Scaling OKRs, Part 1: Strategy Is the Foundation

Posted on April 12, 2023.

This article first appeared in my bi-weekly free newsletter, Continuous Learning. I’d be thrilled if you signed up here and joined 40k other subscribers.

You’ve nailed writing specific, compelling, inspirational and relevant goals for your team—well done. Now the organization is looking at not just you, but also the rest of the teams across product development and other departments to finish writing their goals. Leadership is expecting everyone to do as good a job as you. Suddenly it dawns on them that if every single team writes just one OKR statement (as they should), the company will end up with hundreds of OKRs to review—not exactly manageable.
How should they tackle OKRs at scale?
The majority of the material being written on OKRs focuses on how to write and then implement the new goals within one team. When that scales to the entire organization, the conversation quickly goes silent. This next series of newsletters will start to provide some guidance on how to scale OKRs, what to look for as more teams take on the practice, and how to ensure organizational alignment, agility and, ultimately, increased levels of autonomy.
In this first installment, we’re going to take a look at the foundation of a successful OKR-scaling process: strategy.

Image by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash
No good OKRs without clear strategy
Let me be super clear about this: Without a clear, articulated company and product strategy, scaling OKRs to the whole company will not realize the intended benefits. In fact, it will likely lead to conflicting priorities, competing teams and an arbitrary, often subjective, decision-making and reconciliation process.
Strategy is an alignment tool. It tells teams what’s important and what’s not. It gives direction and provides the guardrails to help teams determine what work to take on and what is likely out-of-scope for the next cycle. When teams understand the strategy thoroughly, they think deeply how the work they do can help bring that strategy to fruition. Most importantly, strategy gets the entire organization pulling in the same direction.
Why communicating your strategy is key
It’s not enough for the strategy to just exist. It needs to be written down and communicated in such a way that everyone understands it. The strategy story needs to be compelling and told repeatedly until every employee can instantly recount what it is. When every employee knows what the organization is focusing on for the next cycle and why, then they can start setting their team’s goals.

Image by Possessed Photography on Unsplash
There are many reasons for and benefits to this. Teams can choose goals that, in their view, support the overall strategy, and the key results they choose function as leading indicators of strategic goals. Reviewing the OKRs, then, becomes easier because, fundamentally, they have to answer one question: Does this goal support the overall strategy?
Additionally, conflicts become easier to resolve because the strategy provides an objective lens through which to examine the relevance and validity of pet projects, personal preferences and arbitrary choices, for example. All those things quickly disappear when placed under the lens of a clear strategy. As teams present their OKRs and goals, they have to tell their own compelling story about how the goals they chose and the accompanying solution hypotheses will help achieve the strategy.
Sometimes teams are few layers removed from the corporate strategy tier. If these teams know what the strategy is, they now have the responsibility to think through the customer journey or value chain and connect their work in that context. For many deep or internally facing teams, this will be a new exercise that challenges them to align themselves with the rest of their colleagues’ work. For example, a platform team will now have to think about how the goals they set for themselves enable the kind of platform that supports their colleagues’ work, which in turn directly impacts the strategy.
While there are many other aspects to scaling OKRs, this is the foundational layer you must get in place first.
Write a strategy.
Build consensus for it across leadership.
Then disseminate it again and again until you’re confident everyone in the organization knows exactly in what direction they need to pull.
In the next installment of this series on scaling OKRs, we’ll focus on how to set strategic OKRs and what that looks like for various teams in the organization.

One thought on “Scaling OKRs, Part 1: Strategy Is the Foundation

  1. Pingback: The OKR Cycle

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