The Real Reason You’ll Miss Your OKRs Again This Cycle

Forget about being busy — it’s about effectively delivering Outcomes

Image: Gold mining — Serra Pelada. Serra Pelada claims, Curionópolis, Pará, Brazil. Copyright © Sebastião Salgado Courtesy mindat.org

Gridlock

Once again, every team across the program had missed their commitments.

Working with an experienced tech program product leader recently, leading major upgrades to aging legacy systems. We frequently discussed moving from task- and activity-based focus to more of an aspirational, value-, and outcome-focused approach to goal-setting.

Across the program, all teams were challenged with having numerous stories stuck in progress and continuously rolling over from Sprint to Sprint.

Coaching to increase Flow

We discussed ways to “stop starting, and start finishing,” through more effective, program-level Sprint planning, prioritizing the work that really mattered, and moving the next level of priorities to the top of the backlog.

If by some stroke of luck one team completed their part of the larger piece of value, they could pull the next-highest value piece of work off the top of the backlog.

The approach seemed reasonable, and we agreed to try it out.

A fresh start?

Yet once the next Sprint cycle kicked off, every team across the program was again stocked with more stories than they’d ever historically accomplished.

There would be no chance to complete the work, and the vicious cycle of high WIP (Work in Progress) and continuously rolling over stories would continue.

When we had a moment to talk through the planning approach, the Product lead asked,

“Aren’t we supposed to set aggressive “stretch” goals?”

And this brought up a major insight for me I’ve continued to focus on:

Never confuse setting aspirational Achievement (Outcome) goals with aggressive Activity (Output) goals

Continually pushing teams to deliver ever-higher numbers of tasks outside of their realistic capacity results in multiple negative consequences:

  • Continuously increasing Work in Progress (WIP)
  • Increased cycle time
  • Falling ever-farther behind
  • Delivering poor quality
  • Burnout
  • Attrition

A team can only take so much of these before they start seriously impacting both the people and the product.

But if you can instead

  • Lead with aspirational Outcome-focused goals
  • Involve the team in discovering solutions that increase confidence in achieving the Key Results
  • Learn to match Demand with actual team Capacity

You can expect to

  • Deliver more of your organization’s most meaningful Outcomes
  • Single-task your way to success
  • Deliver higher quality
  • Increase your people engagement

Here’s a couple of approaches that can help do exactly that

#1. Lead with Outcome-focused goals

Remember that working with Objectives and Key Results is a journey.

In the beginning, teams try to set too many OKRs, essentially stuffing everything into them as their “To-Do” list. Over time, organizations coached in effective implementations set fewer OKRs, focused on only the most critical achievements they want to target during a given quarter.

For example, where teams might start by setting ineffective, task-based OKRs like:

Objective: Launch the new sales customer relationship management (CRM) platform

  • Key Result 1: Do 50 trainings
  • Key Result 2: All salespeople use the CRM for every sales lead
  • Etc.

They learn over time to create more effective, Client Behavior-Change Outcome-focused ways of stating their OKRs:

Objective: Improve sales team effectiveness through a data-driven approach

  • Key Result 1: Increase total bookings booked through the CRM platform from 1 to all 5 international regions
  • Key Result 2: Increase from 30% to 80% of salespeople using our CRM implementation for the end-to-end sales lifecycle
  • Key Result 3: Increase number of validated opportunities booked through the CRM platform from 60% to 80%

For better or worse, the only way to get better at setting effective, Outcome-focused OKRs is to actually do OKRs, set them, check-in regularly, grade at the end of the cycle, inspect, adapt, and improve through training, coaching, and guidance, together with bringing leadership along on the journey.

#2. Involve the team in Discovering solutions that increase confidence in achieving the Key Results

When leaders set task-focused OKRs and hand them to teams, there’s only one right way to deliver, greatly decreasing the likelihood of innovation and value creation.

But once teams move to Outcome-focused OKRs, it opens the door for more people across the team to bring their individual expertise to bear in effectively discovering better ways of delivering against the organization’s most important priorities.

