How OKRs can help Scrum Teams to focus on business value

‘Doubter to Believer’

On a practical level, I am the owner of my own business, but on a personal level, I will always see myself as a lifelong Scrum Master or Product Owner, occupying multiple stances in service of the teams and organisations I work with. 

The feeling of serving teams and helping them unlock their potential is the driver in the work I do.

But as we all know, in the turbulent world of business transformation, when something new rears its head and the ‘popular kids’ like Google, Spotify and Twitter start documenting their success stories with it, the big bosses often want us to adopt the latest fads, as though it will inevitably be the ‘silver bullet’ solution to any and all problems.

I’m speaking from first-hand experience here, of when I was asked to adopt OKRs by a scale-up health tech CEO, and was neither convinced by the prospect, or keen to unsettle the rhythms that I’d become accustomed to, at all to be honest.

Despite rather speedily coming to realise that OKRs are indeed a framework that, when crafted and cared-for appropriately, can be an incredibly effective method of improving organisational performance and visualising a change in state, my heart remains with Scrum and in-turn I set out to develop a way of integrating OKRs with the Scrum Theory principles and practices that I like to keep to.

Integrating OKRs with Scrum

Taking into consideration my own experiences of being a Scrum Master and Product Owner, as well as those of others around me, I based my premise off an widely observed truth, that the hardest thing to do as a Scrum Team is develop a Sprint Goal that isn’t just a task or a check-list of activities to be done.

I observed that Scrum Teams will often adopt a tendency of focusing their efforts towards delivery of features, because they’re blindly chasing an objective laid out by upper-level management, with no real idea why. Additionally, the objective often doesn’t reflect the true business value or customer outcome we are trying to achieve.

What I came to learn about OKRs, is that being an outcome-oriented framework, it was the perfect methodology to infuse with the practices of Scrum and principles of empirical control theory, but doing so on an organisational level, so as to align the team efforts with outcomes that drive business value and establish a connection between the team and the wider organisational goals.

If there was a selling point here, it’s that OKRs dictate what the outcome actually is at the beginning of the process, so as a Scrum Master or Product Owner, you’ve got your quarterly strategy already lined up, and aligned to the organisation. 

Not only that, but you’re able to visualise progress towards the outcome and against the rest of the organisation whilst maintaining a level of control and ownership over the work. No longer are you told what to do, you are sharing what you’re trying to achieve.

The Method 

Now at this point you’re probably thinking, this is nothing I haven’t heard before. In-fact, a very similar school of thought was presented by Tim Herbig (2021), albeit from the perspective of using OKRs in Product Management. 

What we’ve aimed to do however, is reshape the principles of Scrum specifically to accommodate an OKR framework.

In the initial transparency pillar, we’re looking at designing strategic direction, ensuring the outcome is visible to those managing it. 

Next we inspect the process using evidenced-based performance to update key results and drive learning in accordance with customer insights. 

Finally we get focused execution through a chain of constant validation, fast feedback loops in order to adjust the process, rinse and repeat.

VIsual representation of the OKR Cycle
OKR Cycle – 1ovmany

So, how we would approach this from a practical point of view, is that we’d have a series of objectives and key results for the quarter. 

In our first Sprint, we’d identify a Sprint goal that supports the objectives, working against a series of initiatives to achieve the individual key results. 

As we progress through the Sprints and complete initiatives, the key results are sequentially met and thus we can visualise our progress in alignment with the business objectives.

Being that the key results are precursors to achieving the wider business objectives – which in-turn are crafted against the company vision and strategy – meeting the key results ensures that as a team we’re constantly moving toward overarching strategic objectives rather than delivery of features.

We are of course still concerned with outputs, but we’re able to prioritise the ones that will most heavily contribute to the outcomes we’re looking to achieve and what they do for our customers; what is the impact, the change in state or value created?

Ideation & Alignment

This is all well and good if the crafted objectives do indeed emulate components of the business strategy. But this is where most organisations struggle to implement OKRs and experience genuine success with them.

In-fact, a recent survey conducted by fitbots OKRs (2021) found that 71% of respondents viewed ‘Crafting the right OKRs’ as the top challenge companies face while implementing OKRs. 

This is something we see more and more since OKRs popularity has increased.

Much of the mainstream literature promoting the usefulness of OKRs has a tendency to play-down the difficulty of creating OKRs, which has subsequently led to a naive approach toward implementations. 

They’re often trying to remove the thinking, effort and team work needed to create impactful outcomes, through use of templates which are not relevant to the actual context of the team.

If we circle back to the premise that OKRs can be utilised to help visualise the outcome at the beginning of the process, it becomes clear how instrumental it is to Scrum practices that OKRs are meticulously crafted in alignment with the business vision and strategy, as this shapes the entire process moving forward.

This is an area where experienced coaching and/or training can be extremely useful, as it encompasses all aspects of the OKR process, from writing OKRs to implementation and execution.

We’ve also designed a unique OKR Canvas that can help you get started with OKRs and/or optimise your team’s OKR creation process.

Final Thoughts

I’ve applied years of experience as a Scrum Master and observations from working with several teams across organisations of all different sizes and purposes, to developing a method whereby Scrum and OKRs can work harmoniously.

But it all starts with getting the initial phase of ‘Ideation and Alignment’ right. 

The power of OKRs derives from the thinking process that occurs during creation of OKRs, whereby conversations occur within the cycle in both a vertical and horizontal manner, creating alignment with both your peers and your leaders.

If you’re interested in learning more about the creation of OKRs, download our OKR Creator course brochure now, and discover ways in which you can craft well thought-out OKRs that will optimise your efforts in Scrum and keep your Sprint Goals aligned to the entire organisation.

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