Scaling Up and Out with Agile OKRs
"You can motivate by fear, and you can motivate by reward. But both those methods are only temporary. The only lasting thing is self-motivation." ~ Homer Rice
Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) have been well known for decades now, and John Doerr's book on Measuring What Matters became a hit immediately after it was published. However, while OKRs as a concept seems logical and straightforward, many companies struggle with implementing this concept in an aligned and inspirational way. As an Agile coach implementing OKRs in multiple large organizations, I experience three major anti-patterns:
- OKRs are implemented top-down. OKRs are not KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) which are top-down arbitrary numbers provided by management to each employee at the beginning of a long-term period (usually a year). OKRs are set by teams, not individuals, and aligned with organizational objectives. In that, OKRs are inspirational and encourage teams to set up the objectives that motivate them and inspire self-organizing teams to make a difference.
- OKRs are used to measure performance and define compensation. Unlike KPIs which are used to measure performance and this influences compensation and promotions, OKRs are not related to performance in any way. Numbers are easy to game, and connecting OKRs to performance would negate the purpose of those. OKRs need to be aspirational and hard to achieve, and by doing that, the teams challenge them to continuously grow and become high-performing. This is the reason OKRs are self-graded, not measured by the managers.
- OKRs are focused on activities, not results. Frequently, OKRs are focused on activities or tasks, e.g. provide 100 training sessions, hire 300 employees, create a Playbook covering 50 topics. While sometimes there is a reason for task-based key results, in most cases, the objective is either customer-related (e.g. customer satisfaction), business objective (e.g. revenue growth), employee-related (e.g. retention data), or a related goal. In either case, it forces teams to pivot if the initial set of activities does not bring the intended result and fail forward to pursue the goal. (OKR example)
During the workshop, we will be playing two OKR-setting games. The goal of these games is to experience in practice how to avoid common mistakes and set up cascading OKRs bottom-up by empowering teams, aligning divisions, and keeping the organizational objectives in focus - all of this while keeping employees motivated and inspired. Finally, we will discuss how OKRs empower teams to self-organize while achieving shared goals within a scaled agile environment.
Outline/Structure of the Workshop
The breakdown for the workshop:
The first 5 minutes is the introduction (we will create teams at each table that will come up with their OKRs for this workshop).
Next 10 minutes is the summary of OKRs, which will answer the questions:
- Why do we need OKRs?
- What are common anti-patterns and how to avoid them?
- How to cascade OKRs to scale Agility in your organization?
The next hour will be spent playing two OKR simulation games, one building upon learnings from the other. The goal of the two games we will be playing is to experience in practice how to avoid these mistakes and set up cascading OKRs bottom-up by empowering teams, aligning divisions, and keeping the organizational objectives in focus.
- "Let's open a restaurant." Time: 30 minutes. This is my original OKR simulation game which shows how to build a business ground up and then scale it between multiple functions: restaurant owner, manager, servers, cooks, and the kitchen. We will role-play between a Grumpy Chef, a Go-Home Waiter, a Mean Hostess, an Overwhelmed Manager, an Overpromising Owner, and a Hungry Customer. The goal is to align on individual objectives to achieve a goal of getting 10,000 customers within one year. Then, we will discuss how cascading OKRs would change if the goal was to raise Net Promoter Score to 8 or higher.
Once we build OKRs, align on those and achieve the first-year goal, we will set up the next year’s goal of scaling to 3 locations and achieving a Michelin Star – again with OKRs aimed at scaling.
- “Let’s delight our customers.” Time: 30 minutes. In this game, we will create cascading OKRs for a digital product business by role. We will build OKRs bottom up, define self-grading criteria, and scale within an organization of several thousand employees. A sample objective and a template for the ones used in the exercise is attached to this submission. We will do it by role: Sales, Marketing, IT, Analytics, Customer Service.
The final 15 minutes will be used to create clear actionable takeaways for the participants, share within their tables, and debrief on the games in a "fist of five" format.
Note: Last year at Agile Games, when I hosted a psychological safety games workshop (one of the games was related to OKRs), I was asked by participants to offer an OKR open space session so that we can spend more time on the topic. Of course, I could not say "no". The session showed a lot of interest in OKRs, alignment, and motivation. Everyone had read about OKRs, but few people had a good experience with them. At this open space session, we had a great conversation with a lot of questions on how to set them up, how to allow for self-organization, and why to grade them– all of which resulted in the workshop I am suggesting this year. It was a great opportunity to validate the interest, find out what the common challenges are, and target this submission to the actual needs of the real world. Here's a picture from the last year's open space session.
We know that mastery, autonomy, and purpose drive our professional satisfaction and create motivation. However, as human beings, we are all motivated by different objectives that may not be aligned with each other's or with organizational goals.
How do we create a meaningful alignment of our team's goals, individual aspirations, and company objectives? How do we establish complete transparency across the organization so that at each moment of time anyone would see the same picture and understand how their individual or their team's activities contribute to this shared goal? How do we get a say in what are the objectives and a clear understanding of why they are so important for the whole company?
Participants will leave the workshop with a clear understanding of the process
- how to build a cascading OKR structure within a scaled Agile organization,
- how to continuously pivot and self-assess their team's results, and
- how to align the whole organization while allowing for team-level self-organization.
In sum, they will have a framework of how to implement OKRs in an aligning and empowering way while having fun and building their network playing two simulation games.
Anyone who is looking for a common and aligned purpose for their team, organization, or in their personal life.
Prerequisites for Attendees
There are no specific requirements for anyone who would like to learn more about motivation, mastery, and purpose. The only expectation is the open mindset and interest in learning.