10.13.2020   /   duration: 23 min
The Experience Lab
We're okay with OKRs - Part Two

We're okay with OKRs - Part Two

In part two of our exciting discussion about OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), hosts Rob Hall and Jay Cosgrove with veteran product manager Nick Alexander get down to brass tacks about the practical usage of OKRs within teams both large and small.

Hosted By

Jay Cosgrove, Senior Product Manager at Digital Scientists
Jay Cosgrove
senior product manager

Special Guest

Nick Alexander, Lead Product Manager at Digital Scientists
Nick Alexander
vice president of product management

Episode Transcript

Rob Hall: This is the experience lab, the official podcast of digital scientists from Atlanta, Georgia. We’re an experience lab that explores and builds digital products. My name is Rob Hall, and I’m the Senior Director of Product at DS. 


Jay Cosgrove: And I’m Jay Cosgrove, senior product manager. Thanks for listening.


Rob Hall: How can the development of clear okrs help steer the narrative with the customer? Because it for an agency, we’re often in this position where the customer is asking for features? Not necessarily outcomes.


Jay Cosgrove: Exactly. 


Rob Hall: From our perspective, we’re more interested in driving the outcome than developing a list of features. And that’s always been a point of tension between us and our clients. And not a negative tension, a healthy tension. But we’re always trying to ask the question, well, what is the problem that you’re trying to solve for your customer? And how do you know that just developing this list of 20 features is going to move the needle for them in any way? What has been your experience rolling these okrs up to a customer and getting their buy in? Because ultimately, you know, in Nick’s example, okay, ours, they’re, they’re critical to be set from the top down? Well, for us as an agency, or as a consultancy, the top for us is ultimately the customer. So how do you how do you work on achieving alignment for okrs, when you have to cross that bridge to the customer themselves?


Nick Alexander: And I think you’re spot on, Robert, I think it’s very different, the okrs that we’ve just been talking about in terms of company performance versus potentially an agency or services organization trying to fulfill the needs of their client.


Rob Hall: Right.


Nick Alexander: Because you don’t have that transparency up the chain of command at your client always, you are really trying to produce a result off of a vision initially laid out that might not be communicated in terms of what is that vision serving, and so becomes more KPI oriented, you can still have objective based outcomes. But you need to make sure that the key comes back to transparency, I mean, you were hired for a specific purpose, you obviously want to fulfill that purpose. But in order to show past expectations, and show additional value, you need to be able to relate that back to the value. And so in my past experience, especially with several different customers, this is where it makes or breaks a project. And if you do not over deliver on thinking critically about the objectives and needs of the end user, not just your customer, then that projects, likely they’re not going to succeed or not going to have the same Hurrah at the end of the project, as it as it should. Because you are now a secondary leader, you are a secondary leader that is advocating for your customers brand.


Rob Hall:Right.


Nick Alexander: You didn’t make sure that you take that critically. 


Rob Hall: Absolutely.


Jay Cosgrove: Yeah, I’ve seen that’s such a good point. Because there’s definitely attention being as an agency to Nick at this point, but that I’ve experienced with not having access to the data to even prove out okrs. And sometimes depending on the relationship with the client, you can get access to that if you point. But if it’s a huge client, that might be very proprietary stuff. And you don’t really know if you can get that or how much you’re affecting, you know that that main metric that they might be pushing towards, because they’re keeping it tight to the chest. So that is that is definitely attention. And then the other point I love that you hit Nick is that sometimes the client is coming looking for a specific thing. And you’re sitting here and backing up and say, Well, does that actually benefit the user? Let’s think about the user more than the specific thing. And some of that sometimes at the end, depending on which side you go for. If you lean in, just follow the orders of the customer. Or if you kind of disregard the orders of the customer and go after the objective. It may get varying results At the end of the day. And that is certainly a tight spot and hard to answer what the right thing is to do for each situation.


Nick Alexander: And I can’t speak for all clients. But I know when I’ve been the client of services organizations, I think I appreciate it more than ones that came back to me and re approached what our goals for the project should be to make sure that it was in line with not only what I eventually wanted to try to serve, but also just another opinion, a third party and this is what we hire services organizations for a lot of time a third party that is removed one step from your direct business so they can think critically outside of it.


Jay Cosgrove: Yeah.


