Agile OKRs extra – yet another book

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

I blogged last week that I had begun work on a new book – How I Write Books which is now a work in progress at LeanPub – signup and be the first to know when the draft is published.

Well a funny thing happened while I was setting up my tool chain to write that book: I found another book! Well, perhaps half a book is a better description.

Succeeding with OKRs in Agile Extra is a companion to last year’s best seller, Succeeding with OKRs in Agile. But it isn’t a complete book in its own right, it isn’t really a sequel, it is a companion. It contains a mix of material. Material which didn’t really fit in the first book, material with was’t needed, ideas which didn’t develop far enough and some unfinished chapters.

As such it is like my Xanpan Appendix, unused material which is still interesting and might appear elsewhere in time.

I really want to work on How I write books so I don’t have any immediate plans to progress extra. If you enjoyed Succeeding with OKRs in Agile, if you would like to know more, or if you would like to just see how a writer’s mind works check out Succeeding with OKRs in Agile Extra.

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The difficulties of cascading OKRs

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

I almost despair when I hear people advocate cascading OKRs: the idea that someone, some team, some central planning department, can set OKRs which then flow down the organization with each “lower” group implementing some small part of some “higher” ask. What could be more waterfall like?

I admit, when I started working with OKRs I kind-of-expected to be shown the OKRs of the “above” before my team wrote theirs. But when I thought about it, and the more I thought about it, the more I realised if you did do it that way then it is decided unAgile. How can a team be really autonomous, self-organising and self-managing if they have goals handed down to them?

There was a point when I was wracked with self-doubt: am I interpretting OKRs differently to the rest of the world? How do I reconcile agile and cascading OKRs? What am I missing? – but, when you look around, I am not the only one. In fact, if you read, watch and listen to OKR commentators the majority agree with me: the teams delivering OKRs need the latitude to set their own OKRs.

Reconciling OKRs with agile is far from the biggest problem. In fact there are, at least, two bigger problems, one concerns team motivation. Can a team ever be motivated to do something they have no say in? Perhaps some can, I can’t and I know others who don’t. At the very least team members need to be asked.

Motivation becomes especially problematic if you want OKRs to be stretching. If you set someone a stretching goal and ask them to hit it without involving them then don’t be surprised if they shrug their shoulders.

Still, we haven’t got to the biggest problem.

The biggest problem with OKRs is not the metaphysical issues of motivation and whether one is truly agile or not. The biggest difficulty is simply: cascading OKRs are not practical.

First think about the timetable.

If every team is waiting for the team above them to issue OKRs before they set their own then you have a delay built into the system. And the more levels of hierarchy you have the greater the delay is going to be.

For example, suppose you have an executive team, and middle management team and several delivery teams. Then each cycle the exec team need to set some OKRs, once they have set their the middle management can set theirs, and then the delivery teams can set theirs. At each cascade point there needs to be communication, and each point creates the possibility of misunderstanding and mistakes.

Setting OKRs isn’t instantaneous, I think you need about a week to have a think, reflect overnight, iterate once or twice but, if you are well practices, and don’t hit any delays, you might do it in two days. Either way it is going to take at least a week, and possibly three, to get all three layers set. And if anyone runs late then it has a knock on effect.

I’ve heard it said that the Key Results of higher levels become the objectives of the next layer down. The key results of this layer the become the objectives of the one below them. But that assume that the OKRs themselves are a series of “items to do” and that each objective is made up of several pieces which are themselves things to do.

Sure, it sometimes happens that way. I may even have been guilty of interpreting them that way sometimes. But these days I see Key Results not as small pieces of work which, lego style, build into a bigger objective but as Acceptance Criteria: the parameters which the outcome needs to satisfy.

Now to some degree acceptance criteria can be translated into work items to do, and vice versa, but not always. Consider this:

Objective: Improve overnight batch processing to save 10% of work processing costs
Key result #1: Shorten batch processing time by 1 hour so staff do not need to wait for run to complete in the morning
Key result #2: Reduce false positive alerts by 100 per day so that staff waste less time

Now these key results could be packaged as individual work to do but perhaps they are the same piece or work. Perhaps a database upgrade could address both issues in one go. Which path you take is a design decision.

