OKRs and Agile not only can work together, they should

Make a successful process even more outcome-driven

Everyone wants to be more strategic and achieve more. But most, if not all, companies never even get that close. Per research, only 8% of leaders are good at both strategy and execution, often leaving their teams in the dark in the process: preposterously, in many organizations, up to 95% of the employee base doesn’t even understand the strategy of where they work. 🤯

There are many different philosophies of how to get the right stuff done, do it strategically, and hopefully build a successful business in the process. Two of the most prominent philosophies in the tech world are OKRs—or Objectives and Key Results—and Agile.

Yet, there seems to be controversy about whether you can combine OKRs and Agile, to some they seem antithetical ideas. And then if you did want to combine them, how to make it work. We’ll address that in a second, but first: a brief definition of both ideas.

What are OKRs?

An OKR has two main components:

Andy Grove pioneered OKRs at Intel in the 70s, but it wasn’t until venture capitalist John Doerr introduced them to the early Google team that they rose to prominence (we recommend his book: “Measure What Matters.”) They are now employed by a range of high profile companies such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Dropbox, and GE.

OKRs typically work in quarterly or longer time frames, and—importantly—they combine both top-down and bottom-up approaches to goal-setting. When OKRs are well-defined and communicated broadly, they help everyone in the company understand what matters and why. What are the company’s priorities? What aren’t the company’s priorities? How are they measured?

OKRs even allow you to keep the objective semi-generic, i.e. “Delight our customers,” if you use more specific key results, such as:

What is Agile?

Agile is borrowed from the software development world (we are guessing you knew that one). It’s iterative work organized around “sprints,” which can be as short as one day or as long as a few months. Agile developed in response to “waterfall,” where you move directly from one task to the next.

Because software development is inherently unpredictable, you need a system that allows for dealing with challenges and focusing on rapid delivery. When used properly, Agile is also great for dealing with the needs of high-intensity clients, as it allows easily for pivots.

It should be noted here: Agile can become dogmatic, and there is no shortage of companies claiming to be “agile” that are hierarchy-and-waterfall-driven. The term has become such a dogma that many brands try to attach to it, but they’re not actually operating as agile.

OKRs and Agile, combined: The sweet spot of strategic success and operational efficiency

The Agile Manifesto contains the guiding principles of Agile, one of which is “working software is the primary measure of progress.” In recent years, though, the shift has been towards business outcomes as the primary measure of progress. This is where OKRs come in.

OKRs are a framework that helps you move from Agile-defined output—features on roadmaps—to more traditional business outcome metrics.

For example, within a completely agile setting, teams can become too focused on the minute details of what they do, be that writing code or other task-based work. OKRs, tied to deeper business results, urge the team to take a step back, get out of their main functional area, learn about customers, and ask why certain decisions are being made.

As Capgemini notes: Often, in organizations struggling to adopt Agile, the project’s business requirements are inputted into JIRA as a “backlog” and there is an assumption that, as an empowered Agile Scrum team, the work will be assigned and the Scrum Master or business analyst will control the backlog. Therefore, no planning or project management is required and, as a result of this a lack of RAID tracking, decision tracking and lack of tracking progress.

The blend of OKRs and Agile is about taking a successful process (Agile) and making it even more outcome-driven (OKRs).

Face-to-face meetings drive necessary alignment

Both the Agile Methodology and OKRs consider face-to-face interaction to be the most effective way to move work forward. This is effective, and in stark contrast to the old managerial approach of “don’t really talk to the people who work for you.” That’s a massively-antiquated way to work together.

We live in an era where everyone seems to be in far too many meetings. That struggle is very real. But imagine a world for just one second where meetings weren’t complete tire fires. It’s possible, especially if everyone has the right context for the work. That does happen in 1-on-1s, but it also happens at the intersection of OKRs and Agile. Both encourage transparency in team communication. When you have that, then when a group comes together, there’s less time needed for point-by-point check-ins and more actual focus on the big picture; meetings actually become more efficient. The work becomes less tedious and task-driven and more strategic. Meetings become a valuable place for collaboration.

The bottom line

Agile and OKRs work best in tandem. There’s a desired end state of outcomes (OKRs), and those help keep you focused. Agile is a process to get you there, and it overlaps well with OKRs to retain strategic focus and align end priorities with daily execution.

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