Rob Hall: Yes, I think that’s a trap that you can fall into that being confirmation bias. And so if you’re seeking a service organization to provide that outside perspective, you have to be open to a perspective that differs from your own and might differ sharply. If you’re seeking an agency to just validate what you believe you already know. You’re either missing an opportunity or you’re, I don’t know, you’re you’re not really gaining the full value of that relationship.


Jay Cosgrove: Yep, yep I would say my recommendation would always be that you go after the the, that second opinion, and try to push that as hard as you can. But at the same time, there’s points in Rob, I know that we’ve experienced this together where the customer doesn’t care. And at some point, you have to fulfill the contract. And it’s just a sad reality.


Rob Hall: On that point, if you find yourself stuck in that situation, there are ways to push through it. And sometimes the the intended outcome is not what you achieve. But But I think there is a key issue of integrity, where if you are the service provider, as the agency, you still have a voice. And it starts in that initial sales pitch to the customer. This is who we are, this is part of our DNA and delivering against defined outcomes is who we are and what we do. And then Nick, to your point, being the service provider that is continually reinforcing that conversation, these are our outcomes, are we still pushing towards these outcomes? Continually asking that question and reiterating it to the customer is very easy for the customer. They do what they do all day, every day, whatever it is, and it’s very hard to come up for air. And to accept a perspective, that’s, that’s not what you do. And so, especially if you as a software design and development agency are doing work for someone who does not understand that, who doesn’t live in software development day in and day out, it’s hard for them to understand that. And it’s not their fault. It’s just a very different paradigm. And –


Jay Cosgrove: I think you said it nicely is like, the best thing you can do is start laying that foundation from the very beginning in the sales pitch of like, hey, I know you want this thing, but we could get into it. And that thing could not be the right thing to do. And we’re gonna tell you that. And I think that’s that has been key for us. And definitely a shift since I’ve even been here of how we handle sales and kickoff.


Rob Hall: Okay, so I’m a product manager, and I’m defining okrs for my team or for project, how do I manage them? What approaches have worked for y’all? What kind of tools do you use, what works, what doesn’t?


Nick Alexander: Because of the nature of okrs, and they should be something that you review weekly, especially when you’re at the team level, when you’re you can review weekly, but the goals are quarterly oriented. It needs to be involved in your day to day, your week to week thought process. My big struggle with these software’s that come in from an HR perspective. They’re they’re afterthoughts. The fact that okrs are not really supposed to be tied to employee performance also drives you away from wanting it to be an HR solution. And so as I think about while they’re quarterly objectives, and it’s interesting, because we put employee performance reviews on either the half year or the annual for most companies, it starts to line up and the employee themselves gets confused. And so you got to really clearly delineate and segregate between project work, and KPIs and oriented measures for the employee themselves. I don’t love a lot of stuff. For this, I’ve managed okrs, from a week to week basis, especially with whether it’s managing a team or you know, managing individual employees for more of a KPI perspective, on something that’s in front of me right away. I know I keep a list of things like a running tally through different notes programs and those kinds of things that I can continually have, if you will, a freeze pane on those okrs that are critical to serve. But not necessarily off to the side and a system that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with. And so I guess my preference is normally either bake it into a process that you have that works well for you on the day to day, week to week, or in a system that at least your project team isn’t.


Jay Cosgrove: Yeah, I would agree with Nick there. I think I’ve tried a few software solutions for it. When we first discovered it. We actually have one one application installed in our JIRA instance, I think it’s called OKR board. And it’s pretty nice like if you structure, if you’re really good at structuring your epics and your stories ultimately back to objectives. It’s pretty neat because you can like tag them and then you know the automate percentage complete on your key results and stuff like that. It’s cool, but like Nick said at the end of the day, There’s like no one was looking at it. So it’s really like whatever is going to be the best to put in front of your team. If it’s a Mira board, if it’s like even just a Google Doc that you’re going to store them in. I don’t think it really matters that much as long as you have a place where people are actually gonna look at them. And you might be the primary one that does that. So maybe it’s even in an Evernote Doc you know, who knows.


Rob Hall: One of the best things I’ve seen you do Jay to just continually reinforce okrs, is to stick them in the beginning of a project master doc, or a master deck rather. So I think back to last year, for example, every time we would have a client meeting, second slide you throw up on the screen, is just as a reminder, here’s our okrs. And by the way, here’s where we are in terms of tracking against them.


Jay Cosgrove: Yep. And that’s slightly different. When it comes to a client that’s going to you do want them to live wherever you’re going to regularly present to the clients.


