“How many OKRs should a team have?”
“Can a bigger team have more OKRs?”
These are among the most frequent questions asked about OKRs and I will answer both here.
First question, how many? 3. My answer, my rule of thumb: three.
Better still: one, 1. Fewer is better than more
But people seem to want more, so if you twist my arm, inflict pain and I will give in, I will admit I lied and say four, yes 4.
You should be able to count the number of OKRs on the fingers one hand. 18 is too many, 10 is too many, even six is pushing it.
One OKR is probably “OKR Zero”: the business as usual OKR which highlights the revenue protection and support work a team does. “DevOps” in modern software parlance. (See Succeeding with OKRs in Agile for the full description of that.)
Another OKR might be nominated by the team themselves to improve work effectiveness and efficiency. For a software team this might be something like retooling the delivery pipeline or addressing “technical debt.” For a customer service team it might mean adopting a new improved ticketing system or undertaking more training to increase team capabilities. (Again Succeeding with OKRs in Agile discusses this.)
Which leave two OKRs, or perhaps just one, for the main business need usually nominated by the product owner type person. Not a lot. One might be the primary, high profile, most effort, objective. While the second is, well, secondary.
Put like that it doesn’t sound a lot. OKRs, unlike user stories, are big and meaningful. They create outcomes which deliver benefit.
The logic here is that it is better to achieve one thing completely than several things partially. The aim should be for “short and fat” working over “long and thin.” The sooner something is completed the sooner it can generate benefit. The sooner it can generate benefit the sooner it can pay back the time invested and the greater the return on investment.
One of the key benefits of prioritizing OKRs is that “things can fall off the end.” Suppose a team has the four OKRs just suggested:
0. Business as usual
1. Primary thing
2. Secondary thing
3. Team improvement
Now suppose that they are forced to take on four more:
4. Something else
5. Another thing
6. Sally’s thing
7. One more thing
When prioritisation is disputed and all are considered equal, then there may well be some progress across all eight but none are completed. If they are prioritised as above then: business as usual is covered so the team don’t slide backwards. The primary objective stands a better chance of success than anything else. In fact, the further ones goes down the list the less likely it is to be achieved. (Sorry teams.)
Remember: the aim of OKRs is to create beneficial outcomes. Simply starting more work, creating more work in progress does not contribute to this goal. In fact, those familiar with Little’s Law know that more work-in-progress has the opposite effect. So adopt the Kanban mantra: Stop starting, start finishing.
When OKRs are prioritised in ascending order, with no duplicates, then above some point it is pointless to add more. Adding more only increases the amount of time needed to set OKRs and the disappointment when they are not achieved.
Even so, adding a tenth or eleventh OKRs to a team which can only really achieve four might be the path of least resistance. However, there is something slightly dishonest about it, more importantly, it misses the opportunity to have a strategic conversation.
Can a bigger team have more OKRs?
Remember the goal of OKRs is to create focus. When a team is bigger, say 16 instead of six people, it is more difficult to achieve focus. Therefore, bigger teams benefit more from fewer OKRs.
Focus is not divisible: an individual can focus on one thing. Maybe two, maybe drop everything for an emergency. But they cannot focus on 10, or even five. More work to do simply increases cognitive load and makes it more difficult to do anything.
If a team is regularly called upon to do 10 different things the solution is not to set more OKRs. The solution is something else.
This rule also applies if you lengthen the OKR cycle. If you set 3 OKRs for a 10 week cycle you will also set 3 for a 15 week cycle. Often, having more time make it more difficult to focus. How often have you missed an appointment because you had plenty of time? Yet when you have just enough you don’t let anything get in the way.
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