The myth & holy grail of Agile & OKR

If you got here to learn how to enable the combination of agile (or Scrum) and OKRs I need to instantly disappoint you: I will not answer that question. Instead I will focus on the two buzzwords of the current digital industry and why I believe it is currently a huge misunderstanding (or even a conscious deceive by many current leaders).

Let’s start with the most current principle that almost everyone tries to adopt and is used in many conferences and barcamps of the world: the OKRs. Just within the recent days we discussed several times our experiences and best practices within the companies of Axel Springer and I attended the very good session of rendeiro at the @pcampberlin #pcampb16 introducing his experience of 1,5 years within Zalando.

So, what is true, good & inspirational — and which part is just big fuzz?

Let’s start with the (theoretical) good: 
- it aligns companies, departments and people
- it makes work and goals/objectives transparent
- it SHOULD enable exponential thinking

The last point already brings me back to reality and why I believe (and observe) it is just currently a huge lie: All the current OKRs are solely built & defined top-down from the management. The management decides about priorities and is aligning (in even advanced companies it takes 3 weeks each quarter :-O) on it in order to define it again down to the teams (and people). For example there are usually different abstract levels and it cascades down at least to teams, e.g. revenue down to department revenue down to conversion rates per volume per team. If you adopt this to the popular example of the OKRs of a football team, it would mean the general manager wants to win the Super Bowl, Team One is winning x games, Team Two is winning y games and so force.

Instead it should be like Google is stating it: To set OKRs, employees meet with their managers. It’s a form of negotiating. The employee says, “I want to do X,” and the employer says, “I want you to do Y.” They meet in the middle for Goal Z.

Currently, in the wide industry there seems to be absolutely NO intention that the teams should come up with exponential thinking and disrupting ideas how they could actually contribute to success (for users, customers and the company). Everyone who is currently experiencing the introduction of OKRs will report the same: there is no observable business impact besides the better transparency and alignment.

If you sum it up it is just a different label of MBO (management by objectives). So why don’t we just call it MBO (and doing it good) and why bothering introducing a new method and principle?

This brings me back to the introduction and intrusiveness of “agile” and “scrum”.

Upfront: I am huge evangelist of agile & lean and I truly believe (as well alongside with the OKRs) it needs to be the future of working together, especially in creating software solutions.

If you look for ANY software building company today, you will find ABSOLUTELY NO company who is stating they would NOT do agile. They all seem to NEED to do agile in order to be attractive to new employees and also to customers and stakeholders.

The truth is, that really only few people (I make the bold guesstimate that it is only 20% of all people involved) really buy into it and especially managers are rarely really doing it as it supposed to work:

  • enable exponential thinking (again)
  • enable teams to feel & act completely responsible for their product/software
  • create happy & passionate people who drive your business

Instead I still see in most occasions that the companies label it “agile”, but what they actually do are waterfall projects with scrum meetings or similar mixtures of methods. Why?

  1. lack of skills of employees and managers
  2. lack of trust of the managers
  3. lack of willingness of employees to take responsibility about failures

Therefore my resume and urgent wish to everyone involved out there is:

Please do not use the buzzwords in order to be attractive and shiny!

Please use them to change your organization, to change your people and to change your business to be sustainable, useful and successful.