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Objectives and key results

'Objectives and key results' (OKRs) is a buzzword in product development describing a way of organizing work to be done to be able to reach goals. Not only in product teams but in other team constellations as well, OKRs are put into use. Achieving goals is always the ambition, yet many companies fail in their implementation. 

OKRs enable empowerment

In business cultures where empowerment is not at the foundation of product development it is very difficult, if not impossible, to implement an effective OKR process because of the inherent culture crash.

Feature teams used to working with roadmaps and bug fixes instead of problems to solve will drag in the opposite direction when trying to introduce OKRs as a new way of working towards goals. OKRs are all about empowering teams, and it is nothing other than an empowerment technique.

Empowered teams are a prerequisite for organizations to succeed with the benefits of OKRs. Organizations therefore need to move away from old-fashioned feature teams to empowered product teams. In addition, there should be increased focus on teams' objectives, and less focus on the narrow objectives of individuals or managers. In addition, leaders need to step up in their share of the work by turning product strategy into action. 

Iteration is also required in defining OKRs for finding ways of improving way of working as well as solutions built.

Team objectives

The intention of team objectives is to execute on the company's product strategy. It's possible to assign issues to teams to solve in a way that both empowers them and makes accountable. There are also ways to do the opposite, such as purely assigning features to fix. Team objectives are intended to give product teams the space to come up with solutions to difficult challenges. This is in stark contrast to traditional roadmaps where the issues are already defined as features to build in a prioritized backlog. If those features do not solve underlying problems, then the organization inevitably fails, even if the teams deliver on what they were asked to build. Leaders need to be aware of the differences between each approach.

Focus and outcome

Team objectives comprise of; objective (problem that need to be solved) and measurement of progress (key results). When addressing issues it is more collaborative for teams to focus on a small number of objectives and solve those in the best way instead of trying to solve as many as possible, which results in a high amount of context switching. 

Progress should be measured based on business results, rather than output or activities. To list activities as key results as indications to reach the objectives is another common mistake in applying OKRs. The pitfall is to ship deliveries without solving the underlying problem, which simply takes you back to the old ways of product development roadmaps. 

Finding the correct KRs is a difficult part of working with OKRs, often more difficult than finding issues to solve. It is tempting to describe KRs as activities, while this is not helping the teams in measuring their progress towards the overall goal. The KRs should always be defined by the team, so they feel ownership and commitment. This part of the process requires dialogue between leaders and their teams. Importance of this dialogue is substantial and the leader need to be present in this process. A related issue in this scenario is that the team sometimes can be tempted to define key results by something easy to measure rather than what is most meaningful. 

Examples of Objectives

  • Improve site availability 
  • Increase lifetime value of the customer 
  • Increase percentage of new customers successfully creating an account 
  • Reduce the subscriber churn rate 
  • Reduce the average time spent handling a customer service call 

Lessons learned in the industry

Key Results

Key results should be possible to measure. This might be done by counting og percentage, or other ways of quantifying to be able to define success. In addition timeframes and expected values should always come from the team.

Cagan and Jones (2020) state that how work is addressed is a major lesson learned in the industry of digital product development. Assigning issues to solve, rather than issues to build has greater impact an contribute to an environment for ordinary people to create extraordinary product for five reasons: 

Better management

To succeed in solving difficult technology-based challenges there is a need for better management and not less management.

There is a misconception that OKRs are about less management, when in fact it is all about better management. The role of leaders in digital product development, when using OKRs, is really important. Leaders really need to understand the importance of their contribution in turning product strategy into action.

Topics that should be top of a product leader's mind are: 

  • providing the team with strategic context 
  • providing coaching to team members 

Even though teams are given with real issues to solve, they should not be left alone with the problem without strategic context. It is a leader's job, to do research within the organization to collect and translate strategy and vision, and then involve teams and provide insight. Teams should be granted a deep understanding of the ultimate goal and why the issue is important to solve. 

The next steps in the process are for teams to think about insights and how each individual can contribute to solving the issue. Implications or dependencies need to be addressed by the team as they start working on the topic. Team members should also have the option to express special interest in working on specific problems, or leaders should at least motivate them to try. Coaching individuals to develop that mindset is also a way of inspiring teams, with better management. 



Cagan and Jones, 2020, Empowered, (Publisher Wiley) 

Teams working with OKRs

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