OKR and Agile - how to align incremental efforts with measurable goals

OKR and Agile - how to align incremental efforts with measurable goals

Organizations often set lofty strategies, but up to 90% of them fall short of producing satisfactory results. One of the main reasons organizations struggle in meeting preset objectives is the lack of alignment between the organizational, team, and individual objectives. The glaring disparity between tier-defined goals often leads to confusion, inefficiency, and disgruntlement as teams fail to move in tandem. 

Surprisingly, many organizations that fail to achieve their target growth have adopted OKRs and Agile but fail to unlock the potential of both approaches. Employees struggle to find ways to make two substantially different methodologies work synergically in their favor.

At a glance, OKR is a goal setting and measurement system that focus on individuals, while Agile is a developmental approach that prioritizes team mobility. Professionals have difficulty figuring out how to fit OKR in Agile or vice versa. This leads to a barrage of questions that hope to shed light on their predicaments.

For example:

  • What is the difference between OKRs and scaled Agile?
  • Doesn't OKR accountability (individuals own Key results) conflict with Scrum best practice (team owns Sprint result) on accountability?
  • How do software companies successfully conciliate the use of OKRs with agile sprints and deliverables?

What is the difference between OKRs and Agile? 

What is OKR 

OKR is a goal-setting methodology that allows teams and individuals to set ambitious goals and track their tactical approach to meeting them. The term OKR is an acronym for Objectives and Key Results. It was an operational framework that helped notable companies, including Google, Intel, and LinkedIn, align their team toward measurable goals. 

When implementing OKR, you need to set specific goals and key results. A goal is a qualitative inspirational, and ambitious statement of what you want to achieve. For example, ‘deliver engaging customer experience’ is an OKR goal. Meanwhile, key objectives are quantitative and measurable indicators for tracking progress. For instance, ‘achieve a monthly satisfaction score of 4.5 /5.0’ .

Download this e-book to get started on implementing OKR in your company. 

What is Agile 

Agile is a project management methodology that allows teams to deliver small and incremental changes in rapid cycles. Agile first started as a movement that revolutionized software development practices. Software developers use the Agile methodology to provide rapid software updates to meet increasingly volatile requirements.

Due to its effectiveness, organizations have started adopting Agile for non-software departments. This led to the inception of Scaled Agile Framework or SAFe. SAFe is a dynamic framework that helps businesses adopt Agile practices at the organizational level. It allows companies to align team operations and manage complex projects flexibly.  

How OKR and Agile can work together? 

It is vital to understand that OKR and SAFe are not mutually exclusive. At the moment of writing, SAFe recommends using OKR to measure and grow business processes at various levels in the organization. Therefore, you need a different and more holistic perception of using OKR in Agile. 

1. Remove the gap between strategy and execution 

SAFe emphasizes streamlining the collaboration of multiple teams. It helps the entire organization move forward from one milestone to another and adapt to market changes. While Agile principles promote operational efficiency, it lacks a definitive framework that aligns collaborative effort along the vertical chain of command.

This is where OKR comes in. OKR provides a framework that promotes goal transparency amongst team members. It answers the ‘why’ specific tasks are done and spurs the teams toward shared goals. Together, OKR Agile allows teams to create smaller and measurable goals that align with the company’s broader direction. Setting goals and constantly reviewing key results ensure that Agile teams do not lose sight of the bigger picture. 

For example, one of our clients sets hierarchical OKRs at several levels within the organization. The C-executives set OKRs that are evaluated on a 12-months basis. Meanwhile, various departments have their respective OKRs, reviewed at a quarterly cadence. The same applies to product teams within the same department. At the lowest level, smaller app development teams combine Agile and OKR practices when conducting feasibility studies, building user story maps, or working on other technical tasks. 

2. Use Kanban boards 

Kanban is a visualization method that companies use to streamline workflow, improve efficiency and reduce costs. The practice involves using the Kanban board, a visual representation that places work elements in 3 columns; requested, in progress, and done. Initially used by manufacturing companies, Kanban has become a popular tool amongst Agile teams.

Kanban’s foundation lies in its six fundamental principles. Amongst them is one that integrates OKR seamlessly into Agile practices. Known as the service delivery principle, the adage ‘Manage the Work, Not the Workers’ assuage the concern that applying OKRS might result in micro-management.

By sticking to the Kanban method, team members are empowered with self-autonomy in setting goals and tracking progress. Merging the OKR Kanban board with the OKR chart helps promote transparency as every member is aware of which tasks are pending, in progress, and accomplished. This encourages team members to organize themselves around the commonly-agreed objectives. 

