OKRs create strategy alignment but not in the way you think they do

Flat 3d isometric business people came from different way but have same target. Business team and target concept.

One of the claims made of OKRs is they solve the problem of alignment, strategic alignment specifically. So, anyone reading Pull don’t push OKRs post might be wondering how this can be. I’m sure many people will ask how alignment can be achieved without some master plan and planner?

The obvious way to ensure teams are aligned with company strategy is clearly to tell them what to do. Obviously, if we have some master planner sitting at the centre they can look at the strategy, decide what needs doing and issue command, using OKRs, to teams.

Think of this like programming: there is a core controller and each team is a sub-routine which is called to do a bit. Alignment can be programmed through step-wise refinement with each layer elaborating on the ask and passing instructions down.

Obvious really. Why did even bother describing it?

Obvious and wrong

Obvious too is that this is not Agile. But heck, we’re all “pragmatic” and obviously achieving this kind of co-ordination requires some compromise and in this case commands must be passed around.

Personally, I have an aversion to any scheme that involves telling others what to do. There are just so many things that could go wrong, far better that to come up with a scheme that is failure tolerant.

Rather than spend my time explaining why this approach is wrong let us try a thought experiment: for the next few minutes accept I am right and we can’t tell others what to do. (Leave me a comment if you want me to set out the reasons why.)

Now the question is: what does work does?

Emergent alignment.

This is a design problem (“how do we are design work so disparate teams work harmoniously to a common goal?”) so the principle of emergent design should work too. We want to create a mechanism which allows design to emerge.

Now OKRs have a role to play.

By setting out what a team intend to achieve in a short, standardised, format OKRs allow intentions to be communicated and shared. Thus OKRs can be placed next to other OKRs and compared. Sharing in a standardised format allows misalignment to become clear. Once the problem can be seen action can be take to realign: OKRs build a feedback loop.

OKRs are another example an agile tool which allows problems to be seen more clearly. Someone once said “Agile is a problem detector”, for me OKRs are a strategy debugger. Simply using OKRs does not automatically solve the problem, but it makes the problem to be solved clearer.

The organisation sets out its goal(s) and strategy. Teams are asked to produce OKRs to advance on that goal. If the strategy incorporates all necessary information, is communicated clearly and teams are completely focused on the strategy then everything will work.

But, if strategy is absent, if the strategy has overlooked some key piece of information, if the strategy is miscommunicated (or not communicated at all) or teams have other demands then things will not align. When this happens there is work to do, now we want to correct problems and create OKR-Strategy alignment.

Step 1: the centre, the senior leaders set out the strategy and goals – which should themselves align with the purpose and history of the organization.

Step 2: teams look at these goals, look at the other demands on them and the resources they have, and ask themselves: what outcomes do we need to bring about to move towards those goals while following the strategy?

They write OKRs for the next period based on their understanding.

Step 3: members of the centre look at those OKRs and talk to the team. Everyone seeks to understand how the OKRs will advance the overall goal. If everything aligns then great, start work!

If alignment is missing then work is required: perhaps work on the OKRs, or perhaps the strategy needs clarifying or the goals adjusting.

Because this approach is feedback based it is self-correcting. The catch is, for the feedback loop to work people need to invest time in reading OKRs and looking for alignment, and misalignment, and correcting.

In the “obvious solution” you don’t need these time consuming steps because the centre assumes it is right and anything which goes wrong is someone else’s fault.

By the way, a smaller version of the alignment problem is sometimes called “co-ordination.” This is where two, or more teams, need to align/co-ordinate their work to create an outcome, e.g. Team A needs Team B to do something for them. The same principles apply as before, only here it is the team members which need to compare the OKRs.

So there you have it. OKRs are a strategy debugger and they create alignment by building a feedback loop to promote emergent alignment.

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