A lot has been said about avoiding the feature factory approach to product management. No one wants to work on a product as though they’re “sitting in a factory, cranking out features, and sending them down the line,” without knowing if they’re actually having any impact. It’s the definition of aimless busywork. It’s jumping straight from one project to the next, with no evaluation of whether past efforts made a difference. It’s a fixation over shipping features regardless of the actual outcomes they drive for your users and your business.
Yet without a doubt, the feature factory approach is the status quo. It’s the unfortunate equilibrium that awaits all teams who waver in setting and pursuing clear objectives. And the loathsome hum of its malevolent machinery can emerge gradually, even amongst top-performing teams! We’ve all been there. When pressure is high and timeframes tight, anyone can revert to just cranking out features.
Introducing objectives and key results
Indeed, only a well-maintained system can fend off the feature factory. For many organizations, that’s come in the form of objectives and key results (OKRs). It’s credited for the rise and dominance of companies like Intel and Google, where it has helped them move mountains, but also maintain alignment and agility at scale. And it’s been employed by thousands of smaller organizations that are plenty agile, yet looking to focus their scattershot efforts on one clear strategy.
If you’ve heard of OKRs but wrote them off as a passing fad or a daunting management methodology (as I once did!), you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The logic behind them is intuitive, time-tested, and universal to defining good objectives in general. The system itself can be explained in less than five minutes.
Sound promising so far? Let’s dive into the basics and review some examples. Then we’ll conclude with the next steps you can take to try OKRs with your product team. Whether you’re new to OKRs or just brushing up, you’ll leave feeling more confident about driving your product team toward clear, measurable outcomes in 2019.
Why you need OKRs
Have you ever felt spread too thin to be effective in your work?
Has your team struggled to commit to one strategy and de-prioritize another?
Has your organization lacked alignment as divisions or teams with conflicting goals row in different directions?
For the individual, team, and organization…
“If everything is important. Nothing is important.”
OKRs provide a flexible hierarchy of objectives that cascade down through every team and individual. Everyone knows what to focus on. Everyone’s objectives are aligned.
Objectives are inspirational (qualitative) goals that communicate the business outcomes you’re looking to reach. They’re time bound, most often to a quarter, or sometimes to a year.
Key results are the 3-5 indicators (often quantitative goals/KPIs) associated with each objective that help you track your progress and ultimately determine whether the objective has been met.
Here’s the most important bit…
The key results at the organizational level can become objectives for the next level down — whether that’s division, department, or team (depending on the size of your organization). The further down you go, the more specific and tactical the objectives become.
Let’s illustrate how that works through some examples of Company OKRs, Product OKRs and Individual OKRs.
Examples of OKRs
A company’s highest objective is stated in its mission statement, but when discussing top-level objectives, we typically mean the goals the company aims to reach in the next quarter, half year, or year.
Objective: Expand our impact by selling to the enterprise (by end of quarter)
— KR: Win 20 new enterprise deals
— KR: Grow sales-touched revenue by 20%
— KR: Grow ARPA by 15%
— KR: Launch major product initiative Y
If the last key result seems a bit different from the rest, you’re right. It’s not a quantitative KR, but it is specific enough to verify completion at the end of the period. Even the OKR guru himself, John Doerr, confirms that this is the form some KRs take, and that’s just fine.
What will it take to launch this major product initiative? Let’s jump one level down to the product team.
Product team OKRs
The product team is lucky. Their objectives are often especially closely aligned with the organization’s at large.
Even at larger organizations like Google where objectives exist at the parent company, company, division, subdivision, function, team, and individual level, a company-wide objective (e.g. Increase market share within segment Z) may skip multiple levels to be assigned to an individual team! What a thrill to have the entire company rallied behind your success, but quite some pressure too.
But back to our previous example…
Objective: Launch major product initiative Y (by end of quarter)
— KR: All features in scope to GA
— KR: 50% of customers import data to interface Y
— KR: Interface Y plays a direct role in helping close 20 enterprise deals
— KR: 30% of monthly active users use interface Y each week
— KR: Customer Z is fully satisfied with feature Y
As you can see, key results for product objectives are often just proxies for user value. Are users actually benefiting from this thing we worked so hard on? (The answer may not be what you’d hoped, but that knowledge is key for avoiding future waste!) While every product generates value in different ways, our analytical methods for measuring value are limited. It means we often fall back on common metrics for measuring feature adoption and engagement. Adoption metrics might measure the number of users/projects who configured a feature or began using it at all. Engagement metrics measure how often users returned to get more value (e.g. daily active users, weekly active users). Together they provide a basic picture of whether a feature is getting used.
Still, that’s a pretty low bar, huh? If quantitative key results ever threaten to suck the air out of the room, get creative with some qualitative ones. They can still be measurable, if in a more abstract way, but can also be a fun motivator.
