The OKR cycle goes wide-narrow-wide

Since writing Succeeding with OKRs in Agile I’ve had the chance to work with a few companies on OKRs and deliver a some training. Structure my thoughts to explain to ideas and concepts to other people is a great way of increasing your own understanding. So much so that I’m contemplating a second edition of Succeeding with OKRs – I’ll decide once I get Books to be Written out of the way.

The OKR cycle

Hence, I increasingly find myself talking about the OKR cycle – I mention the term in Succeeding but have come to realise how important it is. The “OKR cycle” is depicted in the diagram about, it is setting the team OKRs, executing against the OKRs, then as the end of the period is in sight thinking about what comes next. As the cycle ends there you need to close out the OKRs, review what you did, retrospect (what can we do better next time?) and go firm on the OKRs for the next quarter.

Typically the OKR cycle is 13 weeks long which immediate begs the question of how it fits with 2-week sprints? I was already moving towards saying “aim for 12 or 14 weeks” but after listening to a number of podcasts and talking to others I increasingly think 13 weeks is not the best period.

I can see a good case for running 4 month, 16 week, OKR cycles. This would decouple the OKR process from all those other quarterly processes businesses have: financial reporting, sales quarters, performance reviews and so on.

I can also see a case in going in the other direction: a 10 week cycle would also decouple OKRs from the same things. But there is a catch here: OKRs fill the mid-range planning horizon and help glue strategy to implementation. If we shrink the cycle too far it will become a long-sprint. Hence I tend towards lengthening the cycle but until I get a chance to try it I’m not coming down firmly one way or the other.

The other reason to shrink the cycle is to learn faster: particularly when starting OKRs. Just like running one week sprints when a team is new to agile. When a team is new to OKRs I now recommend running two back-to-back 6 or 8 week cycles. This would give the team twice the experience of setting OKRs, using OKRs to drive iteration planning, closing out OKRs at the end and repeating. After the second cycle I would drop back to 12 (or 16) weeks.

Which brings me to the second point on OKRs – something else I hint at in Succeeding but now go further. When working with OKRs you want to follow and Wide-Narrow-Wide model.

Wide-Narrow-WIde for setting, executing and evaluating

Stage 1 goes wide when setting OKRs: during this phase you want to go wide and think broadly. Consider what you might do, what is valuable, how what you are proposing will deliver (or protect) value. Ask difficult questions, throw stones at ideas and see if they hold up. Everyone should have a say because everyone needs to feel enrolled in the objectives.

Stage 2 goes narrow: your sole focus is on delivering the OKRs, you should aim to push everything else aside. OK, caveat #1 if your house catches fire unexpectedly PUT OUT THE FIRE even if you loose you OKRs – don’t be stupid but neither should you rush to extinguish every flame prematurely. And caveat #2: if fighting fires, aka dealing with live issues (think SecDevOps) is part of your responsibilities then make sure your OKRs reflect that is part of your work – maybe use OKR #0 as I discuss in the book.

Stage 2 is the longest stage, most of the typical 13 weeks, so my egg-timer model image isn’t completely accurate but you get the idea.

Finally, in stage 3 you go wide to evaluate what happened. This is where you ask not just “Did we meet or miss the OKRs?” but more importantly: “did we do good? did our work benefit people? add value? did we further our mission and the purpose of the organization?”

Ultimately I don’t care if you miss every OKR if you can answer “yes, we added value, we furthered our mission.” OKRs are, after all, a hypothesis of what will create benefit in the next few weeks.

And no sooner are you finished thinking broad in stage 3 then you are back to the wide thinking of stage 1 and you repeat.

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