Burn From Both Ends -Practical Guide To The OKR Planning Process
This article is 1st part of the two-part practical guide to the OKR formulation, planning, and execution process. This is not an article that explains the basics of OKR and its benefits. Please read Measure What Matters, If you want to know the basics of OKR and why one should adopt it as their team/org/company’s primary goal setting and measurement framework.
This series will be useful for both Leadership (CEO, CTO, VP, etc.) that help define the company/org OKRs + Execution Partners (Engineers, Marketing Managers, Sales Associate, etc.) that help achieve the objectives and key results. Part-1 will be an elaborate guide for leadership defining the Company OKRs, and Part-2 will help the Execution Partners that define group /team/individual OKRs.
End Of Quarter Blues
Please picture this in your mind; I am quite confident this happens in your company. It's the last few weeks of the quarter, and there is a lot of hustle & bustle in the company.
- The leadership team is busy defining the new/next quarter’s OKRs. The process of perfection takes forever.
- The execution partners((Engineers, Marketing Managers, Sales Associate, etc.) are still sprinting harder to accomplish the current quarters OKRs. They are also waiting patiently (actually restlessly 😉) for the leadership to define the OKRs for the next quarter. In most cases, the OKRs are published 2–3 weeks after the quarter starts.
- The Chief Of Staff & the Program Management is doing a balancing act, pushing the leadership team to define next quarter OKRs faster and pushing the executive partners to accomplish the current OKRs.
Practically speaking, it takes almost the end of the first month of the new quarter for the OKR definition process to settle down and to start the execution. This chaos cycle continues quarter over quarter. How do we trump chaos and make the OKR process practically seamless and easy? The answer is, burn from both ends.
Hybrid (Top-Down + Bottoms-Up) Approach:
The solution is to embrace reality and start planning Top-Down (Leadership) and Bottoms-Up (Execution Partners) at the same time, burn from both ends. The below diagram explains how a product team can plan at the same time when the leadership is in the process of defining the company OKRs. In the first part, we will deep dive into the Top-Down OKR planning process.
Top-Down Planning Process — Deep Dive
The Top-Down planning has three primary phases,
- Identify Leadership Council/Group that would be responsible for defining the objectives for the quarter.
- Schedule a brain-storming session for the Leadership Council (LC) to discuss the critical priorities of the company for the quarter. The meetings should be no-holds, no-judgment discussions of the direction the company should be heading. Prior to the meetings, members of the leadership council should spend time/effort informing their perspectives driven by high-level conversations with their teams.
- The output of the leadership council brain-storming session should be,
A) Ideally, three to four high-level objectives explicitly prioritized relative to one another.
B) Context and motivation for why the top objectives for the company were chosen. This would help the OKR Team interpret the intent of the objectives and key results. As an addendum, the council can provide basic/conceptual ideas of the work that is needed to accomplish the goals and how progress on the metric can be driven.
C) Propose/form a small OKR Teams (OT) for each objective that will be tasked with defining the key results, plan of execution. The OKR teams are expected to define/refine/change the key results as needed.
4. The goal of the OKR teams should be to define the key results and refinement of the objective. Create a detailed project & staffing plan for the work that needs to be performed. The Leadership Council can regularly check-ins with the OKR team and provide guidance and feedback as and when needed.
5. The OKR Team will self elect a leader and work towards defining the final artifacts of the OKR formulation process as mentioned below,
A) Clear definition of the Objectives, Key Results & Metrics to measure KRs.
B) Detailed Project & Staffing Plan to accomplish the objectives and achieve the KRs.
C) STO (Single Threaded Owners) accountable for each KRs and the OKR leader identified for each of the objectives.
An excellent formulation process will not be successful unless communicated effectively to the Execution Partners (rest of the company). The goal of the OKR communication phase should help ensure the company understands the focus of OKRs and visibility into what it takes to accomplish it.
- One of the members of the Leadership Council can publish the final version of the Objectives, Key Results, and the Owners via an email or a blog.
- All-Hands, Townhall meetings are good forums for the Leadership Council to socialize and explain the Objectives, Key Results, and their impact on the company/org.
- Create artifacts like intra-net webpages, wiki-pages, dashboards, etc (OR) use OKR planning & execution software tools like Ally.io. This helps provide easy, all-time access to OKR goals definitions, and status.
Defining & communicating OKRs is not the end; getting the plan executed as per the project and resource plan defined by the OKR Team is important to accomplish the objectives and the key results.
- Regular checkpoint meetings at various levels of the organization would help create accountability and transparency. The OKR team can meet with the Execution Partners regularly to track the progress and help mitigate risks/blockers and devise alternate plans (if required).
- The Leadership Council can meet with the OKR team bi-weekly or monthly to track the overall progress and validate if the OKRs still make sense with the change of the business climate. Sometimes scrapping an OKR altogether and strategic re-prioritization is essential.
- The OKR team leader should email weekly or bi-weekly to the entire company/org to provide insights into progress, challenges, risks, etc with metrics as a driving point. Using tools as Ally.io would offer integrations with Slack /Email and make communication of OKR change in status and risks seamless.
- Defining OKR progress scores and updating them regularly would help track progress quantitatively.
- End of quarter review of the OKR goal progress with metrics as a driving point is crucial. It allows the Leadership Council and the OKR Team to discuss and retrospect on gaps, process pain points, and celebrate accomplishments.
To wrap-up, we explained what causes End Of Quarter Blues and introduced the concept of “Burn From Both Ends” (Top-Down + Bottoms-Up) as a solution to the seamless end-to-end OKR planning process. In Part 2, we will deep dive into the Bottoms-Up Planning, and how executing it in parallel with the Top-Down (Leadership) OKR definition would help companies/organizations be in lockstep towards achieving the OKR goals faster.
Note: This two-part series on OKR Practical Planning is mostly a reflection of my 15+ years of working in technology companies. These are my personal views and not a representation of the companies I have worked for. I would appreciate your feedback, thoughts, and questions.
If you are an executive/leader looking for help with the OKR process formulation in your startup, happy to help! You can read my article on How to Increase the momentum of your business flywheel by 10x? to help scale your company/organization. Please ping me @ firstname.lastname@example.org or connect me on LinkedIn