Rob Hall: Sure. When do these totally go sideways? When does the creation and tracking of an OKR just totally blow up? 


Nick Alexander: For me, it’s when they’re not flexible. What I mean by that is you want something strong that you can lead towards, but life gets in the way, projects get in the way different business scenarios get in the way. And so if you do not see these as something that you’re updating on the regular or working towards, and making the pivot when you need to make the pivot, if you just leave it in place, then to me, that’s where the team starts going sideways. So now you’ve got an objective that you’re going after that is not in line with the current state of affairs of your business or of the clients business. And you start, you start chasing rather than leading. And so for me, you become this sidewinder mole hole through the ground that’s tearing up grass and going every which direction, but you’re not aligned with your company value, the clients value the structure, right. And so without that flexibility, and without a channel and an outlet to update those, then to me, it’s too stringent. It’s not in line with where you are currently, and it just can’t succeed. 


Jay Cosgrove: I heard this thing recently for okrs, it was “commit hard, recalibrate often,” and I was like, that is brilliant, you know, like, put your head down, go after it hard, but like, we have to, and this is this is difficult in larger orgs. But you have to be willing to change. And that is the principle of agile, right? And even within your key results. Sometimes that might be necessary, it could be changing your dates or the key result itself. I mean, we’re just always learning and to not apply that learning, even to our objectives and key results, I think it would just be ridiculous. 


Rob Hall: I think it also requires a great deal of just individual judgment and critical thinking to understand when it is appropriate to allow the OKR to change and adjust over time versus holding the line and saying no, this, this is it, and we have to stick to it. I think there can often be a temptation in organizations that have an agile culture and methodology to allow change to such a degree that nothing ever ships. And we’ve seen that before. So it, I think maintaining flexibility is critical, while also remembering the goal is to ship code that works. And the moment you take your eye off of that goal, it really doesn’t matter whether you’re rigid or flexible, you still have to ship a product.


Nick Alexander: That’s right. And, and honestly, I put a lot of this on management teams. I think the key is really expectations from the OKR. Again, I know I started with this, but it’s a reach goal. It’s something that you’re stretching for, it’s an objective that you really, you know, it’s important to the business. But the actual result that’s coming out of it is something that you’re going after it’s in front of you. And so I’ve seen these go sideways, if management if leadership starts putting any type of performance associated with hitting those okrs, together with the employee themselves, then now you’re starting to do the safe thing. Now you’re starting to not stretch yourselves now you’re starting to not look at the project, but you’re looking at how does it benefit me as an employee? And that can just lead to devastating effects as well for the project? 


Jay Cosgrove: Yeah, I agree with that. 


Rob Hall: How do we apply them here at Digital scientists?


Jay Cosgrove: That’s a good question. At Digital Scientists, we got really excited about it probably a year and a half ago, maybe two years ago, when we were going through that book, like I had mentioned. And we pretty much just set a hard and fast rule that instead of running feature roadmaps from now on we’re doing a hard pivot to letting our projects be run by quarterly objectives and key results. So how they function on a very practical manner is you would have two to three objectives per project that are overarching objectives. And then underneath each objective, you would have between two and four key results that are numeric based, that would be quantifiably validated, it worked pretty well. But what we saw was that certain products, and like I’d mentioned earlier, certain restrictions to data, really kind of threw that process for a loop. And we ultimately, probably about three months ago came to the point where we said, we can’t enforce this as a hard and fast rule. Even this thing that we think is amazing and really good. And each project should use it if they can, has to be flexible, based on the customer, and based on the individual product or project that you’re managing. So I guess to summarize, we do our best to use okrs using three objectives, two to three objectives, two to three key results, but some of our projects might not be able to do that. And in that case, we generally use kind of a project or product vision to guide direction.


Rob Hall: Nick, what’s your personal experience been with? okrs?


Nick Alexander: Well, I think I have missed every single one 100% of the time.  I think –


Rob Hall: Oh good.


Nick Alexander: I think that the key right is a good set, okay, are you’re just not gonna hit. And if you’re hitting these okrs, then I think you’re doing something wrong as well. Okrs in my experience have been great. As in the in the KPI terms, they’re great leading indicators, right, there’s something that you’re going after. They’re, they’re you’re really trying to push towards a result, I think some of the most successful projects that I’ve been on is that, hey, you might not have hit the OKR, fully, but you hit 50% or 75% of the objective. I mean, that’s how much it should push you and push your team to build and develop and deliver a better product for your client. And if you’re not doing that, and if you don’t have that ambitious cycle, where you’re trying to think of the next thing or how do we continuously push on the objective, then I honestly think it might be a waste of time.


