First get small, next get broad

Small, small, small – I have spent a lot of my career arguing for small: small tasks, small user stories, small teams, small releases, small funding increments, small “projects”. I argue we should get good at small and optimise our systems for doing lots of small. I can justify my arguments – Project Myopia or Diseconomies of Scale. Small makes sense.


While focusing on small is good for delivery it creates other problems. In truth, no solution is ever without consequences and few have no negative consequences, all we can strive for is more positive consequences than negative.

It is not enough to get good at small in delivery, one needs to couple that with an understanding of what is commonly called the bigger picture and which I prefer to think of as the broader picture.

The failure to situate small in the broader context underlies many of the problems we see in the work place today. Take work management, ignoring the broad leads to micro-management, disempowered staff, frustrated employees and collaboration failure.

It is also failure to see the broad that lies behind two of todays most common problems: Product Owner Failure and Run away Backlogs.

Product, sigh

Product Owners – I include Product Managers here – are failing because they are failing to see the broader picture: what is the problem we are trying to solve? how can we bring value to customers?

Product people are too often too focused on features. While I’ve recently seen some point the finger of blame at product owners/managers I think they are only responding to their environment. Companies are operating feature factors and sales are made on features, people think more when they should think better. Product people need to get out and meet customers and bring what they learn back to they can try and change the inside.

The feature, feature, feature attitude is also behind the backlog fetish which leads to backlogs stuffed full of ideas which are never, ever, going to be implements.

The discussion needs to be broadened. We need to get away from quick-wins and features, we need to think more broadly. We need to think about the big things: goals, objectives, purpose and even meaning.

Post pandemic it is common to hear of people seeking meaning in their work, no wonder so many people are dropping out of the workforce when the best they are offered is “more stuff to do.” In looking at broader goals we also need to recognise goals within goals, we need to uncover the hierarchy of (possibly competing) goals, call them out and work with them.

Thats is why I am keen to emphasise outcomes over outputs and its why its tempting to think of a great big funnel containing a machine for breaking the big into small (or Rock Crushing as my old friend Shane Hastie would put it.)

The challenge is to combine the need to focus on the small for delivery while also being able to think broadly. In part it is this challenge that has caused me to focus more on agility over agile.

The Strategic/Tactical Product model but it is not a complete solution.

Iteration, again

Another part of the solution is iteration: we spend a lot of our time in the small focusing on delivery, but from time to time we surface and consider the wider context. Thats why I embrace the OKR cycle, it gives everyone a chance to understand both and take part in both discussions.

Underlying so much of my work over the years has been a desire to remove intermediate pieces: like having a coder speak directly to a user rather than through a BA, its one of my objections to projects (which claim to show the big picture but actually represent a restricted view), its lurking in my dislike of estimates, and its part of my dislike of backlogs.

Asking people to carry the broad picture in their minds while working in the small is asking a lot. Thats why the cycle of thinking broad, setting goals, then switching into narrow mode for delivery works so well. Its fair, it includes everyone and it gives everyone the reason why we do what we do.

In short, we need to think broadly when deciding “what is the right thing to do”, then switch into the small to deliver. Importantly, we need to share not just that thinking but also the discussion. Everyone has a right to be heard.

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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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Why OKRs require a strategy rethinking

OKRs offer a way to connect strategy – high level abstract goal type things – with delivery – low level concrete detailed task level things. OKRs offer a middle level planning. They are replanned often enough to be flexible while lasting long enough to give enough stability to take on bigger, more ambitious work.

As with so much else about OKRs there is a more agile way of going about this and a less agile way of going about it. Connect strategy to OKRs in the less agile way and you end up back at command and control. The give away sign is that OKRs cascade down the company so teams don’t control their own destiny, ambition is neutered and motivation is lost.

Which approach you take will largely depend on the seemingly academic question: “what is strategy?”

Many people see strategy as a one way street. Strategy making and execution is hierarchal with decisions made at the top are passed down. Alternatively strategy can be seen as emergent property of a cooperating network. Strategy is a two way street, each node both informs strategy making and execution is guided by the resulting strategy.

Depending on how you view strategy you are going to implement OKRs very differently.

Is strategy a kind of planning?

Sad to say, the predominant view of strategy is that it is some sort of grand plan. The plan sets out the “place” the company aims to get to (price, position, etc), plus the route for getting there. Anyone who has studied a little strategy will recognise this as the “Porter view of strategy.”

Strategy as planning inherently sees strategists as master planners, all the relevant information is fed into the strategy/planning department. Experts analyse the data and rationally decide what needs doing. The plans are sent out.

This is inherently hierarchical so it natural to use cascading OKRs as the implementation mechanism. But because teams have little say in setting their OKRs motivation is lost and ambition is neutered.

The is a machine like view of organizations, inherently top-down, deviation from the plan, the strategy, is an error. When OKRs do not directly support strategy OKRs need to be changed.

Study a bit more strategy and you will find that while Porter’s view has appeal it is not the only view. There are in fact many different schools of thought on what strategy is.

Emergent strategy is more agile

To my agile mind the “emergent view of strategy” fits better. Strategy emerges over time from the activities of the organization, part planned, part reactive and part backward looking to explain the past. Professor Henry Mintzberg describes strategy as “a pattern of behaviour over time” which chimes with my pattern thinking.

Strategy is a two way street, teams are edge sensors: detecting technology changes, production techniques, putting products in the hands of customers and gathering feedback. This allows learning and adaption. The organization as a whole is a learning entity: discovering customer need and mastering new capabilities. Teams have the authority to act in the best interests of the company and customers. Over time strategy emerges.

When OKRs do not reflect stated strategy it is a learning opportunity. Ask: why do team OKRs deviate from strategy?

Is the team seeing something which the strategists do not? – in which case the OKRs are signalling back from the edges to the centre.

Is the team able to follow strategy? – maybe it lacks skills or capacity, or maybe it is overloaded with “business as usual.”

Has the intended strategy has been clearly communicated? Or maybe there is no explicit strategy?

Strategy, OKRs and agility

OKRs, like other agile tools, are problem detectors exposing opportunities for improvement.

Perhaps obviously, the “Strategy as a plan” view is going to limit agile to a back-room delivery thing because it passes over the opportunities for feedback and centralises decision making. Conversely, the “Emergent strategy” view entirely compatible with devolved authority, independent teams, experimentation and “the agile mindset”.

When teams act on their own initiative the organization will be more agile. When teams wait for instructions everyone is less agile. There may be a price for agility: teams may repeat work, teams may pursue the “wrong” goals but the price of that efficiency is lost agility which costs in missed opportunities and improvements.

If you want high levels of efficiency and believe in planned strategy you will look to decide strategy and align OKRs with the strategy before you do anything else. However, that results in less agility.

If you want to using OKRs and maximise agility then you need to take an emergent view of strategy. In many ways, we back to the Theory X or Theory Y question.

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