Cascading OKRs and White Space OKRs

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the top-down or bottom-up question – “OKRs top-down? bottom-up? or ripples on a pond?”

The idea of top-down OKRs keeps cropping up: it needs a name. So please let me introduce Cascading OKRs, or C-OKRs for short.

I only just invented the term so I don’t use it in Succeeding with OKRs in Agile – although I do warn against the idea. The meme is in books and blogs I’ve read, in podcasts I’ve heard and it comes up again and again in Q&A sessions when I do presentations.

The Cascading OKRs idea goes like this: the people at the top of the organisation set OKRs. These are shared with people and teams “below” them. Those teams then write OKRs to support the delivery of the those above them. Their OKRs are in turn shared with “lower” individuals and teams who repeat the processes.

I’ve even heard it suggested that teams take the OKRs from above and use the key results as their objective(s). The key results they create around these objectives can then be used by “lower” teams as their objectives. Hence OKRs cascade down the organisation. (And we all know what Cascades look like don’t we?)

Undoubtedly this interpretation has its own logic – both in the top setting the master OKRs and the lower levels implementing them. It is after all functional decomposition. And I must believe from what I hear that some companies do it this way even if I have never seen it myself. One hopes that it works for these companies, I think it can be better.

C-OKRs are incompatible with the agile mindset because it deprives teams of autonomy. Each team must implement the objectives given to them regardless of what the team believes, regardless of what the team’s customers are asking for, irrespective of the research the product owner/manager has done.

In reducing, even eliminating, autonomy motivation is going to fall too, teams are no longer their own masters.

Nor will this way increase agility because each team must move in lockstep – or perhaps one step behind – the team above them. The cascading hierarchy injects delay.

Cascading OKRs may be easy to grasp, they may be easy to sell, they may follow the logic of hierarchy and management-by-objective but that also means they represent a lost opportunity to integrate OKRs and agile.

Having named Cascading OKRs I need to name the alternative: broadly the approach I advocate in Succeeding with OKRs.

I name this approach White Space OKRs, WS-OKRs.

Organisational leaders should set the vision, the big-hairy-audacious-goal, the ultimate objective, the massively transformative purpose. They should name the mission, they should set the culture and talk about the purpose of the organisation.

And they should leave copious amounts of white space – space for teams to fill.

Those visions should be light on how; they should be light on orders, instructions and mandates. That may seem odd but only by leaving these things out – by leaving white space – can individuals and teams, at all levels, decide how best they can support that mission, goal, purpose or whatever you call it. Planning is disabling.

Because teams decide how to support those goals – while supporting existing customers, legacy business and technology, plus other (potentially completing) demands – team retain autonomy, and autonomy creates motivation and flexibility.

There is one more assumption underlying this which deserves mentioning.

White Space OKRs assume that the teams already exist. With WS-OKRs leaders don’t need to create new teams to deliver their goals because those teams already exist. In other words, the organisation is operating a post-projects model, e.g. product teams, continuous digital, Spotify, or maybe SAFe. That raises an issue of gaps and I’ll return to this another day.


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White space photo from Katie Doherty on Unsplash.

2 thoughts on “Cascading OKRs and White Space OKRs”

  1. Hey Allan, I love the idea of the OKR as the backlog generator. I’m interested in the article above do you see any reason why the big hair audacious goal could not be an objective with key results that indicate it’s success? Do you feel that behaviourally this would encourage hierarchical thinking which a strategy written in another format may not?

    I’ve read of many organisation creating a big hair audacious OKR (with white space) and then teams use that as a north star and create their own which still benefits from autonomy and ownership.

    Reply

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