The use of OKRs in product management is an adoption curve that has grown much sharper over the last two years. Yet the successful implementation of product OKRs is not a given.
airfocus recently invited three industry experts to discuss the use of product OKRs, why they are important and how best to approach using them. Here, airfocus CEO Malte Scholz summarises the key points discussed, along with some practical tips the experts distilled for getting started with product OKRs.
The rise of product OKRs
The use of Objectives and Key Results – usually known as OKRs – has been growing steadily for many years now. Google began using them in 1999, and every year since, it appears that 1,000s of other companies join them, especially in technology.
As we move increasingly into a more product-centric world, OKRs will play a crucial role. The recent airfocus roundtable throws up some fascinating insight from the following industry experts:
- Bernhard Hecker, Product Leader and Founder, value.digital
- Robin Zaragoza, Founder & CEO, The Product Refinery
- Kent McDonald, Product Manager & Writer, KBPMedia
When asked why they thought OKRs had become such a popular product trend over the past few years, the panel were united in their belief that OKRs were an important part of measuring outcomes.
Kent McDonald of KBP.media suggested that many people were doing so because Google did, but added that OKRs were useful a way of measuring success:
“OKRs have become more prevalent as organisations have been looking for some way to help them adopt the idea of making decisions and measuring progress, and tracking success based on outcomes rather than output,” he said. “Measuring outcomes can be difficult, and organisations are looking to OKRs as a way of helping them figure that out and confirm that they are heading in the right direction.”
Robin Zaragoza of The Product Refinery added that OKRs help product teams make sense of the chaos, stating:
“The really attractive part about OKRs is that it’s a framework. It has best practices associated with it. It tends to be something that we as product people gravitate towards, using frameworks to think about things and approach them and find what works and what doesn’t. If you have a place to start from, it makes it a lot easier.
“Many teams are interested in OKRs because they are trying to make sense of the chaos, and it helps them do that. It also really helps with decision-making, specifically prioritisation and what to say yes to and what to say no to. That’s one of the biggest challenges we have in product because a million different opportunities are coming our way every day.”
Bernhard Hacker of value.digital felt OKRs also played a role in attracting talent. “OKRs are a very structured way of communicating the company’s direction throughout the entire organisation. It’s a communication tool and a structured way of getting things done. It’s also easier to attract talent when you use OKRs because new applicants understand how you work, and it’s easier to get them up to speed in their new job.”
The benefits of product OKRs
The panel then went on to look at some of the benefits associated with product OKRs. Robin Zaragoza felt product OKRs lend themselves well to experimentation and focus.
“The whole point of OKRs is to say, ‘this is the direction we want to head in, and this is what we want to accomplish,’ she said. “But it’s also acknowledging that what you do isn’t necessarily going to deliver the results you want. That means OKRs let you talk about the metrics you are trying to hit, what you have prioritised and why, the bringing together of customer problems and solutions, and how you measure everything. If you don’t reach those metrics, you have a further conversation about what else you can try and keep everyone focused on accomplishing those metrics.
The idea of focus was one that Kent McDonald also felt strongly about:
“One of the things that I’ve experienced, and a lot of the software products that I’ve worked on have been for use inside organisations, is that it’s easy for those types of efforts to get laser-focused in a way that isn’t adding value. People get obsessed with delivering a set of features generated at the beginning of the project, even though they realise they do not need even half of them as they get into it.
Bernhard Hacker said that implementing and using OKRs in product helps people change their way of working and thinking: “It gets you out of the feature treadmill that you stumble into. With these OKRs, you do not look at those features and timeframes that much anymore; you just change the way you look into why you are doing things and what you’re aiming for. That’s why OKRs help a lot.”
Convincing the organisation to adopt product OKRs
For product teams, acknowledging the benefits of product OKRs is one thing – another is getting the wider organisation to buy into that. The panellists all suggested that product teams need to stand their ground and really make the case.
“You’ve got to sell it to the organisation,” said Bernhard Hacker. “If you think OKRs are what you need to make life for you and your team better, and the outcomes you focus on are more efficient or more valuable for the entire company, you should be able to convince the rest of the organisation to do that. If you want to have it implemented in the whole company, it has to have the buy-in from the leadership team.”
Kent McDonald added that it was important to keep in mind what everyone’s incentives are and get them aligned:
“One of the main things to worry about when trying to get buy-in is, are their incentives aligned with buying into doing that? If they have other things driving them not to want OKRs, that will be a significant block to adoption.”
Robin Zaragoza added that while product teams do need to sell product OKRs internally, to do so they need to demonstrate that they work:
“Sometimes you just have to say, ‘the proof is in the pudding’ and show that it works. Until people see it working, it’s going to be more challenging to bring them on board. Adopt OKRs on your team. Figure out what works, and what doesn’t, and then make a case for it. If you’re a product manager or even head of product at a large company, the chances of your making enough waves without proof of success with OKRs are low. Just start with your team, find evidence, and then provide that as your selling point.”
Approaching leadership about product OKRs
We concluded the panel by asking about the best ways to approach leadership to evolve to more product-focused OKRs, rather than just revenue-related OKRs?
Kent McDonald stated that it came down to understanding that you will ‘get better results if you have teams in a position where they can be pointed in the right direction. He felt that more outcome-focused OKRs were a vital part of that and part of the convincing process involves showing where it succeeded in that company.
Robin Zaragoza concluded with the need to acknowledge that most leadership teams at most companies are entirely focused on revenue:
“We have to accept that. But from there, it’s good to have conversations about how to get there, the indicators of success, and what things are holding the company back from making more money? These will include customer problems, internal challenges, and process issues. Then you can start to lower the level of the conversation a bit; that’s where you need to start from.”
The final word went to Bernhard Hacker. He echoed Robin’s thoughts, stating that ‘it’s all about making money or bringing the company towards the goals it aims for as an organisation – making investors happy, raising the organisation’s value’.
“Everybody in the company must understand that an investment in innovation, building new things, in working on your product is valuable for the company,” he said. “Short-term revenue is something that you need, but there are also things that you do for the long term. If those things are not understood in the company, you will end up having OKRs that are only short-term revenue-oriented, and that’s what you would like to avoid.”