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How OKRs and Agile Methodologies Work Together | Fullstory Live

Hunter Garrett
Posted June 19, 2019
How OKRs and Agile Methodologies Work Together | Fullstory Live

You got to find the process that works best with the chemistry and makeup of your team. You want to understand that to help you create your requirements for the tools you use.

—Kyle Henderson, Senior Product Manager at Fullstory

Kyle Henderson, Senior Product Manager at Fullstory, joined Hanna Woodburn, Product Marketing Manager, discuss how OKRs and Agile methodologies work together at Fullstory.

Kyle and Hanna discussed topics including:

  • Pros and cons of OKR and Agile methodologies.

  • How the two methodologies can work together.

  • Tips to uncover what processes work for your team.

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Read the Transcript

Hanna Woodburn: Good afternoon everyone. I'm Hanna with Fullstory and we're here for another edition of Fullstory Live here on LinkedIn. Thanks for joining us. I'm here this afternoon with Kyle Henderson a Senior Product Manager here at Fullstory. Thanks for being with us Kyle.

Kyle Henderson: Oh my pleasure.

Hanna Woodburn: So before we get started, a few notes. As a reminder, this is a live session so please feel free to add comments below. If you have any questions, we'll get to those later on. We're going to be talking today about OKR cycles and sprints and how those can work together. So Kyle to kick things off, can you tell me a little bit about your background before you joined us here at Fullstory?

Kyle Henderson: Certainly. So my background in product management crosses a number of different startups across the last 15, 20 years. Also spent some time working in product research and management at Nokia and some larger companies as well. But have spent a lot of time in the user experience space and the analytic space and that's part of what attracted me to come to Fullstory. So that's the background.

Hanna Woodburn: And what attracted you to being a product manager?

Kyle Henderson: Oh I think because it's one of those interesting roles that is so ill-defined that you're allowed to go and get stuff done. And I just like being action first and it just works for my personality. I don't mind making decisions and having to pull people together to get stuff done. So works with PM-ing.

Hanna Woodburn: Definitely. So we're talking about OKRs and sprints today. I feel like it's appropriate to make some sort of comment about you're an ultra marathoner and we're talking about sprints. So there's an interesting dynamic there.

Kyle Henderson: Yes sprints are great for speed training. It allows you to get a faster pace when you do long runs. But I can't say that I was ever good on the track in high school.

Hanna Woodburn: Okay. All right, that's fair. So talk to me a little bit about OKRs and sprints. It sounds like there's some tension there historically.

Kyle Henderson: Yeah so first what is an OKR? So this is a management and alignment system that was popularized by Andy Grove of Intel and it stands for objectives and key results. And it's very good at helping define what the business wants to achieve and then also saying, how do we measure that we achieved it or didn't achieve it? Hence, the objective and the key result.

Kyle Henderson: Now those typically are kind of longer term plans. Maybe this looks at a few quarters. It could even look at an entire year. And it starts to play with schedules a certain amount. Where on the other side you have kind of Agile methodologies which sprints live inside, whether you want to do scrum or some other kind of more branded Agile approach, but this concept of being very flexible, responsive to your customer set, your user needs, and being able to in a very nimble, Agile fashion, execute quickly and deliver quickly to figure out what works and doesn't work. Hence, the idea of sprinting to get something out the door and get feedback on it.

Kyle Henderson: Now, one is very flexible and responsive and doesn't have necessarily a whole lot of roadmap, while the other is very oriented towards a longer term roadmap and planning. And often organizations find those in conflict because how do I say I'm going to get something done a year from now when I don't know what's important next week? That's why there's a little bit of conflict at times and people have to figure out how to make these two things work.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah definitely. So let's talk about ... We'll talk about OKRs first and then we'll talk about Agile. So you defined OKR as objectives and key results. We use those here at Fullstory and I personally have found them to be really helpful for thinking through, how do we solve big challenges in a short period of time. What do you see as the benefits of working through an OKR cycle?

