Conversations That Power OKR Agreement, Execution, and Retrospectives
Nov 1, 2021
OKRs are a perfect fit for companies and teams that value and use agile ways of working. For this article, we want to focus on some of the more advanced processes and conversations that happen, not the basics of OKRs. If you are new to OKRs, you can read more about them here.
OKRs often are referred to as having 'superpowers'. When probing into this perception, the answers often anchor themselves in teams having the forum for frequent high-value conversations and a structure to set the agenda and capture the outputs.
What are these conversations and related outputs?
OKRs were never designed to describe everything that happens in a company. There are lots of business-as-usual processes and jobs-to-be-done that are not the focus of OKRs. Instead, OKRs were designed to focus effort towards the areas of greatest value and impact.
For teams to have good OKR conversations, you need what organizational researcher Chris Agryris called Model 2 (Productive Reasoning) behaviors to be present. Model 2 based decisions are rational and reasoned because to make them, all information is freely available, conversations about ideas and the logic behind them happen, and after debates, a consensus occurs.
The opposite, Model 1 (Defensive Reasoning), involves hidden or obscured reasoning, unilateral decisions and actions, and lower levels of collaboration and learning. Agryris found that the bigger the decision, the more people used Model 1.
When using Productive Reasoning, teams are asked to consider which goals should be committed to in a given time against a backdrop of several candidate options. The information is used to suggest ideas and discuss them being both in and across teams. Thus, creating vertical and horizontal alignment.
An essential part of this discussion is deciding which measurements to use and which level of target and difficulty is appropriate. Which in itself is telling. Model 2 teams will be more comfortable with stretch targets, missed targets, and learning loops than Model 1 teams.
Let us now assume great OKRs have been set and committed. What you can and should do to achieve them is the next process, involving a series of conversations and actions to be decided on and executed. This is the Agile layer.
Whether you label your Agile way of working Kanban, Lean, or Scrum we are talking about the same principles. Against a backlog of possible options, we identify those most likely to help us achieve our OKRs, complete the work, reflect its impact, and repeat. The unit of work might be a card, a sprint, Epic, or campaign, but the principles of open information, informed choices, internal commitment, shared control and task design, and transparent and public results hold.
A fascinating part of the OKR management process is the OKR retrospective. Here you are looking to reflect, debate, and learn from the OKR and the applied educational effort.
There are decisions to make:
- Do we carry this OKR on to the next quarter?
- Against all of the possible OKRs we could commit to, is this still the right OKR(s)?
- Have we achieved the change we wanted or at an acceptable level?
The nuanced and more complicated part of how end-of-quarter success levels are assessed is interesting. Your approach often depends on leadership styles, technique, understanding of the OKRs framework, and the consequences of success or failure.
For example, if the percentage progress of all OKRs, branches of OKRs, or single OKRs at the end of a period is the focus, teams will calibrate their OKRs when created. Thus, supporting a high level of OKR progress.
If 100% achievement is not the stated aim and OKRs become a story of ambition, effort, success, failure, and learning, things get compelling. For a start, teams are comfortable with stretching themselves. 100% is an ambition but not the only definition of success.
What a final % progress number does not tell you is the challenges teams faced. The obstacles they overcome and the learnings gathered. The amount of time they either did or did not have to commit to the OKR, or external factors that may have influenced the outcome - COVID being a universal one recently.
So how successful were you?
The answer, continuously, is anchored in conversation. You might have achieved 45% of the OKR you were working on, but given the obstacles and knowledge gained it could be considered a success. The same is true of high levels of achievement. Google has publicly stated that a very high level of achievement can often indicate a lack of stretch or ambition.
Which begs the question, what does success look like after your retrospective is more significant than the final second of the last day of the quarter coming to an end? Let that answer reside on information, debate, conversations, and consensus.
Written by Matt Roberts
Matt Roberts is the founder of OKR Software ZOKRI and writes about OKRs and Agile ways of working that support growth.
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