Align Remote Teams with a Virtual OKR Festival


28 June 2021

Bring on the wrist bands and glow-sticks!

While not quite Glastonbury, great things happen when people get together to talk, play and negotiate around their goals. I often remind people that OKRs are not an execution framework, but an alignment framework and the real value of OKRs is in the conversations that they enable (or require) among people in various teams throughout an organisation.

After setting some draft OKRs but before starting to check in on them regularly, teams need time to discuss, clarify, and simplify their OKRs to make sure they’re really aligned. You can encourage people to chat in hallways, at water coolers, in the pub, etc. but this almost never happens. Firstly, many of us are working in remote, distributed, and asynchronous ways most of the time and these ad-hoc interactions just don’t happen as frequently. Secondly, people need to be given time and space outside of their own daily work to connect with each other and consider how they collectively contribute to the bigger picture. The best way I’ve found to spur this kind of collaboration and reflection is via a remote “OKR Jam” or “OKR Festival”.

I began adopting this approach during my time with Design + Engineering teams at the BBC (e.g. iPlayer). The need emerged because teams realised they wanted a slightly more formal venue to share and discuss their OKRs with other teams and they started inviting other teams to do this.

What’s an OKR Festival?

The OKR Festival (sometimes called an “OKR Jam”) is an opportunity for leaders and teams in a particular area or an entire organisation to come together, share their draft OKRs, get feedback, and challenge and negotiate with each other to achieve stronger alignment and shared understanding around their most important outcomes for this OKR period – usually a quarter. While OKRs should be quite punchy – e.g. 1 objective and 3 key results for each team – the backstories can be quite lengthy. It takes more than 30 words in a shared document to provide context and rationale. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity for other teams to challenge your plans, clarify their own understanding, and ask you to align your OKRs to theirs so everyone succeeds.

This is where alignment happens.

Channeling the spirit of an “unconference” or an actual music festival, the OKR Festival offers multiple venues where anyone who is interested can hear about OKRs and ask questions to challenge, clarify, or refine those OKRs. Unlike a formula show & tell, people can drop in or out whenever they like and join any session for as much or as little as they want.

When to run the OKR Festival?

It’s best to run the OKR festival after teams have closed their current OKRs and captured their “lessons learned” and after they’ve had a chance to draft some early OKRs for the next quarter but before teams have done too many check-ins and feel too invested in the OKRs. Do it while the clay is still soft, usually right around the start of the quarter.

The roles in a festival

I like the festival analogy because it has a number of key roles: headliners, supporting acts, fans, hecklers, promoters, bouncers, and roadies.

In a smaller organisation you might think of the headliners as the big teams that everyone wants to hear from: the CEO, the senior leadership team, a critical product team, etc. The supporting acts might be teams who help the headliners do their thing: component teams, finance, HR, and operations. Anyone can be a festival roadie helping to organise and setup and teardown. The promoters might be well-connected folks within various teams who are excited to stir up engagement.

Finally, fans and hecklers can come from all over to participate.

Design the session(s)

It’s helpful to create a small team of promoters and roadies to help organise. They can engage with teams, plan the sessions, and understand where there is more or less interest to present or debate. Pick a context – is it one product area? One department? The whole organisation? If this is your first time, start with just a handful of teams who are already aligned around a common purpose. Not every team needs to present and not every team should even have OKRs – it’s great to be an active audience member.

Decide the line-up – how many teams will be presenting? Which ones should have multiple sessions to make it easier for everyone to attend? What teams can present simultaneously because there probably isn’t much overlap in audiences? Build out a schedule like the one below to share in your invite:

Depending on the number of teams and size of your context, you might want to set aside 3-4 hours with a solid break in between. You can also break your OKR Fest over a few days.

A sample line up:

Time Room 1 Room 2 Room 3
9:30 - 10:15 Org Wide OKRs
10:30 - 11:00 Department A Dept B Dept C
11:00 - 11:30 Team A Dept A Team C
11:30 - 12:30 BREAK
12:30 - 13:00 Dept B Team E Team B
13:00 - 13:30 Team C Team D Dept C
13:30 - 14:00 Team A Team E Dept B

Notice the duplicates!

Craft a compelling invitation!

As any festival promoter will tell you, good promotion is key. Make it fun and compelling. Silly hats are definitely encouraged. Remind participants that:

  1. This is a chance to hear what people are planning to achieve next quarter
  2. Everyone is welcome but only the presenters are “required”
  3. Presenters will have about 5min to present their OKR(s) and 20 min of debate, negotiation, heckling, and Q&A
  4. Not every team has to present their OKRs – not every team should have OKRs.
  5. Participants are welcome to come and go from any session at any time
  6. Some sessions will be repeated, so no FOMO!

Tips

  • In your video chat tool, create a “room” for each track (probably 3) lasting the entire duration of the festival.
  • Share all three links in your invite so folks can jump back and forth
  • Use a shared spreadsheet or electronic whiteboard board to share everyone’s OKRs. Ask people to review the OKRs ahead of the sessions to decide which sessions to attend
  • Make sure people can easily find the running order and links to each track.
  • Have another member of each team take notes so the team can tweak their OKRs based on each discussion. It’s tough (but not impossible) for one person to do both.
  • Leave 5 min between sessions for the presenter and note-taker to debrief and for folks to take a micro-break before jumping into the next one

Outcomes!

Like any good festival, this one should develop deeper shared understanding, shared experiences, and alignment. You might do it once per quarter or hold several similar events throughout the quarter for both writing and sharing progress on OKRs. At the end of the day, this is basically an Unconference to help you draft better OKRs across teams.

I’d love to find out if you’ve tried this technique and what you’ve learned!

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