Seeing key results as acceptance criteria changes them from work to do into bounding conditions.

In Succeeding with OKRs in Agile I advise against having domino key results: don’t set key results so that failing to hit one makes others impossible to hit. So, for example, if the DB upgrade had been added to that previous example as key result #1 then the team would have been committed to doing it. And if the upgrade had failed then the other key results would have been lost. Leaving it out gives the team the decision on how to proceed: the people doing the work decide the best way of meeting the objective.

That advice is given within teams but it also applies between teams. If, the Middle Management team require three lesser teams to deliver work to build their own objective then, if any one team fail the middle management team will not only miss one key result but will therefore miss their objective.

Done like this the OKRs become fragile and a dependency nightmare. That will have two effects, first more time will be needed when setting OKRs to identify and mitigate the dependencies, then more time will be needed to manage the dependencies. Progress will only occur at the speed of the slowest.

Second, these problems will encourage people to play it safe and not set stretching and ambitious OKRs. Predictability and safety will be prioritised.

Now if we take the alternative approach and each team sets its OKRs independently then the time lag is removed, teams set OKRs in parallel and if someone is late it doesn’t matter. Dependencies may still exist but they have not been baked into the OKRs so teams can put effort into removing dependencies (reducing coupling and increasing cohesion) rather than putting that energy into managing the dependencies.

So, while we might argue about whether OKRs should, or should not, cascade down; and while we might argue about the psychological effects of being given an OKR by another, simply remember: cascading OKRs mean setting OKRs is going to be more complicated and take longer.

Photo by Alexander Hipp on Unsplash


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Focus is not divisable so limit you OKRs

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

From time to time I hear about teams who have 8, 9, 10 or more OKRs in a quarter. That is just plain wrong. In Succeeding with OKRs in Agile I suggest 3 Objectives per quarters each with 3 key results. When I hear the cries of pain and people twist my arm I compromise on 4 objectives and about 4 key results.

Now those numbers are MAXIMUMs, I’d really like fewer, and I’ve heard of teams which have just 1 – yes ONE – objective per quarter. I’m itching to try that with a team.

Sometimes people respond and say: “Arhh, but we have a big team, I agree with 3 being the right number for a team of six but we have a team of 16 so surely we could have more objectives?”

But actually, when you have a bigger team you have a bigger problem and hence even more reason to limit the number of OKRs.

Part of the power of OKRs is that they create and maintain Focus. Having agreed and stated outcomes to work towards gives individuals something to focus, it gives team members – and particularly product owners – a reason to say No when more work appears. It keeps the team honest when looking at what needs doing and deciding how to spent their time.

New options to learn about OKRs and Agile

Focus is not divisible – devide your focus and you no longer have focus. When you have a bigger team you have more need for focus rather than less. One could even argue that that as the team grows the number of OKRs should reduce not increase.

Bigger teams, because there are more people, struggle more with focus than small teams. On a small team the lack of capacity forces trade-offs and brings people face-to-face with limited capacity. On a big team its easy to think one or two people can go and do something different, or even for individuals to hide.

By the way, this applies equally if you extend the OKR cycle: setting OKRs every six months rather than every three should be a reason to reduce the number of OKRs rather than increase them.

Once upon a time I worked with a team that had real focus problems: teams members found little overlap in their work. Consequently there were seven or eight OKRs each month. That was itself information, when you looked at the OKRs they were disjoint, the team was not focusing because it had three – or four – very different work streams and the people on the team had different skills.

The solution was to split the team into three mini-teams each with their own OKRs. One could argue that the full team got more OKRs but what happened was that each mini-team could now focus and work towards their goal with focus, with less distraction and greater purpose.

This keeps things simple – the Rule of Three! – and keep things focused.


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Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

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OKRs workshop, tutorials and free stuff

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

Two opportunities to learn more about OKRs. Both based on Succeeding with OKRs in Agile.

