Why your product teams should use OKRs

OKRs are a game changer for product teams

Balaji Seetharaman, Product Management Director

By Balaji Seetharaman, Product Management Director at Ally.io 

While it's the product teams' job at Ally.io to focus on providing the best customer experience, and to do so by listening to customer feedback and continuously innovating and improving upon every feature we build, we also live and breathe our OKR software internally for goal setting, just as our customers do. You can’t be an OKR software company without the OKR framework driving the business, right? 

Maybe I’m a little biased, but from a user’s perspective, whether you’re using Ally.io or a different method for tracking OKRs, the framework is a game changer for not only connecting and focusing our goals with the work being done by our product and engineering teams, but connecting our work to the entire company. 

We often get asked, “our engineering team feels like OKRs are too redundant with their agile structure using Jira as a tool, what do we do?” 

While tools like Jira provide a way to plan and manage tasks, OKRs connect “why” the work is being done and ensure that the work is connected to the company’s most important goals. 

For my teams, I believe there’s been three stages of our OKR journey. 

Stage 1: We use Jira predominantly as a planning tool for sprints and lists of tasks. What’s not connected here is the “why” behind the work we are doing and what the work is connected to. So I asked myself, how do I make the work motivating for my teams? The answer is, a lot of it comes from connecting the day-to-day tasks to the bigger vision and goals. So we created goals like “do X with high quality” or “do X with high predictability” and focused on how we were innovating while still doing the work. It worked alright, but our work as the product department was still siloed from the rest of the company. 

Stage 2: We established projects inside of Ally.io at the team level that everyone was contributing to with metrics related to the project. So we had high-level OKRs that connected with projects at the team level, but nothing in between. It brought alignment to our team, but still wasn’t connecting work and goals at every level. 

Stage 3: Stage 3 is where we are at now, and have found the most value for OKRs. We’ve established our team OKRs, which are typically lag metrics and something you would only know at the end of the cycle whether or not it was accomplished. But this time we also defined the lead metrics along the way to ensure we are regularly measuring whether the work we are doing is helping us get closer to accomplishing our goals. That’s why every week, our product teams update the status of projects and OKRs in Ally.io and review what they accomplished in the previous week, what is planned for the following week and what are we doing to get closer to the input metrics even though we haven’t achieved the lag metric. 

This also provides an opportunity for every team member to connect their work to not only their team’s mission but the company’s overall mission. We ask ourselves, are we doing the right set of tasks every agile sprint? If you’re documenting only in Jira, you won’t get that context. 

By connecting goals to our daily work, we’ve improved our focus in terms of how we are building features out, how we are collaborating and how we keep focused on results while executing our projects. We’ve gotten into this rhythm of reviewing OKRs every week and connecting the work to the goals on a regular basis, and it’s truly changed the way we operate.

See OKR examples for every department here ----->

How OKRs break silos and allow for alignment across the company 

The product department, in a lot of ways, is at the center of all of our company’s teams. While every department needs to be in alignment with each other, it’s especially important for the product team to be in alignment with everyone across the company to ensure that the work being done is the right work to achieve the company's most important goals.

Writing our OKRs is an extremely important process because it defines the work that we’re going to be doing and creates accountability for every individual on our team. 

When we write OKRs for the product team, it’s crucial that we make sure we are in alignment with other departments during that process. For example, we have a close relationship between our department and the product marketing team to make sure the work we are doing maps correctly and that we’re not just focused on the right priorities, but the same priorities in the right order at the right time. There’s a lot of moving pieces that go into making sure the work is aligned, and that’s where OKRs come in. 

Working together while we are writing OKRs allows us to map out the biggest priorities and what marketing needs to accomplish that has dependencies on product, and what product needs to get done that has dependencies on marketing. From there, we make sure collaboration is part of the business rhythm by having different teams sync up on a regular basis to talk about those core objectives and to make sure everyone is operating as one team. 

It’s easy to use OKRs or any goal-setting framework as an excuse to fall into silos, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We’re all trying to work toward these core objectives that ladder up to the core mission and vision of the company. As long as you keep that central and top-of-mind for everything that you’re doing, you’ll be in decent shape and it’s going to help you work more hand-in-hand with departments across your company. Rolling out OKRs and using them to effectively collaborate with other teams doesn't happen overnight, but if you invest the time, it'll help your team, and the entire company, work more efficiently to reach your most important goals.

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