Agile at Source – Part Four with Objectives & Key Results | Sullivan & Stanley

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By Roderick Cain, S&S Associate  

The previous blogs, Part one, Part two and Part three highlighted 40+ impediments to smooth scaling of your delivery practices. In this final blog of the series, we will look at the tools that can be used to address the issues previously identified, to create a better environment.

Over the years retrospectives, value stream mapping workshops, backlog prioritisation sessions, shadowing and one-to-ones have unearthed the discussed impediments. Retrospectives are one of, if not the most important part of agile. They do not need to be limited to just a squad, I have run them with over 50 people from different areas of the ideation to release process. Agreeing to a backlog of actionable outcomes is core to continuous improvement and addressing issues.

In part one, I quoted Allen Holub: “Agile is not something you implement. It’s a set of principles and practices that you adopt to solve business problems. The best way to do that is incrementally. Identify a core problem. Fix it using tools from your Agile toolbox. Repeat.”

This toolbox has grown into an agility kitbag containing Agile and DevOps principles, Objectives & Key Results, Value Stream Mapping, a Continuous Improvement mentality and a Customer-Centric mind. Agile and DevOps practices are well established but need a pragmatic approach. It is impossible to solve every problem at once, you need to prioritise. What is your continuous improvement minimal viable product?

Objectives and Key Results may be a newer concept so this blog provides an intro. They provide an action-based framework for addressing several key impediments. It would be remiss not to acknowledge the present situation, I will highlight the role OKRs play in cutting through the extreme confusion COVID-19 has caused. We need to move from Pandemic Panic to Productive Panic to being Purely Productive.

An Objective is a description of a goal to be achieved. It can be thought of as the destination on a map.

A Key Result is an unambiguous metric with target value that measures progress towards an Objective. It is a signpost that shows how close you are to your end goal.

An Initiative is a description of the work you’ll do to influence a Key Result. It describes how you get there, for example, walk, cycle, car, etc.

At Intel, investor and venture capitalist John Doerr was introduced to OKRs by Andy Grove (“The Father of OKRs”) and subsequently implemented them into blue chips including Compaq, Netscape, Symantec, Sun Microsystems, Amazon, Intuit, Macromedia, Google and Twitter. 

His formula provides a clear method of describing OKRs: We will (Objective) as measured by (this set of Key Results) by doing (idea 1) Or by doing (idea 2) or by doing (idea 3).

The approach is to create a small number of timeboxed OKRs, either quarterly, execution-focused or annually, with more of an eye on the strategy.

Objectives are:

  • Directional: Having a direction helps you to focus your efforts
  • Impactful and Inspirational: A moonshot to motivate the team
  • Understandable: Clearly articulated so they can be shared both internally and externally
  • Independent: Achievement is within the team’s circle of influence

Key Results are:

  • Achievable: KRs tell you how you get to your Objective, so must be possible to meet
  • Ambitious: KRs should not be too simple to achieve, they should be stretching
  • Measurable: Boolean, they are either completed or not, or a numerical target
  • Verifiable and Specific: Clearly defined in terms of scope, so there is no ambiguity.

Example OKR

Objective: I will run a marathon in under 4 hrs

Key Results

As measured by:

  • Joining a marathon training group
  • Training 5 days per week with 1 long run each week
  • Increase mileage by 5 miles per fortnight
  • Drink at least 3 litres of water every day
  • Sleep at least 8 hours every night


By doing:

  • A calendar showing when I need to train
  • Defining the distance I need to achieve at each session
  • A food diary to ensure I meet the nutrition needs
  • Putting a recurring order for water on my weekly shop

So how do they improve your delivery?

Focus: Alignment of everyone’s work to deliver the top goals. The advantage of this is it promotes the creation of a prioritised backlog based on a defined framework i.e. customer value, revenue, increased conversion, technical complexity, etc.

Governance: Regular OKR confidence check-ins provide a communication mechanism for tracking priorities and engaging distributed teams.

Transparency: Provide visibility of goals and measures across the organisation. They provide the common language to help teams cut through the fog of information that Covid-19 is causing.

Commitment: By having top-down and bottom-up OKRs, teams commit to their delivery of the KRs that will ultimately drive the company’s OKRs. Teams thrive when they have the autonomy to ensure their work matters.

Quantitative: Promote the need for data and the ability to analyse it. Clear KRs remove the need for a crystal ball since it must be measurable week on week.

Continuous improvement: To meet the KRs you may need to look at your ways of working and hone accordingly.

Celebration: Through regular check-in cadence and transparency, wins can be celebrated and team morale improved.

Striving but Never Arriving: This was a quote from a CEO, his teams were putting in immense effort but he was unsure it was delivering the necessary results to weather the pandemic – let alone come out stronger. With OKRs in place, you deliver only the initiatives that move the needle and drive the key results.

The first step is running an interactive Objective and Key Results Setting workshop, where a  team comes together to agree on the company OKRs, define the owners and allocate an OKR coach, to manage the cadence.

If you are interested in harnessing their power and would like to attend our OKRs Settings workshop then click here to register your interest.

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