Kyle Henderson: So I think the first major benefit is it creates a lot of cross organizational alignment. It tells you what the business objective you want to achieve is. And it also tells you how we're going to measure if we achieved it or not. And that can flow down quite easily. So let's say an objective is, define, launch and collect 1,000 customers for a new product. And I'm just saying I want to be able to do that by the end of the year. Well a key result is, 1,000 customers signed up. Another key result could be being able to say we released all MVP features and then additional fast follows of some sort. Whatever you want to define it as. But what's helpful about that is you can start to see okay, well me as in marketing or me as in product, or me as an engineering or in commercial sales, I can see like oh, if I want to help the company be able to get 1,000 customers, I can kind of break that down and so oh, my portion of being able to deliver against that metric is I need to make a feature as an engineer or as a product marketing I need to create the position and the messaging around that feature to communicate value to the end customer. So it becomes easy to align to what the company wants to achieve with that.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah I totally agree. And I think also we've talked a little bit in other LinkedIn live sessions about our watch words here at Fullstory and one of those is clarity. And for me I think OKRs are really clarifying because you do get that visibility into what's our business' priority and then understanding how I as an individual contributor or as a team can help us track towards those goals. What do you see as the challenges with OKRs?

Kyle Henderson: The challenges often I find with OKRs is the expectation that it drives all work versus placing importance on certain work. Often companies start with the OKRs of like the highest level. So you may have OKRs only at the company level, not like at the department level or like squad level. You don't go that low. And if you're thinking that you want to use OKRs to drive all activity, it could be then quite difficult to a certain extent because cycles become longer because you want this to be a methodology used across the entire org and it also requires a lot more planning in advance. So you start to lose some of the flexibility you may have been used to prior to going into an OKR process.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah definitely. And you've worked under OKR structures at other companies as well, so you have lots of experience with this. Let's talk about Agile or sprints. How do you define that?

Kyle Henderson: So don't nail me to the wall too hard on this one. But let's just generally describe Agile methodologies as approaches that typically have something that looks like a backlog of requests from customers, users, commercial, et cetera, et cetera for changes or updates to a product. And the thought that on a weekly ... No, every two weeks short cycle I'm going to pick which of those requests seem to be most important, define them, develop them, and release them and see if they are successful or not by whatever success criteria I set. The idea there is I'm going to iterate so quickly that even if I am imperfect in knowing what is the great value I can deliver, I will through rapid feedback from my customer set and my stakeholders be able to get to the right feature faster than if I tried to do like a traditional waterfall or potentially like a longer planing cycle of some sort.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah definitely. So obviously the ability to move fast and be nimble would be a benefit. What are some other benefits you see?

Kyle Henderson: Other benefits are it works really well when you want to talk about organizing work on like a daily basis or like shorter term weekly basis. So often situations may have squads or smaller teams or smaller departments, where let's say you would range from like three people to like 40 people. And this can be very helpful and still very wieldy, like you could do a very good job with managing what do we want to focus on this week? What is it specifically that we want to develop and launch? And when are we going to actually put it in customer's hands? And it's very clear and well defined because you're working on these small bite size bits of work. And everyone knows, like at the end of the week was I successful or was I 80% successful at getting done what I said I was going to get done? But longer timelines that can lose sight of what you're trying to accomplish or what you're trying to accomplish can change a little bit and it gets tough to understand and manage day to day work.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah. So it sounds like the biggest challenge probably is having that longer perspective on what are you doing, what are you trying to accomplish, how is success measured over a longer period of time?

Kyle Henderson: Right.

Hanna Woodburn: Got it. So obviously they sound very different. But your perspective is you think that there is a space where they can actually be complementary, correct?

