This is a transcript of episode 238 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.
Taking iterative development to heart, Squirrel and Jeffrey discuss a learning loop topic, Summer Shorts and Learning Loops: Weekly planning, in five minutes or fewer. Take just a few minutes with us to improve your team’s learning and speed!
Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.
Squirrel: So there are our theme for the summer is learning loops. And Jeffrey, when is a learning loop better.
Jeffrey: When they’re faster?
Squirrel: Exactly. So that’s what we’re going to do this summer is summer shorts. So this week we’re going to talk about a learning loop topic. And Jeffrey, we only have 5 minutes. Do you think we can do it?
Jeffrey: Oh, I think we can.
Squirrel: Great. Then here we go.
Squirrel: We’re looking at OKRs today, that’s our learning loop. Jeffrey, what’s an “OKR?” What’s it stand for? Why don’t people use them? Why do they find them boring when they do?
Jeffrey: “OKRs” stand for “objectives and key results.” They’ve become fairly popular, a lot of people are doing them in the sense that they have a process where they use the abbreviation OKR. However, a lot of times it doesn’t do much to reflect the actual goals of OKRs. A lot of focus with OKRs are actually on the execution and alignment aspects of the objectives. “How do we know what it is that we’re all going to be trying to achieve?” There’s value in that, but I think people miss the potential and the real power of OKRs, which is a longer-phase learning loop. Over this series about learning loops we’ve discussed how they become nested, and OKRs are a natural container to encompass the others. Over a whole project or whole quarter, we’ve set an objective, we defined what success would mean. That’s what key results are: your prediction at the start of the quarter saying, “we believe if we were to achieve these things that we can measure, that we would have achieved our objective.” It’s a prediction that you’re making.
Squirrel: When you’re describing a prediction, that’s a prediction about something uncertain. So I always say that if somebody’s OKRs are so clear that they dictate exactly what someone is going to do on the fourth hour of the 17th day of the quarter or something like that, they’re doing it wrong. Do you agree with me or do you see it differently?
Jeffrey: I agree completely. OKRs are not supposed to be recipes. The idea is that you’re defining what success means. “The cake should be light and fluffy at the end.” It’s not telling you the steps. It could be you’ve never made cake before and you don’t know what you’re going to do to make it light and fluffy. But then your goal is to learn during the quarter. You’re saying “we think we can achieve light and fluffy cake. We don’t know how we’re going to do it yet, but we think it’s possible. At the end we’re going to look and say, did we achieve light and fluffy cake?” But it’s not a recipe.
Squirrel: Our smaller loops throughout the quarter should help us to determine whether we’re on track for light and fluffy cake or improved conversion rate or whatever it is that we’re trying to produce. So there should be this nice interaction between the shorter learning loops we’ve been talking about all summer and this larger final learning loop of the OKR.
Jeffrey: That’s right. In some of our previous episodes we’ve talked about the big arrow. They idea that we have a bunch of energy going out to try to move us in a direction, and the big arrow is the one that that gives the bounding context for all the other little arrows, all the other efforts. The OKR is the big theme, the big goal. So anything that you do in the quarter, it should be aligned with this. So it’s a combination of not just prediction but also prioritization. “This is the outcome we value. We don’t know exactly how we get there, but this is what we’re looking to achieve.” Again coming back, the key part is we have a prediction of what success would look like and what it would mean. And then at the end of the OKR, you score it. This is part of the process. Most people think about the scoring as the point, like our goal is to get 100%. Well, there’s value in that, but the real value of the OKR is beyond that, when you say, “Great, what did we learn in the process?” If we succeeded and we went green, why? What did we do? What are we learning in the process? And if we failed, if we didn’t achieve our objectives or we didn’t receive our key results, why not? What obstacles came up? How will this impact our planning in the future? Because then you go in the next cycle of OKRs and that next cycle of OKRs should bring forward the lessons that we’ve just learned. We just paid for the quarter to learn a lot. How are we going to use that investment in the coming quarter? OKRs looked at from this perspective, “this is a prediction and we’re going to run an experiment for the quarter and we’re going to learn from the result whether we succeeded or failed, and it’s going to influence our next set of OKRs,” it really changes people’s relationship to OKRs as opposed to how a lot of people treat it, which is “this is the plan. You’re going to do these things and we’re going to grade you at the end. Did you do what we told you to do?” That’s not the way to approach OKRs.
Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.