OKRs as a bridge between strategy and daily work of agile product teams – an interview with Sonja Mewes and Tim Herbig

OKRsProduct Management

Tim Herbig is a product management coach, consultant, author and speaker. After several product leadership roles at XING and Gruner+Jahr, among others, he now helps companies and teams build better products that users love and drive business KPIs forward. He is also the co-host of the Product Tank Hamburg Meetup and creator of the Product Discovery Online Masterclass.

Sonja Mewes is a consultant and trainer for organizational and strategic development that focuses on the needs and requirements of people and combines them with the possibilities of new technologies. She herself has over 10 years of management experience in the digital industry. Today Sonja accompanies clients with various “new work” approaches in the analysis, implementation and further development of their individual organizational systems, strategies and working methods. She is co-host of the remote meeting for OKR experts and co-author of “OKRs at the Center: How to drive ongoing change with goals to create the organization you want”.

 

In an interview with Workpath Magazine, Tim and Sonja shared their experiences with OKRs in agile product teams, how their daily work can be focused on real value through OKRs, how OKRs help teams to define success in advance, and how OKRs can be successful in remote teams.

 

 

Sonja, Tim, you have both been working intensively with OKRs for a long time. What do you use them for and what added value do they offer you?

 

Tim: OKRs are used in many different ways. On the one hand, we use them when we help our  clients to integrate aspects such as prioritization and focus on daily work. Not only do we talk about the necessary framework and principles behind OKRs, we also actively help them to set up their own OKR system that fits their organization and their needs. 

Furthermore, OKRs are also a way to structure our own business. Especially in order to have enough time for new products and ideas in the day-to-day work with customers, the quarterly definition and regular review of priorities helps.

 

Sonja: Above all, it is important for us to understand and use the potential of OKRs as a learning tool for the entire organization. I have just written a whole book about this with Natalija Hellesoe, for all those who want to learn more about how this can work.

We also use OKRs together privately. Before our last move, for example, we talked extensively about what exactly we would notice if we liked the new place, what was important to us. So, over a cup of coffee, we can always talk about whether our wishes have already come true or what we want to actively tackle in the coming months, instead of only finding satisfaction or dissatisfaction at the end of the “trial period” of the new environment.

 

 

And what is Agile Product Management all about? How does this fit in with OKRs?

 

Tim: Agile Product Management has many faces. But whether a team uses Scrum, Kanban or a variation of these methods, it can often be broken down to three core elements. 

It’s about the iterative development of user-centric (digital) products in a cross-functional team. Many aspects of OKRs, such as the joint definition of objectives, as well as regular review and reflection during and at the end of the cycle, are also reflected in Agile Product Management. Therefore OKRs are more often called Agile Goals.

OKRs can be an effective bridge for translating directions from the vision or strategy to the daily tasks of an agile product team.

They can be used to link both delivery (developing and shifting new functionality) and product discovery (understanding problem space and validating ideas). 

 

Sonja: OKR sets only offer a real value for product teams if they focus on outcomes (describes impact/added value). In this way, goals only provide an orientation and product teams have the possibility to work towards this goal in an agile and autonomous way.

Output-focused OKR sets (describes tasks), in contrast, offer the teams little added value. If concrete measures are already included in the goals for the next 3 months, they may have less freedom to work agile. 

 

Output / Outcome OKR Set examples: 

Why do organizations nowadays  need OKRs? And why in Agile Product Management? 

 

Tim: Many companies often introduce agile methods to “do” more things faster. In such environments, teams are then measured by how many features they release or how many story points (an abstract metric for measuring development speed) are achieved in a sprint. 

But more and more teams also want to connect their daily work with the higher goals of the company and not get lost in the “higher, faster, further” of individual JIRA tickets.

OKRs help to clarify the “why” behind agile working methods before the “what”.

In addition, the OKR process clarifies the discussion about what success looks like, even before the first line of code is written.

 

Sonja: Product teams often have an “agile edge” within organizations because of the methods they use. However, this also creates frictional losses when working with departments that still use traditional methods.

By using OKRs throughout the organization, you can establish shorter planning cycles in all areas. In this way, you can achieve a harmony of work rhythms and goals across all teams. 

Product teams also find it easier to work with the content that is coordinated across all teams and levels, as coordination with other departments often becomes easier and clearer. 