Kyle Henderson: Yeah, I think they actually work very well from kind of the perspective of meeting in the middle. I think OKRs, from my experience, work very well when you want to talk about entire company level objectives or department level objectives. And then more Agile methodologies work quite well when you're wanting to talk about daily, weekly, every two week work focus projects. How do I actually get stuff out the door? Now where I think they can meet is when you say, I don't think one should completely control or organize the company or the other. So from my perspective and what has been very successful for me in the past is working on quick cycles like Agile with sprints, but in every sprint we do, saying divide it. Only half of this sprint is going to be dedicated to work that is oriented towards an OKR in some way. And the other half of the work is going to be dedicated to whatever other stakeholders think is important for quick turnaround. So that I'm getting that kind of incremental flexible Agile responsiveness to customers in the market. But I know I'm also getting measured progress against what my bigger longer term plan is. And this has a big impact when you want to talk about what size company you are, like am I an early stage company or am I a big enterprise?

Kyle Henderson: There are pros and cons to different sized companies and which methodology matches and how you should transition over time. But generally speaking, I think it's powerful when you decide to split between the two and you get the best of both worlds.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah definitely. I think that makes a lot of sense if we think of ... We talk a lot about OKRs here as being big boulders that we want to chip away at, large projects. And you're saying that the sprints could be sort of the smaller pieces that fill in around it.

Kyle Henderson: There's an analogy, if you guys are SpaceX fans or any of these companies that are making micro satellites ... This is really intriguing to me. I'm going to nerd out on this. These constellations of micro satellites are awesome now. Like they're getting fired up into the lower earth atmosphere and they're taking photos of the entire earth every single day now. And the only reason they're up there is like when SpaceX launces a massive satellite with a big payload, there's a lot of empty space that can't be filled with heavy weight stuff. These micro satellites are like shoebox size. Like getting shoved in everywhere. So think of it as like big efforts of work can get major boulders chipped away, which are like getting the big satellite up there. But then there should be lots of little ride alongs along the way, which are pushing the ball forward across the entire landscape.

Hanna Woodburn: If you're thinking in terms of product prioritization, I think a lot of organizations at one point or another struggle with tech debt. Where they have sort of that lingering issues that they're chipping away at. They're not necessarily big projects, but they may have smaller sort of initiatives that always need to be a focus. How do you think that fits into this framework that you're describing?

Kyle Henderson: So my specific experience on that from the PM perspective, having worked with engineering managers and different squads, when we got to sprint planning each week we would say, I as the product manager am going to take 50% of the points and I'm choosing to divvy up half of that towards some of my big OKR stuff. And I have a lot of little small things I want to bring that are product oriented, maybe slight tweaks to features that I'm going to fill in. Now engineering, you own 50% of this sprint. What do you want to bring? What's important to you? What are your projects or your epics or your small things, your tech debt? And then we all bring in together and if it's more than 100% we start negotiating back and forth on what's the value doing what.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah, interesting. Okay.

Kyle Henderson: So there's always space.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah. And I'd love to hear from those of you who are watching online if you have any thoughts about OKRs and what works or doesn't work with them or if you've worked in sort of this dual framework that Kyle is describing. We'd love to know your thoughts and questions. It sounds like there's a lot of benefits from working with both OKRs and sort of a spring or Agile approach. Certainly there are challenges as well. Can you describe some of those for us?

Kyle Henderson: Often challenge is around sprinting and more Agile approaches. It happens so quickly and so many little things can get done, it becomes difficult to create visibility for the rest of the org about what's shipping, what went out to production, what problems got fixed. Unless someone like customer support is specifically watching an issue, they may not know it got resolved. So that's a challenge because there's just so much little stuff happening all the time.

Kyle Henderson: A challenge on the OKR side is that unless something is really called out as a big, meaningful project that's going to push the business forward, it doesn't necessarily get the spotlight and doesn't necessarily get also visibility and awareness. You could have medium or smaller sized projects that have a big impact, but because they didn't get called out in some special way they kind of fell out of the scope and the area of awareness for the rest of the org as well.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah.

Kyle Henderson: Any other questions on that part?

Hanna Woodburn: I mean, I think for me that last point is really interesting because we talked with Justin Dilley a couple weeks ago about working cross functionally and part of that is helping the people feel like they are having a valuable contribution. So if you are having smaller projects or things that aren't being called out on an OKR spreadsheet or being celebrated as wins, it can be challenging to motivate people. How do you deal with that as a PM?

