What are the first steps in setting OKRs?

“What do you see as the first steps in setting OKRs?”

I’d like to share my answer to this question, it came as a follow up to a presented “Reawakening Agile with OKRs” to a company last week. This is also an opportunity to expand my thinking.

First we need to make some assumptions and decide policies.

I’m going to assume that the team know what OKRs are, why they are being introduced and what is expected of them in setting OKRs. So, if this assumption does not hold true then before you set the OKRs establish some shared understanding on these points. Perhaps get an introduction to OKRs for the team. (I’ve started work on another video tutorial series, an introduction to OKRs and agile.) Next get some guidance from those suggesting the team use OKRs on what they expect.

I’m sorry to say I hear of plenty of cases were these things don’t happen. Teams are told: “thou shalt use OKRs.”

It would also help if those suggesting OKRs have spelt out what they see as success (100% of OKRs complete? 70%? Or, as I prefer: benefit delivered.) But you know what? If you don’t know this you can clarify it later, nice to know in advance but in a pinch, not essential.

Next I suggest Think Team – I’m skeptical about individual OKRs so don’t set OKRs on anything smaller than a team level. While it might help if the “next level up” set OKRs first if the team start first then the team clearly own the OKRs. So, while there are advantages to knowing the priorities higher up there are also advantages to taking the initiative.

If you want to set some kind of individual objectives then my advice is: wait while you learn. Get some experience at the team level with OKRs before thinking about individual goals. Or perhaps, for the first two quarters make everyone’s individual goal “learn how to work with OKRs by working with OKRs.”

It will also help if you have some idea of how your OKRs are going to line up against any backlog you have. Are the OKRs reverse engineered from the backlog? Or do the OKRs have priority over the backlog? Or, as I suggest, use OKRs as a story generating machine instead of having a backlog?

Similarly, if you team needs to “keep the lights on” and do “business as usual” stuff in addition to OKRs you need to know in advance. That will soak up capacity. So how do you reflect that in your OKRs? – in Succeeding with OKRs in Agile I suggest a OKR-Zero for this type of stuff.

Now to set OKRs I suggest at least two meetings – and preferably not too many more. The first meeting is a drafting meeting. You might think of it as a big brainstorm. Get ideas out on the table, talk about priorities. Aim to get a rough draft of some candidate OKRs.

Before that first drafting meeting someone – Team Leader, Manager, Scrum Master, Agile Coach, whoever – needs to confirm what the timeline is. Are the OKRs to run over 13 weeks? – or is it Christmas so this a 15 week quarter? Or maybe you only have 10 weeks this time. The deadlines are important. Don’t plan OKRs without knowing when the first and last days of the cycle are.

It helps if team members have given a little pre-thought to what they would like to see in the OKRs. Now I don’t want a lot of pre-work. And I especially don’t want lots of planning because that a) detracts from they current cycle and b) potentially limits ambition when setting the OKRs. Still a little forethought – think of it like writing your Christmas list.

This suggestion is particularly important to the Product Owner. Since team team are aiming to delivery benefits to others (customers, users, stakeholder, whoever) it is natural that the Product Owner takes a lead in drafting meetings. Whatever title you give this person this is the person who is charged with listening to customer requests, understanding non-customer users, liaising with stakeholders and understanding the business/product strategy and knowing what would be beneficial to who. So it makes sense for this person to have plenty of ideas on what to do.

In the run up to OKR setting is Product Owners need to bring all their homework together and decide what outcomes they would like. The Product Owner needs to present this thinking to the team in OKRs setting and work with the other team members to craft OKRs which reflect those asks. Most importantly of all, they have to understand the implications when some items don’t make the cut.

Thus the Product Owner will walk into the OKR planning meeting with the longest Christmas wish-list of any team member. But they will not get everything on that list, far from it.

Once you have your draft OKRs take a break. At least an overnight break, or maybe a few days.

Do any more homework that is needed (e.g. check requests with customers, show draft to partner teams and managers for feedback, check availability or timelines of people or equipment that might expect to need, etc.)

The second meeting is there to firm up the draft. Ideally after some reflection and some homework everything in the draft looks good, all you need to do is tighten it up and declare it final.

But there is every chance your draft contained six desirable objectives and it needs some reflection and some homework before you can reduce it to three. It may also be that that homework turns up a problem, a priority that had not been appreciated or a block that wasn’t foreseen. In which case you need to revisit the draft.

Setting OKRs inevitably means making choice about what will be done and what will not be done. I’ve heard of teams who have “do not do” lists in parallel with OKRs. This is because OKRs implement strategy and if the strategy is lacking or unclear then OKRs will make that clear, and hopefully seed a conversation.

Enough for now. I hope you found that interesting. If anyone out there has any more questions about OKRs please let me know and I’ll see if I can answer them here.

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Child at steps in image Jukan Tateisi in Unsplash.

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