Aiming High: How PRISMA teams continue to embrace OKRs to achieve their goals
The way that organisations set targets has changed radically in recent decades. A bottom-up approach that gives autonomy to individual teams is a key tenet of the goalsetting framework known as ‘OKRs’, first popularised in the 1990s and now commonplace across the business world. We spoke to Inga Thor, an Agile Coach and Scrum Master, to find out what makes an effective OKR, why they’re so suited to agile companies like PRISMA, and more.
Firstly, thanks for giving us your time, Inga. What’s your background and when did you begin working with PRISMA?
Before becoming an Agile Coach, I worked in controlling and finance for corporate companies in Germany and around the world. Later, I became a certified Scrum Master, working with numerous international start-ups and companies seeking to scale.
In terms of my work with PRISMA, that relationship began in summer 2020. I’d previously organised two Scrum Meetups at their offices in Leipzig, so we’d already known each other for a year and a half before formalising our arrangement. I was present when all team members were introduced to PRISMA’s longterm strategy during an offsite in mid-September 2021 and also when, in early October, they were informed about the company OKRs for 2022. This gave all teams time to start thinking about their OKRs before heading into the first quarter. So I must say, PRISMA’s management did a really good job of getting everyone on board early.
What is an OKR?
Let’s move on to the specifics of OKRs. Perhaps you could start by giving us a brief definition?
Essentially, OKRs are a collaborative goal-setting methodology used by teams and individuals within businesses to set challenging targets with measurable results. There are two parts to an OKR: firstly, the ‘O’, which is the Objective, and secondly the ‘KRs’, which are the Key Results. The Objective is qualitative – typically an inspirational sentence – while the Key Results are quantitative. Three, four or five KRs are optimal. Usually, once a week a team comes together to measure its progress towards their OKR.
“Many of the principles associated with OKRs were applied at PRISMA long before I arrived. Part of my role has been to broaden their scope.”
And what were PRISMA’s methods for setting and tracking their targets before you came along?
Firstly, I should say that many of the principles associated with OKRs were applied at PRISMA long before I arrived. Management would set long-term, high-level objectives only.
Managers would check-in regularly with their teams, goal-setting would be delegated down to individuals and their teams, and compensation and targets were long since decoupled. So this bottom-up approach was to a large extent already in place. My role has been to broaden its scope to encompass PRISMA teams’ day-to-day work and to help define individual OKRs relating to specific areas of the organisation.
“Agile companies like PRISMA also tend to place a strong emphasis on transparency, which is another characteristic highly conducive to OKRs.”
OKRs and Agile organisations
What is it about OKRs that make them particularly effective when implemented within agile organisations such as PRISMA?
Well, OKRs really work best when applied within self-organising teams who decide for themselves what they're going to work on next, in particular Scrum teams who work in sprints to deliver an increment every two or three weeks. That’s because OKRs by nature necessitate also a bottom-up approach in which teams agree on how they plan their goal-setting and phrase their objectives, rather than management.
Agile companies like PRISMA also tend to place a strong emphasis on transparency, which is another characteristic highly conducive to OKRs. With OKRs, there are no knowledge silos and everything is out in the open. Everyone can see each other’s OKRs, what they’re working on at any given time, and their progress towards it. This also has the added benefit of fostering productive work and cross-functional capabilities because it forces teams to work together, and align their Objectives and Key Results to achieve larger goals.
And again, I should clarify that while PRISMA have adopted a number of these practices for several years now, OKRs have served to codify and reinforce them and ensure they’re applied in a more systematic way.
“OKRs are by nature expandable – you’re often trying something new and risky to reach your goals, and for this you need time and creative space.”
OKRs and Teams
Do you tend to find that OKRs are more suited to certain teams or departments than others?
The easy answer is that you can craft OKRs for any department – it doesn't matter if it’s business development, sales, HR, controlling, accounting, or in PRISMA’s case People & Culture or Engineering. Broadly speaking, the method works regardless.
However, if you lift the lid and look underneath, the kind of team you’re working with does make a difference. As I mentioned, being self-organised is crucial, and for OKRs to work there needs to be some leeway on how team members spend their time. OKRs are by nature expandable – you’re often trying something new and risky to reach your goals, and for this you need time and creative space. If you have a team who just gets their heads down in day-to-day work and doesn't invest time in communicating with each other, and with other teams, chances are OKRs aren’t the right tool for them.
“The best OKRs are short, memorable, and relatable - and produce a positive emotion in people.”
You mentioned OKRs serving as inspiration. How do you ensure that OKRs don't simply serve as measurable targets, but also challenge, motivate and inspire?
The best OKRs are short, memorable and relatable - and produce a positive emotion in people. My own preference is keeping Objectives to around five words.