Implementing OKRs in Agile

24 February: 1-day online workshop, hosted by iLean in Belgium and open to all.

Combining OKR and Agile

Online tutorial series – this is a mix free and paid for material.

You can buy the tutorials individually or as a bundle. Subscribing to the bundle is much cheaper and gives access to new tutorials as I add them. My plan is to add one new tutorial each month.

Use the code blogreader to get 20% the paid elements.

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Can you keep Agile and OKRs seperate?

Allan Kelly from Allan Kelly

“I’ve been told to keep agile and OKRs separate”

The first time I head this I was surprised, “missed opportunity” I thought but then, as I thought about it more, the more I realised that it was impossible.

Start with the OKRs: OKRs are about deciding what to put your time and energy into. OKRs are about the big priorities for your organization and team. The more I’ve spent time with OKRs, the more I’ve come to see them as the management method rather than a management method among many. Let me caveat that lest it sound arrogate: management within an organization.

The management approach

There are many management approaches out there: strict time-and-motion were workers time is schedule to the minute by experts; complete devolution giving employees free rein and managers (if they exist at all) only exist to coach. And there is everything in between, including project management which attempts to define the start and stop dates in advance. At this level OKRs are one management approach among many and organizations are free to choose which they follow.

Even combining traditional HR performance review processes with OKRs can lead to ruin. Once compensation is conected to OKRs people become incentivised to stay safe by setting OKRs which bring rewards, i.e. not ambitions ones that might be missed.

Running any other management method in tandem with OKRs risks jeopardising both. So if you choose OKR then follow it all the way, call it “Extreme OKRs” if you like.

Just try imaging agile as something separate to your OKRs: you set OKRs and then you run iterations. What are you delivering in the iteration? Surely iterations are delivering progress against OKRs?

I suppose you could have a backlog of work to do (Track A) and some OKRs to work on as well (Track B). Track A and B might lead to different places or represent different work to do. Leave aside potential conflict for a minute, think about how you divide your time.

More WIP, fewer results

Agile teaches that work in progress should be minimised, but now in this example there are two sanctioned work streams. Maybe we could ring-fence work: Agile in the morning, OKRs in the afternoon. I find it hard to see that working well.

Maybe A could be the main stream and B other a “best efforts” / “spare time” stream. But, if both A and B are important then why leave prioritisation be left to the worker? It smells a bit of leadership abdicating responsibility for prioritisation.

It is a fantasy to think that workers can focus on delivering the backlog and in their “spare time” deliver the OKRs. If your workers have copious amounts of spare time then something else is seriously wrong. It is easy to overload workers, and thereby create problems further down the line. People will burn out, goals will be missed or goals are met but with such poor quality that problems emerge later.

I can see how you can run OKRs without agile.

And I’ve long seen Agile working without OKRs.

But if you have both Agile and OKRs in the same company I just don’t see how Agile and OKRs can be separated. Conversely I can see how they can work well together – yes, I wrote a book on that.

If you are going to have OKRs and Agile in the same company then you need to consider them as one thing, not as two separate endeavours.

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash


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Best seller – Succeeding with OKRs in Agile

AllanAdmin from Allan Kelly Associates

I’m delighted that my new book Succeeding with OKRs in Agile went on sale at Amazon yesterday. By this morning it was the number #1 best seller in Amazon’s IT Project Management category – and not doing badly in Computer Programming and Business Management & Leadership either. (Although the publisher has some power over which categories a book is in it is still a black-art.)

It is hard to express just how great it is to see the book in the number #1 slot. While I hope it stays at #1 for a while I expect it will drop down before long.

Print and audio versions of the book are in the works and should be released in the next few weeks so if you would rather read a physical version or listen, watch this space as they say.

The book has taken a little under a year to write and a few more months to make production ready. The wonders of LeanPub mean many readers have already been enjoying early versions of the book. If you would like to read the book on iBooks or as a PDF then LeanPub is the place to buy from.

I recorded the little video below to explain why I wrote the book.

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