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.


Subscribe to my blog newsletter and download Continuous Digital for free – normal price $9.99/£9.95/€9.95


White space photo from Katie Doherty on Unsplash.

Sorry about the OKRs

Quick word of appoogy to regular readers who may not be interested in OKRs: sorry for all the posts about OKRs.

Its probably a natural effect of pubishing a book on the subject and then doing a bunch of presentations, webinars, workshops and Q&A sessions. Give me a few weeks and this will pass. Normal service will be resumed, with thoughts on agile, technology and such – I just don’t know when!

Our brains want more but less is more

Less is more – I say it so often but it is still a lesson I still have to relearn regularly. Go small. You could say that my most famous blog post is saying just the same thing in fancy language – Software has diseconomies of scale – not economies of scale.

So a couple of weeks ago I was fascinated to see an article in The Economist entitled “Why people forget that less is often more” (paywall) reporting on research published in Nature “People systematically overlook subtractive changes” (another paywall) – being Nature one knows this is serious science.

The researched showed that less is more applies mentally as well as physically. That is, people are far more likely to solve problems by adding elements than by subtracting them – even when subtraction is both viable and costs less (some of the experiments introduced the idea of cost.) The researches even go as far as to suggest this isn’t just a case of believing the additive (more) solution is better than the subtractive, it appears our brains are less likely to consider the a solution which subtracts elements to create a solution.

Last year when I was struggling to complete “Succeeding with OKRs in Agile” I found a solution in removing some chapters. Some were little more than notes, some were in draft and a couple were fully written (and edited). Removing those chapters made the book less, but it made my work load less too – which had an immediate benefit.

It also meant I could finish the book sooner. It meant the copy editing process was quicker and cheaper, and it meant that the book could be published on Amazon and start earning for sooner. But I also believe people like shorter books, I really believe that I’m selling more books because it has less than 200 pages than I would if it had over 200, let alone 300.

This has a bearing on the way companies organise themselves and their processes too. When I first started talking about #NoProjects (which became Project Myopia) I really saw this as a “just remove the project model” – keep doing all the other stuff but just drop projects. Part of me still believes that and while I recognise that some places need more structure I also believe that adding projects is simply overhead for many small companies.

I see it too in the “fear of coding” that many companies have – don’t let people code! Plan it, write it down, estimate it, find the cheapest supplier, argue about it – when simply doing it would be cheaper.

I see it too in the way “agile methods” have grown. Scrum, and XP, are barely viable development models. Compared to RUP they are miniscule. But they worked. Before agile we called them “lightweight”.

Now we have SAFe and other frameworks which bring big thinking back. Nobody would call SAFe lightweight – not with its 10 principles, four configurations and five versions. Perhaps we should have stuck with “lightweight development methods.”

I think it was Alistair Cockburn who once said “Traditional methods are tailored by removing elements, agile methods are tailored by adding.” If the research above is right it was only a matter of time before someone created an “agile method” as big as SAFe.

Finally, another example of less is more: I could write more in this blog but less is more.


Subscribe to my blog newsletter and download Continuous Digital for free – normal price $9.99/£9.95/€9.95

OKRs top-down? bottom-up? or ripples in a pond?

One of the great things about writing a book is that you get a greater understanding of the subject. So it was with “Succeeding with OKRs in Agile”. In particular writing the book forced me to think about how OKRs fitted with agile and hierarchal structures. I get the impression that many people are interested in using OKRs to align teams but not everyone has worked out all the nuances.

On the face of it OKRs are hierarchal: it seems “obvious” that someone, somewhere, is going to set a big goal, that goal will cascade down and every team will end up with their own mini version of the goal. As I said, this seems obvious, how else could it be? Especially in a large organization?

After all, is that how the not so distant ancestors of OKRs, Management-By-Objectives (MBOs), worked.

This also fits the engineer’s mind: the product team have a goal, and all the supporting teams – whether contributing components or services – make their goals subservient to the one goal. The classic inverted tree with each team doing what the node above asks.