For Key Results, a good technique is to create memorable pictures and illustrations to go alongside the text, and this is something I’m using with the teams at PRISMA. One of the teams phrased an OKR with a Key Result that they refer to as "the cake”, featuring this huge piece of cake with candles and cream. Another team talked about “half a bug” – something that you usually don't have. Normally you have just one bug, either the insect or the deficiency in code, but half a bug is something specific. And everybody, if you ask them, knows that this team worked on an OKR involving half a bug!
OKRs and Management
How important is it that management embraces OKR principles?
You’re correct that management needs to be able to trust their teams and provide them with the psychological safety to take the initiative without fear. If management is too clingy and wants to hold on to power, it's simply not going to work. This doesn't give teams the agency they need to work on their own Objectives and Key Results. Luckily, at PRISMA this hasn’t been a problem at all, as management was already fully accustomed and in support of a bottom-up approach.
This ability of OKRs to challenge traditional hierarchical structures seems particularly pertinent right now, as employees are increasingly reluctant to work within hierarchies. What are your thoughts on this trend?
I think whether you’re an established company like PRISMA or a start-up, hierarchical structures might be hindering progress. The way businesses work now, they’re often looking to get new products and services off the ground quickly – a minimum viable product – but if you have bosses who think in hierarchical ways, and always want to be reported to, you’re not going to achieve the kind of speed needed to get a product out there in the time frame required. And ultimately, it’s going to result in an inferior product, too.
“The teams at PRISMA using OKRs are gradually realising what does and doesn’t work, and what they’re going to change next time around. It’s a constantly evolving process.”
What would be your advice to a company still unconvinced by the value of OKRs but is considering dipping their feet in the metaphorical water?
The best approach is for one team to try it out, and if it works the benefits will soon become known to the rest of the company. Of course, alongside the actual implementation of OKRs by individual teams, management can undertake coaching that will help adapt their mindset. Because the one thing to remember about OKRs is that you’re very unlikely to get them right the first time – sometimes even the second time is tough. It’s very much a case of experimenting and adapting.
That’s certainly what we’re experiencing with the teams I’m coaching at PRISMA. They’re gradually realising what does and doesn’t work, what they’ve learnt, and what they’re going to change the next time around. It’s a constantly evolving process.
“What a market looks like right now is often completely different to how it’ll look in half-a-year or a year’s time. That’s why quarterly OKR cycles make a lot of sense.”
What’s the thinking behind OKRs being structured quarterly rather than annually?
Quite simply, this is consistent with an agile style of working. For Scrum teams, you work in sprints, often two weeks long. So you have two weeks of working on something, delivering, talking to your customers, seeing what they need next, and then starting the next piece of work.
It's the same for OKRs. They’re normally set to be 90 days long, or a quarter of a year, so it's a short timeframe. And because it's short it allows you to react well to what a specific industry market needs at any given time. Because what a market looks like right now is often completely different to how it’ll look in half a year or a year’s time. That’s why quarterly cycles make sense.
“If you have too many Objectives, too many targets, you can’t follow any - you're just all over the place. You need to have one single Objective per team.”
Risks or danger points
Moving back to how OKRs can go wrong - what are the risks or danger points and what are your tips for avoiding them?
You need to make it very clear what the expectation is from the start. Is it just one team trying out OKRs, or are you rolling it out across a number of teams, or the whole company? This is something you need to be very transparent about from the beginning, with lots of conversations, otherwise it can lead to confusion which reduces confidence and ultimately buy-in.
Another risk is setting too many Objectives, say more than five for the whole company for a year. For me this is simply too many – you won’t be able to focus. If you have too many Objectives, too many targets, you can’t follow any - you're just all over the place. You need to have one single Objective per team.
My final question is about your work so far with PRISMA. Are you able to share with us any other OKRs that have been set and implemented within our teams?
A concrete Objective I can share is one a team of PRISMA engineers had phrased for themselves: To “Establish a future-proof logging and monitoring system”. We’ve made it fairly short and inspiring by being about future proofing. Also, it isn’t measurable in and of itself. So to go with it we’ve added a few measurable Key Results, one of which was for every engineer in the team to reach a score of at least 8 out of 10 concerning their confidence in using their toolset.
To track this the team sent out a survey every single week. The call to answer the survey was always phrased nicely and came attached with pictures to encourage people to respond. The participating engineers clicked into a simple questionnaire containing six questions – it was all done within two minutes. Every week this allowed them to assess their progress and decide on the next steps needed to achieve their one Objective. It’s been a great example of an OKR fulfilling its purpose and working as it’s designed to do.
That’s great to hear, Inga. And thank you so much again for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us. We look forward to working with you long into the future!
You’re very welcome!