “IT”, I’d write “Digital” (I should probably also change Manchester United but …).

Unfortunately the vast majority of supplier’s are engaged on the basis of their marketing materials, sales pitch and promises. This tells you nothing about their actual ability to deliver working software. The suppliers can all hire great marketing people and use the same words. They can hire and incentivise the best sales people, and they can all take you out for a good meal, a round of golf or to a strip-club. (O, and they can all find a few “satisfied customers” to provide a testimony.)

The only real way to know if a supplier can deliver is to see them in action. So how can you tell things might be going wrong? What are the warning signs?

With help from Mike Burrows and John Clapham I’ve came up with this list of early warning signs. We were thinking in the context of a client-supplier (outsourced) relationship but many of them apply if you are working with internal teams too.

Staffing

1) Supplier loads teams up with extra managers: test managers a speciality
1.1) Team members don’t make decisions and defer problems to managers: there is a manager for every problem
1.2) Offshore teams have parallel management hierarchies
1.3) Suppliers feel the need to mark all your managers with their own manager (who is then duplicated offshore)

2) Inverted staffing pyramids (few devs at the bottom, lots of managers, BAs & other non-coders above)

3) People get swapped by suppliers with little notice
3.1) Short term substitutions are made: I once saw a supplier bring in a temporary SAP HR consultant to cover the usual consultant’s 2-week holiday. There was no way the substitute could come up to speed in that time let alone contribute positively.
3.2) People bait & switch: the people you meet first met didn’t last long, they were substituted for inexperienced people
3.3) “I can do that” – you get people new to their role, you get who they have available, people with experience in one role fill another role; a project manager plays coach, a delivery manager plays scrum master

4) Part time assignees (particularly managers): work a few hours a week on the project, see 1.1.

Get ready

5) Long running “set up” phases
5.1) You spend longer pondering the future than the time it takes to create the future
5.2) A lot of time is spent agonising about infrastructure changes rather than just doing them
5.3) Team advocates for, and does, investment in infrastructure and “reusable code” before anything is usable is actually delivered

Reporting not delivering

6) Supplier does not deliver working software

7) Supplier does not deliver working software every two weeks

In 2021 delivering working software to production every two weeks, or at least usable, potentially releasable software, is table stakes. The best teams deliver multiple times a day. If the supplier can’t deliver something by the end of week 4 you have a second rate supplier. Get out now.

8) Reporting hours done rather than demonstrating working software and stories

9) “Watermelon report” Green on the outside when everything inside is Red; impressive looking reports which don’t distract from the fact that nothing, or very little, was actually complete
9.1) Claiming stuff is done when it hasn’t finished testing
9.2) A Definition of Done which leaves work not-done – Mike has a good post at agendashift.com/done.

Other warning signs

10) You invest as much time in their org design as your own, if this starts to include people performance monitoring and management what are you gaining over using your own people?

11) Suppliers always say yes: no push back and no negotiation, feedback and scrutiny of your requests are signs they are paying attention to your needs. It you ask for the impossible it is better the supplier tells you so than accepts what you ask for. Ideally you want a supplier who can highlight the difficulties with your suggestion and work with you to achieve something akin to what you want even if you have to rethink your request.

12) Your own people are disenfranchised/disgruntled/frustrated by the arrangement. Particularly noticeable where people are expected to work in a different time zone to suit the other partly and when outsourcer staff are elevated (faster, smarter, etc) over the existing people.

In most of these cases the supplier is working around their own constraints rather than putting your needs first.


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