A solo solution

Taking the first Outcome-focused Key Result from the sales CRM example above:

  • Increase total bookings booked through the CRM platform from 1 to all 5 international regions

Imagine if the Product Manager had gone off on their own and designed a technical solution to “nag” salespeople to push CRM usage with every login, and generate daily compliance reports. That solution may or may not have achieved the desired result, but it would very likely have created a huge amount of resistance with the same salespeople the team is trying to empower.

Unleashing the power of the team

But when constructive Continuous Discovery sessions are conducted, and the full power of the team is unleashed, the possibilities for creating better solutions are greatly increased.

Coming back to our example, let’s say someone on the team was able to share how they were able to successfully roll out global training by localizing language and culture in collaboration with each sales region’s leaders. This assumption could be validated within 24 hours by having calls with those sales leaders and memembers of those sales teams.

The team would effectively achieve a better outcome without having to write a single line of code. And probably go a long way to ensuring the good will of the entire global sales team, simply by involving them in the Discovery process.

You never know where a great idea will come from, but the power of OKRs are only unleashed when an aspirational “stretch” Objective is set, and the team has a chance to iterate through Discovery and Delivery of the most effective ways to deliver Outcome-focused Key Results they can see move.

#3. Learn to match Demand with actual team Capacity

Now that the path to the Outcome is clear, Discovery and Refinement continue to break the work down for action by the team.

Continue to keep aspirational goal-setting focused on the Outcomes, not the work

While there are times to make “high-quality commitments” to deliver in crunch situations, week-in, week out, the goal will be to balance the team’s workload, keeping the relative quantity of effort within the team’s historical capacity.

Unfortunately, I see teams wrestle with this every Sprint.

Once it’s time to commit to their Sprint Backlog, magical thinking and optimism abound — never mind that it hasn’t worked out for the past 2 sprints, 8 sprints, 10 months, no, but this time, it’s going to be different.

Please, let’s be realistic, folks. And I’m aiming that statement at the entire team, not just the stakeholders around them who might “encourage” them to take on more.

Build in Slack

If the team has never accomplished more than 10 cards, 50 points, whatever, you should probably not target more than 8 cards, or 45 points.

Why? Across an average, fully-staffed 2-pizza team, there’s always someone who’s going on vacation, going to a doctor’s appointment, having a baby, getting pulled onto another “special project,” etc.

Not fully-staffed? Relying on outside Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) or in-demand technical expertise to get crucial work done? Take that into account.

Outcome first

And again, it’s not about the Output — the number of stories — it’s about the effectiveness in delivering against the Outcome.

This is so easily lost in a velocity-focused mentality obsessed with keeping developers busy, and increasing velocity with every sprint.

But if you understand the focus on the Outcome and are able to tap into more of the wisdom and experience of the team, you can actually achieve more by doing less.

It’s not the number of tickets, it’s targeting the right goals

Think back to the example above — Imagine the number of Epics and User Stories needed to create the technical “push” solution to force salespeople to use the CRM system, the platform for compliance checking, and build out the compliance measurement monitoring dashboards.

Now compare that to the far fewer work tickets required to follow up with each region’s sales leadership to localize the CRM platform training, and lead with culturally-appropriate motivational strategies across each market.

Learning to match Capacity and Demand

Here are some ways to start to sustainably match Capacity with Demand:

  • First, make sure the team is aligned on the work will deliver on the Key Results
  • Review historical Velocity, burndown and throughput
  • Never fight against the reality
  • Experienced product leadership is crucial to lead with “Why,” see that the best decisions get made, and prioritize the next most important set of stories the team needs to Discover and Deliver
  • These stories in turn are those that directly contribute to increasing confidence in achieving a Key Result

Remember

The skill of product management is the ability to execute collaboratively with the team to Discover and Deliver solutions that provide the greatest client and business value with the least amount of engineering effort.

TL:dr;

Moving from overambitious, clogged backlogs and high WIP to sustainable OKR delivery involves

  • Experienced Product Management leading with aspirational Outcome-focused Objectives and Key Results
  • Involving the entire team in discovering solutions that increase confidence in achieving the Key Results
  • Learning to match Demand with actual team Capacity to deliver sustainably

While the above ideas can help, it also comes back to progress over perfection in your OKRs journey, having a solid set of frameworks, like the Four Square, and balancing the aspirational stretch OKRs with effectively-chosen Health Metrics (KPIs) to protect what matters for sustainable value delivery.

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