OKR and Scrum

Posted on January 16, 2023.
OKRs need agility to succeed. Scrum provides that.

Most product teams today are practicing some form of Scrum. An increasing number of organizations are implementing their goals using Objectives and Key Results. It’s just a matter of time before someone in the organization raises their hand to ask how we connect these two processes. The good news is that OKRs are the key to organizational agility which means that Scrum is a perfect place for teams that use OKRs to start. 

OKRs require an agile process

If done correctly OKRs target positive changes in human behavior. This means that teams aren’t targeting the deployment of features. In an OKR-driven world the team’s definition of done is a sufficient amount of behavior change in your target audience. The way the team achieves this behavior change is by shipping light versions of features they believe will achieve the key result. As these experiments are deployed the team learns how valid their feature hypothesis is and whether they should kill, pivot or persevere. 

As they learn new information the teams adjust course. Adjusting course based on evidence is the definition of agility. Without the ability to change course easily teams will optimize for the delivery of a committed set of features regardless of their impact on the target audience. Agility enables OKR-driven teams to continuously learn and improve. 

Scrum provides a good framework for OKR-driven teams

The fundamental practices of scrum – backlogs, sprints, retrospectives – provide just enough scaffolding for OKR-driven teams to do the kind of work required to achieve your new goals. The backlog is filtered with the team’s primary key result. Any item in consideration has to first pass through this filter: do we believe this idea will help us achieve our key result? Anything that comes back a “yes” makes it into consideration for the backlog. Anything that comes back a “no” is relegated to the “not now” bucket. 

Once the team decides which of the “yes” items they’re going to work on and in which priority, they begin the process of experimentation. The sprint provides a deadline for the team to review their progress, determine how well their ideas worked and decide, using evidence, what to do in the next sprint. Short blocks of time ensure the team isn’t investing too heavily in unproven ideas. Reducing that investment makes it much easier for the team to pivot from or let go of ideas that didn’t turn out to be successful. 

OKR and Scrum are two sides of the same process

It’s not a coincidence that OKRs are becoming so popular these days. Along with the continuous learning infrastructure now available to most teams, modern processes also make it easier to do the kind of work needed on OKR-driven teams. Teams need the ability to make small bets, assess their results and decide how best to proceed. Given scrum’s ubiquity in most organizations, adding in a set of human-centered goals with Objectives and Key Results is not only painless but makes the most sense. 

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