The Agile Enterprise is becoming the way successful companies operate and at Flux7 we like to lead by example. As a result, we have embraced many Agile practices across our business -- from OKRs to a flatarchy (for additional background, read our blog, Flatarchies and the Agile Enterprise) -- and plan to share in a short blog series how we are implementing these agile best practices, lessons we’ve learned along the way and the impacts they’ve had on our business. In today’s blog, we start by taking a look at our OKR (Objectives and Key Results) story and the greater role of OKRs in an Agile Enterprise.
Created by Intel and made popular by organizations like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Slack, OKR is a goal setting management style that is gaining traction. The goal of OKRs is to align individuals, teams and the organization as a whole around measurable results that have everyone rowing in the same direction.
Our OKR Timeline
Excited to begin, we started experimenting with them in early Q4 of 2018. And, our first serious attempt with OKRs was as we looked to build them for Q1 of 2019. After trying it once, we saw the shortcomings of what we had done (keep reading as we discuss lessons learned from that exercise below) and brought in an expert who could help us learn and improve. We found Dan Montgomery, founder of Agile Strategies and author of Start Less Finish More, to be exactly what we were looking for.
Dan helped us understand both the theory behind OKRs and gave us practical how-to steps to implement OKRs across Flux7. As an organization that already uses Agile methodologies in our consulting practice, Dan showed us how we can readily apply these principles to the OKR process, growing our corporate strategic agility. With Dan’s guidance, we began implementing OKRs across the organization.
We started with an initial training session on OKRs at Flux7’s All Hands Meeting, followed by an in-depth training and project orientation session for company leads. This training was bolstered with a session with our co-founders to assess company strategy, goals and performance as well as prepare for the development of company OKRs with the leads.
With this foundation in place, we began drafting our company OKRs. While our leads helped pave the way, Dan was instrumental in reviewing drafts and providing feedback. With company OKRs in place, we next turned to team OKRs. Over the course of two weeks, our leads worked with team members to draft team OKRs based on corporate OKRs. We finalized OKRs with a workshop where we made sure everyone was in alignment for the upcoming quarter and our leads committed to integrating OKRs into weekly action planning and accomplishments moving forward.
OKR Lessons Learned
While we tried our hand at developing OKRs before we engaged with Dan, we learned a few important things through this first exercise which were underscored by his expertise:
- Less can be more.
Regardless of the team or role, we found that people erred on the side of having more OKRs than fewer. We quickly realized that Dan’s “Start Less, Finish More” mantra was spot on and that less is indeed more as fewer OKRs mean we all have a laser focus on achieving key organizational goals, minimizing distractions and forcing a real prioritization that generates greater output.
We have a rule of thumb that no team shall have more than two objectives and would recommend to others that they have no more than three OKRs per group. In this vein, we would also recommend no more than three to five results per outcome. For example, if People Ops has an OKR to grow employee success, that might be measured through employee engagement, percent of employees that take advantage of professional development, and percent of employees taking part in the mentorship program.
- Cross-dependencies must be flagged.
While our teams quickly grokked the idea of how OKRs roll-up in support of top-level business goals, we could have done a better job initially of identifying OKR cross- dependencies between teams and individuals. With one of the goals of OKRs to improve employee engagement and teamwork, we quickly saw how imperative it is to flag any OKRs that bridge workgroups and/or individual employees. By ensuring that individuals are working in tandem and not duplicating efforts, we are able to maximize productivity.
- Transparency remains vital.
A core value since we opened our doors in 2013, the OKR process has served to highlight the importance of transparency in all we do. We are as transparent about OKRs as we are everything else at Flux7; since moving to an OKR process, we have taken several steps to ensure transparency.
- Integrated a team-by-team discussion of OKRs at each of our monthly meetings. At each meeting, we rotate team members who present progress on OKRs.
- Like everything else at Flux7, we encourage people to ask questions and to spur participation by everyone.
- We have created an OKR Trello board where team members can see progress to date on our quarterly OKRs.
It is really important to map OKRs to weekly actions as they are stepping stones to reaching the broader goal. While we still have room for improvement here, we recognize that it’s important to assess our progress to goal on a weekly basis as it allows us to more accurately track overall success and institute a course correction (when/if needed) in order to reach our ultimate OKR goal.
Two things worth noting here: First, mapping weekly actions to goals was an easier task for some groups than others, as the nature of work for some groups is naturally longer-horizon. Second, we highly recommend setting quarterly OKRs; this cadence allows us to be aggressive and in-tune with the fast-changing pace of the market while not so fast that we’re constantly re-working OKRs.
Another core value at Flux7 is applying learning for constant improvement. After our first quarterly OKR setting, we took a hard look at what went well and what could be improved and in learning from it went about the process of our second OKR setting. They say that the first pancake is always the flattest and this proved to be true with our OKR process as the second set of OKRs moved much more seamlessly, thanks to insight and guidance from Dan on what we were doing well and where we could improve.
OKRs and the Agile Enterprise
The Agile Enterprise is defined by its ability to create business value as it reacts to swift market changes. OKRs support this goal by replacing traditional goal-setting (a yearly top-down exercise) with quarterly bottom-up objectives and key results. We’ve seen the benefits first-hand:
- As employees play a key role in developing the objectives and results that they are personally responsible for, they take ownership and accountability. They are invested in achieving results.
- With ownership comes empowerment. Our employees know we trust them to create their own OKRs and take the reins and drive the results. As Henrik Kniberg points out here, what we seek -- and achieve -- is Aligned Autonomy. The business needs alignment, which is what we get when everyone is bought-in on the ultimate objectives. And teams need autonomy which is what we get when people are empowered. The result: we can all row in the same direction very efficiently and effectively.
- Last, with an agile-focused culture and a handful of objectives, we are all able to see clear progress toward our goals. As everyone feels like they are a part of the company’s success, employee satisfaction grows which creates a virtuous cycle of greater ownership, empowerment and ultimately business value to customers, partners and shareholders.
Transition is hard; it is chaotic, and it doesn't have easy answers. Having a guide that knows how to navigate these issues is important; just as we learned from working with Dan, our customers learn from working with us that having a partner who understands how to navigate a path to those unique solutions that will work best for your enterprise is invaluable.
The Agile Enterprise extends beyond agile development or lean product management; it is a mindset that must permeate corporate strategy as well. OKRs can play an integral role in bringing agility to corporate strategy, in the process growing employee engagement, removing silos and accelerating responsiveness to quickly changing market forces. Make sure you don’t miss the series on becoming an Agile Enterprise. Subscribe to our DevOps Blog here: