OKRs - a tool for alignment in high performance teams

10/10/2019, 4 minute read.

Like a lot of startups, the end of one quarter and the start of another means planning - more specifically OKR planning.

If you’ve never heard of OKRs, here’s a quick history lesson:

OKR stands for: Objectives and Key Results. They’re a goal setting and alignment tool for teams. OKRs are attributed to Andy Grove who introduced the concept at Intel and documented them in his 1983 book: High Output Management. OKRs have been explained by John Doerr (Kleiner Perkins):

“The key result has to be measurable. But at the end you can look, and without any arguments: Did I do that or did I not do it? Yes? No? Simple. No judgments in it.”

Learning from previous OKR setting mistakes

As with anything, you have to practice OKRs. You probably won’t do them well the first time, or the second time, or maybe even the third time. To complicate things further, you’re doing this while your team is scaling. But, now more than ever, collaboration should be second only to breathing and your team’s alignment must be bulletproof. So, stick with it…

Sticking with it means, reflecting. What went well? What didn’t go so well?

What did I learn about our OKR setting process last quarter?

We succeeded at writing clear, easy to understand company-level objectives. The team knew what they were and could remember them. It sounds simple, but it’s easy to screw this - overcomplicating your OKRs or simply not talking about them frequently enough.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. We hadn’t properly accounted for and accurately estimated must-do projects - the major one this quarter was Strong Customer Authentication (SCA) compliance. This project took longer than anticipated and required more resource than originally thought - impacting our OKR results. This was a theme throughout Q3 generally: trying to do too many things, simultaneously. The web of interdependencies of different teams needing different resources at different times throughout the quarter negatively impacted our speed and output.

Why did this happen? Very simply, a lack of cross-team collaboration and coordination.

OKRs as a tool for alignment

Startups often latch onto OKRs as a goal-setting tool for their team, but quickly forget their benefits for driving alignment.

OKRs done well can drive alignment of objectives vertically up and down through an organisation as well as horizontally cutting across departments and functions - they are genuinely 360.

What is alignment?

Let’s take a step back and answer this important question.

Google defines alignment as:

“the position that something is in when it is straight or in the correct place in relation to other things”

This isn’t very tangible when it comes to high performing teams, so instead let’s turn to YouTube. In my opinion, this is what alignment looks like…

Alignment only happens in teams when they have well structured and facilitated conversations to set priorities and to solve interdependencies - the kind of interdependencies that slowed us down last quarter.

The opposite of this is setting OKRs in isolation - a mistake that can lead to two scenarios:

Why do OKRs get set in isolation?

This popular African proverb sums up the anomaly:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Let’s face it, it’s faster and easier to set OKRs in isolation. Collaboration takes time and effort. Feedback from other teams with other priorities can feel uncomfortable too. However, alignment won’t be achieved without this part of the process.

The impact of well-aligned high-performance teams

We see the impact of alignment across all types of high performing teams, especially in sport.

The most successful, high performing teams are those with a shared purpose, mission and a set of objectives that each team member is aligned to.

New Zealand’s rugby team, the All Blacks, are no different. Their record speaks for itself; they have an 87% winning percentage in test rugby - a phenomenal record.

The All Blacks produce and publish a yearly report, called The Scoreboard that documents how tightly aligned their organisation and teams are. In it, the All Blacks speak about their guiding principles and the priorities that their rugby organisation align on and work towards - their OKRs if you will.

Alignment at a tactical level

Alignment runs deeper though, right down to tactics; especially in rugby.

In rugby, the strongest defence is a flat line.

Flat line defence

We see this over and over again at every breakdown, phase and play - the organisation of a defensive line speaks volumes for a teams ability to communicate and align themselves.

Rugby defence

Rugby defence

Rugby defence

It sounds easy, but with 15 independent, fatigued and passionate players it takes a serious amount of coaching and communication to achieve that flat defensive line.

Coaches and staff - let alone teammates - expect those players on the field to perform in unison as if they have a rope tied around them. From experience, this requires non-stop talking: “player left”, “player right”, “my player”, “drift right”, “drift left” - high frequency updates that keep everyone aligned and focused.

On the rugby pitch, when this is done badly the impact is instant. Gaps appear for attackers to probe, making it much easier to score points.

Flat line defence

So the question is, why would we expect our teams at work and in business to align and perform with anything less? How would we expect to achieve the same results as these high performing teams by setting OKRs in isolation?

How do OKRs help to achieve team alignment?

OKR setting and execution is a cyclical process.

We start with a business strategy. A strategy sets the boundaries of what we want to achieve and points us in the right direction. A strategy is created from frequent upward communication of the details. This is a process of feedback on where the problems are and what exactly needs solving.

Then there’s the prioritisation of those problems. This involves working with other teams to debate and then agree on the most important problems to be solved within the time constraint i.e the quarter. The collaboratively prioritised set of problems become the OKRs.

OKRs inform sprint planning and research to be done. The outcome of the research and each OKR is fed back, directly into the strategy.

These two steps should never stop; refining the strategy and prioritisation - they should be regularly reviewed.

In addition, the results of research should guide sprint planning too.

Sprint planning itself pays back into the OKRs, sets the rhythm for our research but is also responsible for defining the executable plan that will fundamentally deliver the results you are chasing.

Final steps…

  1. Start with your current strategy and facilitate questions and feedback
  2. Task team leads with collaborating on a list of priorities to achieve the strategy
  3. Priorities to be presented to the wider team with facilitation for questions and feedback
  4. Close the loop - team leads to present team feedback, amendments made and to align with leadership
  5. Present again the final strategy, objectives and key results for the quarter
  6. Frequent alignment meetings to share progress, insights and to re-prioritise