Rob Hall: So here’s a question, Nick, if you’re constantly missing the OKR, and I understand the principle you want, you want the goal to be a stretch, you’re trying to push your team towards excellence.


Nick Alexander: That’s right.


Rob Hall: Towards achieving what is sometimes the unachievable can that not become a demoralizing situation for the team?


Nick Alexander: Absolutely. And that’s why –


Rob Hall: How do you navigate that?


Nick Alexander: You really need to have KPIs that are on point and you can hit. And so it’s an interesting pairing, where you are over delivering and as an employee successfully meeting all of your needs, but you are still pushing the team through the OKR.


Rob Hall: What in your view are the best practices to approach communicating? Well, first, not just communicating, but establishing okrs. And reinforcing them, communicating them effectively to your customers?


Jay Cosgrove: Yeah, so we hit on this a little bit earlier, but I would say as early as you can, in your process. Specifically, if you’re an agency, if you’re an internal product, and you have stakeholders that might not be used to them, then again, as early as you can start introducing them. And again, it’s just it’s just making that point that we’re going to focus on the overall objective and the thing that we’re chasing after, for our user instead of individual features, or maybe internal numbers that are more inward focused. And so I think by setting that up, and we mentioned it before we put them in a deck, and almost every time we present to our clients, we’ll review them if it’s applicable. And, and I think that’s really helpful. I think a challenge you might have, though, is, if you’re an agency and you, you actually hand over the product, at some point is setting them up for success to do it on their own. And in that point, I think you really have to provide some coaching for it. So whatever material you have, or you learned from sharing it with them, maybe even doing a workshop on how to generate them, and or maybe even including a small portion of your hand off SOW or portion of a SOW where you’re doing handoff is to actually coach through that process.


Nick Alexander: Yeah, I love that. Jay, some of the additional challenges that I know I’ve seen, it’s all around change. We’ve talked about recalibrating, we’ve talked about adjusting your okrs making sure they fit in I think what you hit on was spot on in terms of the handoffs, it’s at the beginning of the project at the end of the project. And then the question is, throughout the middle of the project, when a new piece of information comes in a new blip on the radar happens, you know, how do you update and change your okrs, communicate it to the client and be successful in that transition? Because that’s, that’s hard on the client, that’s hard on your project team. But making sure that’s a smooth process helps stabilize the project and keep it moving in the right direction.


Rob Hall: If I’m a new product manager, or a senior PM, but I’m new to the concept of okrs, what are some good resources for me to learn and get started? 


Jay Cosgrove: I would go to Google first.


Rob Hall: Well duh.


Jay Cosgrove: Generally what I do. But there’s a couple books that I think are good resources. Some of these I’ve read, some I haven’t Inspired, that’s a really good one. There’s another book called Measure What Matters. And Radical Focus is another one I’ve heard that is really good, too. So I think those are some good ones, if you enjoy reading, otherwise, I think there’s some really succinct, like, median articles that are out there. Those were the first ones introduced to me, that captured the process really well and gave really good examples. So that’s a good you know, if you’re looking for a 10 minute short, how do I, you know, get started with this, that’s probably the first spot. But after you’re hooked, one of those books will probably build up the process better for you.


Nick Alexander: You know, hopefully, you can learn from our experience, learn from the experience of your peers, just make them, make them clean, make them very relatable, make sure that they align all the way up and down, whether it’s on a project or in your company. And I think using these resources will help you get started.


Rob Hall: Yeah, I agree. And I think that the key thing with this like any other tool or framework, or process is learning is always the goal. And if rigidity to process means you stop learning, then your process needs to change.


Jay Cosgrove: Yep. Yep. And it’s a common theme through our podcast so far is like any subject we go to tackle. I feel like we never leave with a declarative answer. It’s always just learn and do whatever is going to work best for your team or your project or your product. And that’s ultimately the answer. No one has it fully figured out. You just have to work and adapt for your situation.


Rob Hall: Thank you for listening to the experience lab from Digital scientists. To learn more about our team and the great work we do or even hire us, visit our website at Digital scientists.com