Kyle Henderson: This might be going into a separate topic for a completely separate live session. But I have found that using this tool called ... And it comes from the Agile space to a certain extent of focusing on epics and understanding roadmaps in two different ways. There's the business objective roadmap and things you want to accomplish, and then there's the epics of work that have to get done. And those are like all these major projects. So by giving visibility and keeping your release schedule more oriented towards these large arcs of work and being able to attach certain people to it, it gives you that kind of medium level visibility where tracking these epics lets me call out people as good job, you do great work here. It's not something essentially that's going to get called out at an entire company meeting, but in a department meeting we'll call that out. And then at the lowest sprint level you still get that weekly planning meeting, or at the end of the week when you do a debrief on how the sprint went where you can do call outs as well. So you have a small, medium, and a large space that you can always be giving the little applause for.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah, definitely. I know that as we've grown at Fullstory, the way in which we've done OKRs has evolved as well. And I'm sure that the approach that you're describing there's also an evolution that happens with growth. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Kyle Henderson: I've done a number of small startups from the first few people all the way up to several hundred people now and then worked at really large organizations, tens of thousands of people. And often you'll find seed stage, early stage startups are very naturally kind of on the Agile side. You'll have a founder who has a product vision, already maybe has ideas in their mind's eye of how the product is used and how it works and it's very feature oriented from the beginning. And that early stage company isn't thinking about the business objective other than make this feature and find someone who wants to pay for it. And that's great at the beginning when you're trying to start building a foundation and start finding some customers to learn from. But let's say you've had some success, like you've signed up 100,000 customers over a year or two. You're now getting a situation where you need to actually be doing more business planning, you need to be doing more objective setting, and communications about how your business is going to grow because you now have investors involved, you now have much larger customers who are asking about your roadmap and what are you planning on doing.

Kyle Henderson: And this is where you start to have a need for things like OKRs. When I need to project out farther what we're going to be focusing on, what we're going to try and deliver for our customers. And by deliver I don't mean features, I mean what new business processes that are value we'd want to unlock. So at Fullstory we want to make it so when you use Fullstory as a customer you understand the complete user experience and all the measurement around that. And I didn't tell you what feature that was, but saying that's something I want to deliver. Something like once you get to be a bigger organization you need to start setting these bigger objectives. So as you grow you need more and more OKR stuff. But you also don't want to lose the quick Agile approach that can really stay at the small team level.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah. And you've talked a little bit about squads. It seems like that's an important part of this, is having a small, closely connected group of people who are working towards a similar project or problem right?

Kyle Henderson: Yeah and squads from an organization perspective of maybe it's 10 people or less. There's someone who's the product representative, someone who's an engineering representative, depending on what they want to focus on, design. And it's making sure that the roles are representative to be able to do successful Agile sprints so that you have the input from product needs, you have the input from engineering potential and limitations, and you also have the input in terms of design and experience you want to support. And making it so that it's like its own little entity is helpful because it can get stuff done without having to rely on other parts of the org as much.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. So let's say people are watching, they're sold, they're like this seems like a great idea. How do you recommend people get started?

Kyle Henderson: If you're small, just start with Agile and I'd say once you get up to 30 or 40 people start thinking about I want to set company level OKRs quarterly. And pick only two to three and just get started that way. Create that alignment across everyone so that anyone, while they're working on that daily basis or weekly sprint basis, can say is this value to the company, can say does it support our objective or KR, and understand that as a prioritizing power versus just I picked it because I think it's best.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah. And what about people who may be working within an OKR structure already and they're like ooh, this Agile thing sounds like it could be really useful. How might you go about creating buy in for that in an organization?