 

 

How do you manage to combine classic agile methods such as Scrum and methods for business agility such as OKRs in everyday work? What are the biggest challenges in establishing OKRs in Agile Product Management?

 

Tim: One challenge is the integration and synchronization of existing processes and routines. Although agile teams already know many of the basic principles of OKRs from their daily work, an OKR cycle can feel like overtime at first glance. This can lead to a negative attitude towards the method even before it is implemented.

The most important thing is to create clarity and transparency in the team/company as to why OKRs should be introduced at all. Is it just about more focus on the right tasks? Or also about aspects such as effectiveness and participation?

 

Sonja: In order to establish a continuous connection between goals (e.g. with OKRs) and task management (e.g. with Scrum or similar), OKRs can be firmly integrated into the agenda of typical meetings. For example, the OKR check-in, in which the status of goal achievement to date, the forecast of achievement to the end of the cycle and the priority tasks can be discussed, can also be linked to Sprint Planning.

 

 

Working with OKRs requires high-frequency communication. However, due to digitalization, the forms of work have changed considerably in recent years and more and more workers are taking advantage of the opportunity to work remotely. As a result, virtual and distributed teams are also becoming increasingly common. How can we still implement OKRs in the best possible way?

 

Sonja:

Effective work in remote teams needs alignment & focus. OKRs offer an important support for this.

Implicit assumptions about where a team wants to go and where it stands on this journey are already dangerous for co-located teams. But for distributed work, implicit assumptions are even more harmful for co-located teams. OKRs help to make exactly these aspects (Where do we want to go? Where do we stand? What next steps do we derive from them?) explicit and transparent.

 

Tim: When working on and with OKRs in remote teams, it is important not to simply convert meetings and routines 1:1 into a conference call. Instead, especially the quarterly OKR Definition Workshop or the Retro should be conducted as interactive remote workshops. Tools such as Miro or Zoom are just as important as the ability to dial in from your own computer and always have your webcam on. This is the only way to establish a human connection at eye level while having  an efficient meeting.

In addition, supposed small things are also important, such as giving the defined OKR sets of a company/team a presence in the tools used. For example, the channel descriptions in Slack can be used for the respective OKR Sets of a team.

Ideally, the OKR Sets are also documented in a location that allows synchronous as well as asynchronous editing by all team members. Nobody wants to have to search for OKR_2020_Q1_FINAL_V17.xls on the file server.

 

 

Can you tell us about someone who has managed to successfully combine OKRs and Agile Product Management? What did he or she do (differently)? What are success factors?

 

Tim: Two elementary success factors in combining both methods are 

(a) the integration and presence of the OKR sets and their current progress in the daily work of the Agile Product Teams; and 

(b) the adaptation of related elements such as the product roadmap or the product strategy

 

Regarding the integration into everyday life, we are big fans of a solution that we first saw with Michael Lindemeier from the kartenmacherei: 

To make sure that as many of the tasks as possible in JIRA (the task management tool of the product teams) pay into the OKR sets, they have introduced a new mandatory field.

When creating a new ticket, you have to select on which OKR Set this ticket will be paid. This way, each team member is reminded not to simply “smuggle in” new favorite ideas into the work. In addition, the JIRA Dashboard is a great way to regularly reflect on work priorities. What topics do we really invest our time in? Do our OKR sets really represent the most important topics? What other topics are distracting us?

 

Sonja: As already mentioned, it is also about adjusting the processes around product strategy and planning.

What we observe again and again is that teams that are encouraged and empowered to develop a strategic direction for their product themselves find it much easier to define OKRs.

Collaborative frameworks such as the Product Field can provide teams with good support.

This also means moving away from traditional annual roadmaps and focusing instead on more agile formats such as theme-based roadmaps. Because, no matter how output-oriented your OKR sets are, if you have to convert them directly into a Gantt chart with release dates, you’re right back in the output trap.

 

Thanks for telling us about your experience, Sonja and Tim.

 

 

It takes time for teams to get used to working with OKRs and the new processes involved. Once established, however, OKRs are a helpful framework that makes it easier for product teams to derive daily tasks based on their vision. 

Do you want to share your thoughts on OKRs and Agile Product Management with us? Join our Community and start a discussion with other experts and practitioners. 

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