But, top-down conflicts directly with reality and with agile. Teams don’t have one goal, they don’t answer to but one leader but to multiple leaders, multiple customers, multiple stakeholders and these don’t always agree. Agile folk have long railed against command-and-control from above while advocating self-managing or self-organising teams. Surely OKRs go against this philosophy?

So, if we are to use OKRs in an agile environment these positions need to be reconciled. In Succeeding with OKRs I described the process as more bottom-up than top-down. Thus, rather than a big boss saying what should happen and that being cascaded down the origanization to provide goals at every level, I describer the big boss setting out a vision, a goal, an objective but not describing details. Then they say to the teams: “Help, how can you help more us towards that goal?”

Now, only a few months after I wrote that my thinking has moved on. I don’t disagree with myself but I see the need for a more nuanced explanation and a revised model.

First off, I’m guilty of using the language of hierarchy: top-down and bottom-up. In so doing I’m supporting the view that hierarchies are the natural state of things and creating a, possibly false dichotomy: one thing or another. For years I’ve been thinking of organisations both as federal entities and as solar systems. While the leadership team may be central to decisions they are not all powerful . Teams have their own paths, leadership and leadership teams are the sun and teams/divisions orbit them. (If I recall correctly I picked this idea up in the Henry Mintzberg book Simply Managing.)

Bear in mind, as I say in everyone of my books: team are autonomous. We stive for independent teams with devolved authority. Each team exists to deliver a product or service and each team has multiple stakeholders – of whom the big boss is but one. Each team therefore has to decide how best to deliver benefit to (potentially competing) stakeholders. Sometimes that means co-ordinating with other teams and even other companies.

Put that together: teams are creating OKRs but they are not doing it in isolation, they are listening to the big bosses at the centre but also the teams they need to work with.

Recently I’ve started to think of these concentric circles less as planetary orbits and more as waves, or ripples to be precise. The big boss at the centre makes big ripples that carry out to the edges.

But leaders are not the only ripple makers. Teams, customers and other stakeholders also have an effect – like rain falling on water. Sometimes these waves some together and magnify each other, other times they cancel each other out, more often than-not they are out of sync and disrupt each other in ways too complex to predictable.

We think of leaders as single water droplets but inreality there are lots of drops making lots of ripples

OKRs are the messaging system that allows teams to signal what ripples they are creating and which they are reacting to. Teams are iterating – OKRs reset every 13 weeks – which means every quarter teams get a chance to react to other ripples and rest their own.

Thought of like this you also get a scaling model. Not so much a model of “how to do this to scale” but a mental model which describes how to think about scaling.


I have some upcoming presentations and webinars about OKRs if you would like to know more

Or, buy the book “Succeeding with OKRs in Agile”


Subscribe to my blog newsletter and download Continuous Digital for free – normal price $9.99/£9.95/€9.95

Presentation & speaking engagements

Agile on the beach

The attention Succeeding with OKRs in Agile has got means I’ve had a lot of invites to speak about, well, Agile and OKRs. So I am at a number of meetup groups and conferences, and odd conversation, over the next few weeks, most of which are free to attend online.

An up to date list of public speaking engagements can always be found on my website. In addition to public speaking I regularly deliver private presentations too. So please get in touch and book a date your team or company.


Reawakening Agile with OKRs

When: 6 May, 5.30pm Sydney, 8.30am London

Online presentation

Organized by SAFe Sydney, free, booking required


Reawakening Agile with OKRs

When: 11 May 2021, online presentation

Organized by BCS Change Management group – booking required (free to attend)


Succeeding with OKRs

An online conversation with Adrian Reed, 20 May 2021.

Organiser and booking with BlackMetric


Reawakening Agile with OKRs

When: 27 May, online presentation

Organized by Cambridge Agile Exchange, free, booking required


Reawakening Agile with OKRs

When: 30 June 2021, online presentation

Organized by Future of Work in Scotland, booking required


Allan Kelly at Agile on the Beach
Allan Kelly at Agile on the Beach

Reawakening Agile with OKRs at Agile on the Beach conference

First live, in person, event since March 2020 – with beach party!

Sept 2, 2021, tickets on sale now