OKR Success Tip: The Quarterly Check-in

Posted on July 10, 2023.

Teams and organizations often struggle to commit to their new OKR goals for a variety of reasons. One of the most common is, what if our OKRs are wrong? This is often followed by, what if we chose the wrong things to work on? We’ve talked here before about the amount of time we have to live with our decisions. In this blog post, let’s get specific. 

Quarters make excellent time boxes

As we begin the path of a new way of working, in this case OKRs, we want to mitigate the risks mentioned above as well as any others that may arise during the transition. To help us do that, we need to reduce the time boxes we use to make decisions. In most organizations the typical time box is a year. When we’re changing how our people work, we have to reduce that time box. Quarters are an excellent option for this. Why? Because (a) quarters are shorter than a year and (b) most organizations also think in quarterly cycles.

A quarter provides 12 weeks for teams to try something new. This is enough time to feel the impact while mitigating the risk of the challenges of this new thing. It provides the runway for improvements to take off while at the same time introducing the organization to the new demands needed for OKRs to succeed. Even if the whole thing ends up being a disaster for some reason, there’s only so much damage a team can do in a quarter (in theory :-). 

The quarterly check-in develops your agile muscles

At the end of each quarter the teams that have now transitioned to OKRs meet with their stakeholders. There are several purposes to this meeting:

  • To assess progress towards the team’s OKRs
  • To learn what the team has shipped
  • To learn what the team has decided not to ship and why
  • To decide what to do with what the team has learned in the quarter
  • To determine what the team will do in the subsequent quarter

While the team should come to this quarterly meeting prepared with answers to each of the points above, none of what they present should be a surprise to anyone at that meeting. The quarterly check-in should be a forward looking meeting. It should not be a review of the last quarter. If the team has done its job well, they’ve communicated many of these points as they’ve come up during the quarter

The data the team brings to the quarterly meeting should support the decisions it’s making for the subsequent quarter. The stakeholder’s job is to review whether the direction the team is pursuing makes sense strategically and whether it makes sense at all in the face of anything that’s emerged in the previous quarter. 

While the team may have justified decisions for what they’d like to do next, it’s possible their current OKR goals no longer make sense. It’s possible a new competitive threat has emerged in the market. Or it could be the organization has decided to pursue a new strategic direction. These just-in-time meetings give stakeholders the opportunity to redirect the teams to new initiatives and goals or to confirm the path they’re currently on. 

It’s also an opportunity to fix the process

The quarterly check-in provides another benefit: a chance to fix how the team is working. One of the main points of conversation during these meetings should be the adoption of the new ways of working and any obstacles that are keeping the team from its full potential. A good set of questions for stakeholders to ask should include:

  • What’s making it easy to achieve your OKRs?
  • What’s getting in the way? 
  • What tools or data do you need to be more successful?

At the same time the team is making product plan adjustments, it can also be making process adjustments. At each quarterly check-in they should report back on how the changes they made to the process affected their productivity, efficiency and team happiness. 

Short cycles reduce risk

The less time you spend doing something, the less risky it is. Quarters reduce risk by forcing four times more check-ins than on an annual basis. Each check-in is an opportunity to improve the product and the process. Quarters should work well in most environments, however if you work in one where a quarter is too long or too short then choose a time box that works for you. Just make sure it’s shorter than the one you’re using today.

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