okrs

Can you keep Agile and OKRs seperate?

“I’ve been told to keep agile and OKRs separate”

The first time I head this I was surprised, “missed opportunity” I thought but then, as I thought about it more, the more I realised that it was impossible.

Start with the OKRs: OKRs are about deciding what to put your time and energy into. OKRs are about the big priorities for your organization and team. The more I’ve spent time with OKRs, the more I’ve come to see them as the management method rather than a management method among many. Let me caveat that lest it sound arrogate: management within an organization.

The management approach

There are many management approaches out there: strict time-and-motion were workers time is schedule to the minute by experts; complete devolution giving employees free rein and managers (if they exist at all) only exist to coach. And there is everything in between, including project management which attempts to define the start and stop dates in advance. At this level OKRs are one management approach among many and organizations are free to choose which they follow.

Even combining traditional HR performance review processes with OKRs can lead to ruin. Once compensation is conected to OKRs people become incentivised to stay safe by setting OKRs which bring rewards, i.e. not ambitions ones that might be missed.

Running any other management method in tandem with OKRs risks jeopardising both. So if you choose OKR then follow it all the way, call it “Extreme OKRs” if you like.

Just try imaging agile as something separate to your OKRs: you set OKRs and then you run iterations. What are you delivering in the iteration? Surely iterations are delivering progress against OKRs?

I suppose you could have a backlog of work to do (Track A) and some OKRs to work on as well (Track B). Track A and B might lead to different places or represent different work to do. Leave aside potential conflict for a minute, think about how you divide your time.

More WIP, fewer results

Agile teaches that work in progress should be minimised, but now in this example there are two sanctioned work streams. Maybe we could ring-fence work: Agile in the morning, OKRs in the afternoon. I find it hard to see that working well.

Maybe A could be the main stream and B other a “best efforts” / “spare time” stream. But, if both A and B are important then why leave prioritisation be left to the worker? It smells a bit of leadership abdicating responsibility for prioritisation.

It is a fantasy to think that workers can focus on delivering the backlog and in their “spare time” deliver the OKRs. If your workers have copious amounts of spare time then something else is seriously wrong. It is easy to overload workers, and thereby create problems further down the line. People will burn out, goals will be missed or goals are met but with such poor quality that problems emerge later.

I can see how you can run OKRs without agile.

And I’ve long seen Agile working without OKRs.

But if you have both Agile and OKRs in the same company I just don’t see how Agile and OKRs can be separated. Conversely I can see how they can work well together – yes, I wrote a book on that.

If you are going to have OKRs and Agile in the same company then you need to consider them as one thing, not as two separate endeavours.

Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash


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OKRs top-down? bottom-up? or ripples in a pond?

One of the great things about writing a book is that you get a greater understanding of the subject. So it was with “Succeeding with OKRs in Agile”. In particular writing the book forced me to think about how OKRs fitted with agile and hierarchal structures. I get the impression that many people are interested in using OKRs to align teams but not everyone has worked out all the nuances.

On the face of it OKRs are hierarchal: it seems “obvious” that someone, somewhere, is going to set a big goal, that goal will cascade down and every team will end up with their own mini version of the goal. As I said, this seems obvious, how else could it be? Especially in a large organization?

After all, is that how the not so distant ancestors of OKRs, Management-By-Objectives (MBOs), worked.

This also fits the engineer’s mind: the product team have a goal, and all the supporting teams – whether contributing components or services – make their goals subservient to the one goal. The classic inverted tree with each team doing what the node above asks.

But, top-down conflicts directly with reality and with agile. Teams don’t have one goal, they don’t answer to but one leader but to multiple leaders, multiple customers, multiple stakeholders and these don’t always agree. Agile folk have long railed against command-and-control from above while advocating self-managing or self-organising teams. Surely OKRs go against this philosophy?

So, if we are to use OKRs in an agile environment these positions need to be reconciled. In Succeeding with OKRs I described the process as more bottom-up than top-down. Thus, rather than a big boss saying what should happen and that being cascaded down the origanization to provide goals at every level, I describer the big boss setting out a vision, a goal, an objective but not describing details. Then they say to the teams: “Help, how can you help more us towards that goal?”

Now, only a few months after I wrote that my thinking has moved on. I don’t disagree with myself but I see the need for a more nuanced explanation and a revised model.

First off, I’m guilty of using the language of hierarchy: top-down and bottom-up. In so doing I’m supporting the view that hierarchies are the natural state of things and creating a, possibly false dichotomy: one thing or another. For years I’ve been thinking of organisations both as federal entities and as solar systems. While the leadership team may be central to decisions they are not all powerful . Teams have their own paths, leadership and leadership teams are the sun and teams/divisions orbit them. (If I recall correctly I picked this idea up in the Henry Mintzberg book Simply Managing.)

Bear in mind, as I say in everyone of my books: team are autonomous. We stive for independent teams with devolved authority. Each team exists to deliver a product or service and each team has multiple stakeholders – of whom the big boss is but one. Each team therefore has to decide how best to deliver benefit to (potentially competing) stakeholders. Sometimes that means co-ordinating with other teams and even other companies.

Put that together: teams are creating OKRs but they are not doing it in isolation, they are listening to the big bosses at the centre but also the teams they need to work with.

Recently I’ve started to think of these concentric circles less as planetary orbits and more as waves, or ripples to be precise. The big boss at the centre makes big ripples that carry out to the edges.

But leaders are not the only ripple makers. Teams, customers and other stakeholders also have an effect – like rain falling on water. Sometimes these waves some together and magnify each other, other times they cancel each other out, more often than-not they are out of sync and disrupt each other in ways too complex to predictable.

We think of leaders as single water droplets but inreality there are lots of drops making lots of ripples

OKRs are the messaging system that allows teams to signal what ripples they are creating and which they are reacting to. Teams are iterating – OKRs reset every 13 weeks – which means every quarter teams get a chance to react to other ripples and rest their own.

Thought of like this you also get a scaling model. Not so much a model of “how to do this to scale” but a mental model which describes how to think about scaling.


I have some upcoming presentations and webinars about OKRs if you would like to know more

Or, buy the book “Succeeding with OKRs in Agile”


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Succeeding with OKRs in Agile book cover

Best seller – Succeeding with OKRs in Agile

I’m delighted that my new book Succeeding with OKRs in Agile went on sale at Amazon yesterday. By this morning it was the number #1 best seller in Amazon’s IT Project Management category – and not doing badly in Computer Programming and Business Management & Leadership either. (Although the publisher has some power over which categories a book is in it is still a black-art.)

It is hard to express just how great it is to see the book in the number #1 slot. While I hope it stays at #1 for a while I expect it will drop down before long.

Print and audio versions of the book are in the works and should be released in the next few weeks so if you would rather read a physical version or listen, watch this space as they say.

The book has taken a little under a year to write and a few more months to make production ready. The wonders of LeanPub mean many readers have already been enjoying early versions of the book. If you would like to read the book on iBooks or as a PDF then LeanPub is the place to buy from.

I recorded the little video below to explain why I wrote the book.