— KR: Customer Z is fully satisfied with feature Y
At productboard, we’ve had some fun including key results associated with the reception of features by especially demanding customers. (Don’t get me wrong, we love these folks who really care about the problems we’re solving and push us the hardest. ?) Provided the customer falls into the target segment, and their needs align with our vision, rallying the team to deliver a feature that thrills them is an exciting result to aim for.
In addition to launching new features, additional objectives might include maintenance of existing functionality, investing in new team processes, as well as administrative goals:
Objective: Eliminate core areas of in-product friction
Objective: Create a design system
Objective: Scale the team
If you’re a product manager, your objectives will likely address a handful of user needs or business goals. Key results may include the successful launch of major features, and also the indicators you use to measure desired outcomes.
Objective: Help customers better categorize their data for rapid retrieval
— KR: Ship tag management
— KR: Ship advanced search
— KR: 80% decrease in support tickets related to tags
If you work at the director or VP level, or if you’re a product manager at a startup, you will likely own the objectives of your team of product managers, department, or division. That’s in addition to objectives related to your strategic leadership and managerial duties, such as completing strategic deliverables, hiring, training, and mentoring.
Top-down meets bottom-up
When planning your objectives, for your team or yourself, you’ll find that much of the exercise involves analyzing higher-level key results and asking yourself…
“How can I bring my/our unique strengths to bring about this result?”
It requires brainstorming and you may come up with multiple ideas. For example, to increase new user adoption you could create an in-app walkthrough, a dynamic project setup checklist, or carousels containing explanatory gifs. In this case, you’ll really be placing a bet, given your limited time and resources, on the course of action most likely to drive the intended result.
Objectives tend to cascade down, but they can also bubble up. For example, executives at our company might not understand some of the struggles customers are having with a certain area of the product that could be driving churn.
By choosing your own objectives and key results, you use the context you have from the frontlines to decide the best way you can generate value for your customers and your organization. And in the mid-term, inputs that employees on the frontlines feedback to leadership can influence the top-level objectives set for future cycles.
“Don’t tell people what to do; tell them what you need accomplished, and you’ll be amazed at the results.”
Lastly, don’t forget to include an objective for personal growth! What measurable steps will you take to grow in your role, develop your skills, and advance your career?
Succeeding with OKRs
Here are a few final things to keep in mind to get the most out of OKRs with your product team.
Set ambitious OKRs
The primary purpose of OKRs is not just to document, but galvanize. If OKRs are to be made sufficiently ambitious, they need to be kept separate from performance evaluations. Otherwise goals tend to be set too conservatively to do much good. This is especially true of moonshot OKRs.
“Take a look at your OKRs. If you are getting a funny little feeling in the pit of your stomach saying, “We are really going to have to all bring our A game to hit these…” then you’re probably setting them correctly.”
– Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus
If you find moonshot OKRs are being met with close to a 100% success rate, you’re probably not setting ambitious enough targets.
Note: You may also set committed OKRs that relate to your core job responsibilities and are expected to be achieved 100%. Just clearly designate these and set expectations accordingly.
Counter-balance your key results
When setting key results, consider what negative outcomes they might incidentally incentivize. Aim to counterbalance these.
“What gets measured gets managed.” — Peter Drucker
For example, if one goal is to ship more features (quantity), consider setting another key result targeting quality.
If another goal is about growth, set another to address performance.
And keep an eye out for blind spots! If you’re setting key results to validate whether users are getting value from a new feature, it’s likely not enough to verify that they configure it (adoption). You’ll also want to ensure that they’re coming back on a regular basis (engagement).
Keep your OKRs front and center
“Out of sight. Out of mind.”
If you’re setting OKRs for the first time, it’s easy to promptly forget about them.
Things come up. We get distracted in our day-to-day. New responsibilities land on our plates mid-cycle. And the further individual OKRs drift from memory, the easier it is to convince yourself that since the work you’re doing seems important, it must be supporting one of your objectives. It’s not until you check your OKRs with three weeks to go that you realize an impossible amount of work remains.
“The original OKR system was just a way to set smart stretch goals. But the system around it — commitment, celebrations, check ins — makes sure you continue to make progress toward your goals.” – Christina Wodtke
To get full value from OKRs, post them where you’ll see them every day, or adopt a dedicated OKR management solution and refer to it on a regular basis. (Capture product OKRs in a product management solution where today you can represent objectives in the form of initiatives.) Score your key results to indicate your confidence that you’ll meet them and update regularly. Share OKRs with your manager and colleagues, if not your entire organization for transparency, alignment, and accountability. Bake OKRs into weekly team meetings where you can discuss progress and blockers.
Life beyond the feature factory
OKRs bring the promise of greater focus, alignment, and measurable progress toward exciting outcomes. They require an upfront investment, and ongoing attention, but hopefully with the tips we’ve reviewed here you’ll be well on your way.
As with all things, sometimes your best bet is to start small and just get started. You can take OKRs for a trial run and adjust as you go. But if you’re looking for more guidance and resources, there are none better than John Doerr’s Measure What Matters, Christina Wodtke’s Radical Focus, and the Google re:Work Guide for Setting Goals with OKRs.