Kanban’s principle of pursuing incremental and evolutionary change overlaps with Agile fundamentals. Teams go through Kanban cadences at specific intervals to evaluate strategic objectives and align operational tasks. Meanwhile, OKRs provide the substance for teams to realign their efforts towards organizational goals. 

3. Integrate OKRs in Scrum practices 

Applying OKRs can be quite straightforward for Agile teams familiar with Scrum practices. Scrum is commonly labeled as an Agile framework that helps teams deliver complex products with excellent efficiency. Although one might argue that Scrum is geared for software development teams and lacks OKR’s general adaptability, both frameworks share more similarities than differences. 

Scrum is result-oriented, and so is OKR. Each member must agree on what success or ‘done’ mean within a Scrum team. Likewise, OKRs define success with measurable objectives, albeit focusing on broader goals rather than product-specific ones. A product team that practices OKR Scrum sets strategic goals to guide the incremental effort for the product. 

Another striking similarity between OKR and Scrum is that both methodologies emphasize timeliness where teams strive to accomplish specific milestones within the stipulated period. In OKRs, the team conducts regular reviews to synchronize progress in quick and frequent meetings. This is similar to Scrum standups, where the core team members update each other on progress and resolve blockages. 

A designated leading role is equally vital for Scrum and OKRs. In the former, the Scrum Master ensures that the team workflow adheres to Scrum principles. Likewise, OKRs master plays a leading role in coordinating goal settings and objective tracking amongst team members. 

4. Small and fast cycles ensure agility 

Agile teams are used to working in small sprints or iterative cycles that enable them to achieve incremental goals. Compared to the conventional waterfall method, Agile ensures that product teams are highly responsive to changing situations and can realign quickly with a retrospective, backlog, and scrum meetings. 

Likewise, OKRs are highly flexible and go hand-in-hand with Agile’s principle. OKR uses a lightweight, adaptive framework that allows team members to meet up frequently to realign goals and increase efficiency. It replaces conventional long-term strategic meeting, which is deemed less effective and has no place in Agile practices.

Instead, team members meet up at different intervals to discuss strategic and tactical OKRs. Teams usually set a 1-year horizon for strategic OKRs while reviewing tactical OKRs at least every quarterly. During the reviews, team members evaluate current results and pivot their operations accordingly to the OKRs. 

It’s important to highlight that there are no definitive rules for the OKR review intervals. Smaller companies exposed to multiple fast-changing variables often implement shorter OKR cycles. Team members meet 6-8 weeks where they devise shorter plans instead of sticking to a rigid plan that stretches for years. 

Read this article to learn how early-stage startups could leverage OKRs to find the right product/market fit. 

5. Visualize the connection of all your goals into one

Most companies have no problem implementing OKRs on the team level but struggle to scale them in SAFe implementation across the organization. Agile OKR is only effective if organizations have a clear top-down view of the interconnected relationship OKRs for every level.

In SAFe implementation, OKRs cannot be treated as an isolated goal-setting approach within a specific team. Instead, every goal must be purposeful toward high-level OKRs. For example, individual goals must align with the team’s OKR, while managers must work towards results that spur the company in the right direction.

Automated OKR solutions can solve the complexity of visualizing and coordinating organizational-wide OKR. Instead of manually tracking cascading OKRs that span several levels deep, companies use PLAI to streamline OKRs in SAFe implementations. PLAI allows managers to monitor the team's progress while helping employees understand how their effort impacts others. 

Using Plai lets you build a spider-web-like OKR connection that traverses vertically and horizontally. It tightly couples strategic goal settings into the rapid workflow that Agile teams are accustomed to. Plai also promotes transparency and accountability as teams are aware of who is assigned to meet specific objectives. 

Alignment of annual goals with shorter cycles in Plai
Alignment of annual goals with shorter cycles in Plai

Sum up 

We hope we have clarified how OKRs and Agile are not mutually exclusive but a harmonious pair of approaches that benefit organizations. OKRs allow agile teams to maintain focus, accountability, and transparency on strategic goals while striving to improve product delivery amidst a fast-changing environment. 

Use Plai to automate and scale OKRs for Agile teams. 

Andriy Bas

Andriy Bas

CEO & Co-founder

Founder of 3 products and product development agency @Uptech before 25. Use and consult about OKRs, performance management, and team leadership for 4+ years.

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