🗞️ Issue #3: On the Art of OKRs and the Wisdom of Bruce Lee

Or why I no longer cry during OKRs planning


It's mid-September, and if you're neck-deep in writing OKRs, you are not alone.

These are the days when we take extra time to make sure everybody's doing alright. We ask each other "How are you doing?" And when the response is just a sigh and one word, "OKRs", we pretty much know the blood, sweat, and tears that go into it.

So much has been said and written about the practicalities of writing OKRs. About how Objectives need to be inspirational and ambitious. And about how Key Results need to be measurable and representative of a behavioral change you want to see in your users. I've spoken about these practicalities myself, always steeled by a bottle of beer.

But there's really not a lot of talking being done about the HOWs of actually applying OKRs in an organization. How to smooth out the kinks between teams. How to address changing priorities and the impact on one's key results. Or generally, how to make OKRs less frustrating.

The answer is, if course, it depends.

Have Conversations. Share Responsibility. Embrace Reality.

Working in a team that helps out marketplaces in 15 different countries achieve their goals, while mind-bogglingly amazing, is not without challenges. For the longest time, we were mostly seen as a support team who builds the features that marketplaces need instead of a collaboration partner that can be counted on.

And while getting a list of features requested to be delivered by the end of the quarter is this Product Manager's worst nightmare, in a way, I kind of understood why the marketplaces saw us as nothing more than a delivery pipeline.

We were far removed from their goals. It didn't seem like we have a stake in what's important for them. Our own objectives and key results were completely different from theirs making it look like we had our own agenda. Even though in reality, our purpose as a team was to help the marketplaces realize theirs.

It was like we were we were having a conversation with both sides speaking different languages.

OKRs is known as a communication tool. But in those days, it felt like we were just in the middle of a major miscommunication.

We needed to speak the same language as the marketplaces.

So we dropped our OKRs.

Kind of. We kept our objectives. We wanted the marketplaces to succeed, yes. But more specifically, we wanted to provide the best products and support that will help them succeed - so our objectives have to be more encompassing of the many marketplaces we are helping, and focused in our team's domain.

So how will we know if we are succeeding in reaching our objectives? If the marketplaces were succeeding, of course. And they have their Key Results defined to do just that. So we started using their Key Results as ours too.

What seemed like such a simple change, had the biggest impact on the dynamic we had with the marketplaces. Sharing Key Results put us in the same boat as them. We all had the same mission now. To increase X by Y. To decrease A by B. And to improve C by D.

Their success was clearly our success too. And their lack of it, was our lack of success too. Having the same key results made us as accountable as they were.

We were now collaborators. An extra pair(s) of hands and a new perspective. We brought in new insights. We put other ideas on the table. We planned validation exercises and designed solutions together. And eventually, we started defining those Key Results together.

When Key Results were achieved, we cheered and made plans to meet up in the same city to have beers and celebrate(pre-corona). When Key Results were not reached, we talked about how we can change our destiny next quarter, still with beers. Both sides making plans to continue save the world together. And that's how we knew that we were now all playing for the same team.

Writing OKRs is not making an unbreakable vow.

One of the things we call out as a main culprit for unreached Key Results are ~changes in priorities~. A catch-all reason that applies to all situations we end up in during the quarter.

We seem to think that once OKRs are written down and emailed to the entire company, that's it. That's what we will all be breathing, thinking, living for the next 3 months.

But a pandemic here, a political uprising there, an alien invasion everywhere; and the key result we defined no longer reflects the reality that sits outside the perimeter of our work desks. Unfortunately real life does not follow the rules of our quarterly rhythm.

By the time we are able to go back to our Key Results, there's not enough time to achieve it.

For the longest time we just pulled at our hairs. What can one do? We can't tell the zombies to come back next quarter, can we?

I think Bruce Lee said it best.

OKRs is not an exercise that's just to be done at the beginning and end of the quarter. It needs to be reviewed and scrutinized all the time. So we can change when necessary and immediately.

Sometimes it's just small changes. Maybe revisit planned initiatives, reprioritize the ideas to test, and rethink how to test them. Or maybe adjust the key result we defined completely. Make it smaller or bigger depending on what's necessary.

Sometimes it's big changes. And it requires scrapping the Key Result completely. At least for the current quarter. And pick it up again later. And re-assessing with the marketplace if we can help in any way. Sometimes the answer is no. At least not right now.

Whatever the change is, big or small - it's an action. An action that saves our hair, curtail frustration, and drive decision.

Is it important for the business? Is it going to provide value for your users? Then be water, my friend.

A lot of people write OKRs best practices, we try to follow them, and it doesn't work out for us the way the articles have indicated. And it doesn't always mean we did something wrong. It's called best practice, not the one and only way to do things, after all.

Don't get me wrong. Our teams don't do OKRs perfectly. Whatever perfect means. Sometimes we still have Launch X as Key Results. Or we measure KRs in milestones when metrics are unavailable. But the way we collaborate with other teams has never been better. And we get prouder and prouder of the quarters we close. We know we've tried our best. And next quarter, we're motivated to try to be even better than that. And for me, that's all that matters.

Framework, OKRs included, are a means to make our work lives easier. They're supposed to help us think and guide our conversations so we can reach a favourable outcome. So when a framework is just giving you more headaches than reprieve - stop, take a breath, and try to understand why. Then try to change something. Or get help from Agile coaches. :) We got a lot of help from Agile Coaches in Adevinta to get our OKRs process sorted out! 📣

If it still doesn't work, change the framework you're using. Or combine 2 or 3 frameworks and make your own. OKRs is not the only framework in the universe. At some point, some guy, somewhere, invented OKRs because he probably felt he needed something better for his problems.

At the end of the day, be water, my friend.

Got questions, feedback, violent reactions? Leave them in the comments below👇


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