Kyle Henderson: Sometimes I think it's more simple to not try and start by getting buy in into the methodology, but start by just simply providing a few tools or processes for organizing weekly work. So even just coming in on Friday afternoon and saying "What got done this week? What did we think we were going to get done? What do we think was successful, not successful?" And being able to get that. And then asking what do you want to accomplish next week so that on Monday you come in and be like "Hey, these are the things we said we want to accomplish." That's pretty much like having your sprint Kanban and your backlog to a certain degree and you're starting to get people to think about how do I move stuff out the door quickly, but also say what I can get done and measure if I got it done or not.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. You mentioned tools and processes. Do you have any tools that you think are essential for doing this type of work?

Kyle Henderson: I always encourage to start manually. So get the post-it notes and put it on the wall and just say backlog, current sprint, QA, or release to production. Keep it super simple at the beginning because whenever you're trying a new process, if you can't do it when it's at its simplest, why would you expect to be able to do it at a larger scale with more complexity? So grow into it, don't try and bite off all of it at once.

Kyle Henderson: But then other great tools, I love Trello or spreadsheets, Clubhouse. I mean there's lots of tools out there that are either very flexible or very opinionated that could benefit you once you've matured your thinking on it.

Hanna Woodburn: I love that idea of just starting with the most basic process. I know that for me when I find new tools I'm like "Oh my gosh, I want to use this", and i don't often sort of think of okay, what's the structure here that this should be in and let's run the process before we adopt tools.

Kyle Henderson: Because a lot of times you got to find the process that works best with the chemistry and makeup of your team. So you want to understand that to help you create your requirements for what the tool you pick is. So I need my process before I pick a tool versus I pick a tool, now let's work with their process.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah. I think another important piece is communicating really well either within a squad or across teams or to the whole company. What tips do you have for folks around communicating?

Kyle Henderson: Even if you use an online tool for your Agile sprints, I still encourage turn it into a physical thing, put it on the wall, make it so people just encounter it and get knowledge by accident. Like they bump into knowledge in some way. And some kind of space where you can literally see things moving. I don't mean like a digital space because I can always move a tab around. A physical space is very helpful. Additionally, I would say, and this is from the product perspective ... And I work with Hanna so please don't call me a hypocrite initially, but often in product management you end up having to talk about things two to three to 10 times more than you actually spend working on it because so much of that work is just about communicating and getting information out to people and going collecting information. So don't feel bad ever if you feel like you got too little actually done, if everyone knows about it. Because with everyone knowing about it that means you got feedback from everyone and what you did do is probably more on target than if you'd spent nine tenths of your time doing it and only one tenth of your time figuring out what to do.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah. I think that's a really great point. I really think that PMs and product marketing as well are sort of these nice connective tissue roles where you spend so much time working with other people and communicating and make sure everyone's on the same page that there are some days I go home and I'm like, "Did I do anything or did I just talk to a bunch of people today?" But that in and of itself is really important work if you're doing it well. That's critical.

Kyle Henderson: Yeah. You can never underestimate the value of two minutes that changes someone's vector to be more on target. That scales. You could teach that. It makes everyone more on target.

Hanna Woodburn: Yeah. I think that's great. One of the questions that we received is, "How important is it that OKRs be set at a product team level versus a company level? Should they always be one and the same?"

Kyle Henderson: They don't have to be one and the same. And this goes back to your question of how do you get started. I think this is really dependent upon the size and complexity of your organization and what I was saying before is if you're small and you've never done OKRs before, just start at the company level and then think about if you're doing some kind of Agile approach or whatever methodology you're using for planning, just think about how you organize the work to deliver on those OKRs. And as you grow, bring it to the department level.

Hanna Woodburn: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Well, thank you so much for being with us today. I really appreciate your time. Always fun to chat about OKRs and things like that. Thank you to you all for joining us, spending a little bit of your afternoon with us. Hopefully you learned something and have some ideas to take back to your team. As I mentioned this is I think the third in a series of four LinkedIn live sessions so we'll be back next week with Agata Bugaj. So please tune in for that. If you want more updates on product management or other content that Fullstory's producing, please follow us on our LinkedIn page. Until next time, see you later.

Hunter GarrettFormer Content Marketing Specialist

About the author

Hunter Garrett was previously the Content Marketing Specialist at Fullstory.

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