OKRs top-down? bottom-up? or ripples in a pond?

One of the great things about writing a book is that you get a greater understanding of the subject. So it was with “Succeeding with OKRs in Agile”. In particular writing the book forced me to think about how OKRs fitted with agile and hierarchal structures. I get the impression that many people are interested in using OKRs to align teams but not everyone has worked out all the nuances.

On the face of it OKRs are hierarchal: it seems “obvious” that someone, somewhere, is going to set a big goal, that goal will cascade down and every team will end up with their own mini version of the goal. As I said, this seems obvious, how else could it be? Especially in a large organization?

After all, is that how the not so distant ancestors of OKRs, Management-By-Objectives (MBOs), worked.

This also fits the engineer’s mind: the product team have a goal, and all the supporting teams – whether contributing components or services – make their goals subservient to the one goal. The classic inverted tree with each team doing what the node above asks.

But, top-down conflicts directly with reality and with agile. Teams don’t have one goal, they don’t answer to but one leader but to multiple leaders, multiple customers, multiple stakeholders and these don’t always agree. Agile folk have long railed against command-and-control from above while advocating self-managing or self-organising teams. Surely OKRs go against this philosophy?

So, if we are to use OKRs in an agile environment these positions need to be reconciled. In Succeeding with OKRs I described the process as more bottom-up than top-down. Thus, rather than a big boss saying what should happen and that being cascaded down the origanization to provide goals at every level, I describer the big boss setting out a vision, a goal, an objective but not describing details. Then they say to the teams: “Help, how can you help more us towards that goal?”

Now, only a few months after I wrote that my thinking has moved on. I don’t disagree with myself but I see the need for a more nuanced explanation and a revised model.

First off, I’m guilty of using the language of hierarchy: top-down and bottom-up. In so doing I’m supporting the view that hierarchies are the natural state of things and creating a, possibly false dichotomy: one thing or another. For years I’ve been thinking of organisations both as federal entities and as solar systems. While the leadership team may be central to decisions they are not all powerful . Teams have their own paths, leadership and leadership teams are the sun and teams/divisions orbit them. (If I recall correctly I picked this idea up in the Henry Mintzberg book Simply Managing.)

Bear in mind, as I say in everyone of my books: team are autonomous. We stive for independent teams with devolved authority. Each team exists to deliver a product or service and each team has multiple stakeholders – of whom the big boss is but one. Each team therefore has to decide how best to deliver benefit to (potentially competing) stakeholders. Sometimes that means co-ordinating with other teams and even other companies.

Put that together: teams are creating OKRs but they are not doing it in isolation, they are listening to the big bosses at the centre but also the teams they need to work with.

Recently I’ve started to think of these concentric circles less as planetary orbits and more as waves, or ripples to be precise. The big boss at the centre makes big ripples that carry out to the edges.

But leaders are not the only ripple makers. Teams, customers and other stakeholders also have an effect – like rain falling on water. Sometimes these waves some together and magnify each other, other times they cancel each other out, more often than-not they are out of sync and disrupt each other in ways too complex to predictable.

We think of leaders as single water droplets but inreality there are lots of drops making lots of ripples

OKRs are the messaging system that allows teams to signal what ripples they are creating and which they are reacting to. Teams are iterating – OKRs reset every 13 weeks – which means every quarter teams get a chance to react to other ripples and rest their own.

Thought of like this you also get a scaling model. Not so much a model of “how to do this to scale” but a mental model which describes how to think about scaling.


I have some upcoming presentations and webinars about OKRs if you would like to know more

Or, buy the book “Succeeding with OKRs in Agile”


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2 thoughts on “OKRs top-down? bottom-up? or ripples in a pond?”

  1. Sabyasachi Sengupta

    Hello Allan, thank you for the write-up. My only confusion is around the fact in any organisation it’s the management who would set the vision/goal/ways of working. The teams on ground are only involved in implementation. So how come OKR becomes bottom-up & not top-down. Maybe it’s my lack of understanding however if you’re treating OKRs only as a messaging system for teams to reconvene, yet the goal/vision remains unchanged which had been set by the big bosses.

    1. Hi Sabyasachi,
      The key is to realise the teams delivering the product are not “only involved in implementation.” Teams have a fundemental part in deciding how best to use technology to serve customers. Each team has an important part to play in understanding what customers need and the details of how that need is best served. Teams have much more contact with customers than senior leaders do and this helps them appreciate the detail of what is needed.
      Add to that teams have competing demands on their time, it is not simply a case of someone “at the top” says do “Foo” and everyone does Foo to the exclusion of everything else. Teams have to balance these competing needs.

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