OKRs for Startups


Cascading OKRs vs. aligning OKRs

Cascading OKRs vs. aligning OKRs

Sten Pittet - CEO
STen Pittet
Browse Topics

A common question we get during onboarding calls is how to cascade OKRs, and our answer is always the same: don't do it.

And we're not the only ones saying that. It's an opinion shared by OKRs experts like Christina Wodtke or Felipe Castro. This post will show why cascading OKRs is dangerous, and how a simple change can make the whole thing easier.

We'll also take a look at the end at how you can get the benefits of a cascading OKRs model without the maintenance burden. Here's below an example of Cascading Map that you can get from Tability

First: what do we call cascading?

Many people have read the book Measure What Matters which had an appealing OKRs example. In a cascading model, the Key Results flow downwards to become the new Objectives of the level below.

Here's what your top-level OKRs might look like 👇

Objective: Launch our offer in the European market

  • KR1: 30% of new sales come from Europe
  • KR2: 50% of our press coverage is from EU publications

Now that you have your top plan, you can turn to your Sales and PR teams to trickle down the key results. KRs become the new Objectives, which ensures continuity in the OKRs plans.

The Sales OKRs become 👇

Objective: 30% of new sales come from Europe

  • KR1: Recruit 3 sales associates in Europe
  • KR2: 50% of new SQLs are in the European region

And the PR OKRs become 👇

Objective: 50% of our press coverage is from EU publications

  • KR1: Secure 12 press articles in Europe
  • KR2: Increase EU influencers from 20% to 50%

We end up with a beautiful chart that makes a lot of sense when you look at it. Each sub-level team has clear goals that contribute to the parent OKRs. This is where the appeal for cascading comes from.

The issue is that this model needs a certain kind of organization to work:

  • Top-down management style
  • Waterfall execution

The cascading example in the book Measure What Matters was about Intel in the 70s. Many things have changed since then. Orgs are now embracing a more flexible approach to management with smaller teams that have more ownership.

If you want to have empowered teams, cascading OKRs will hurt, rather than help, your culture.

Why cascading OKRs fails

It's not rare for a team to take a couple of weeks or even a month to get their OKRs ready. They need to look back at what happened, learn from their mistakes and adjust. They also have to check with their peers for dependencies and support.

Now imagine if you couldn't start planning before your N+1's OKRs are set. But, they are also waiting on their own leadership OKRs to get started!

This situation creates confusion. It's hard to know if you should stick to the previous plan, or if you should start drawing a new set of priorities. It gets harder as you add layers between people — instead of being an agile company with autonomous teams, you've become a rigid organization with waterfall planning.

There are other reasons why cascading OKRs is dangerous 👇

It assumes your strategy is perfect

Let's take our example above. The top company Objective is to have a presence in Europe, and one of the KR is to get more press coverage. But, what if getting press was useless? In a cascading model, it would mean that every single OKRs trickling down below would be wrong.

In the real world, it's really hard to get strategy right, and even if it's right today, there's a significant chance that it will have to be amended in a few weeks (see Covid). A strict cascading of OKRs introduces a lot of risks due to the waterfall nature of the goals.

It may work for simplistic situations, but it's unlikely to scale as every change in the KRs means having to rebuild the entire OKRs tree.

It's expensive to maintain

Cascading OKRs always look great during the first week as everything seems to be beautifully aligned. But any change to the OKRs need to trickle down through the rest of the org and will force entire departments to rebuild their OKR tree.

At best, someone will be spending hours to repair any broken relationship. At worse, your team will give up and stop using OKRs altogether.

It leaves many teams on the sideline

Support or Design teams will have a hard time using a sales target or press coverage ratio as an Objective. But, they'll need to attach themselves to something to cascade their OKRs. In practice, this means that either

  • teams shoehorn their goals in questionable ways, or
  • leadership adds more OKRs at the top.

You either lose clarity or lose focus.

I'm urging teams to abandon the cascading model. But, that does not mean that you have to give up on alignment.

How to align teams instead: all eyes on the North Star

Rather than cascading things level after level, you should focus your teams on the top-level OKRs. They can then define their own set of OKRs that align with the company's priorities without having to create strict relationships.

It may look less structured since you won't have the same planning view, but it's more efficient in practice. Once the company OKRs have been decided, everyone can start looking into how they can contribute at their level. Rather than putting strict rules on the relationships between levels, you focus on making sure the plans align with the North Star.

The difference between cascading and aligning OKRs is subtle, but it will have a huge impact. Cascading teams try to connect everything to a parent KR. Aligning teams simply need to respect the intent of the parent OKRs.

If we go back to our European expansion use case, it's pretty clear that the intent is to make a dent in the European market. The KRs are here to give a sense of scale, but tackling a new market does not stop at press and sales meetings. It may require product changes to support locales and different languages. It may involve some compliance work, or even building a new data center in Europe.

So, what should we do for teams that can directly link to the top-level Key Results?

We don't have to set a top-level KR for each of the functions in the organization. We can simply ask people to create their own OKRs, while respecting the intent of the top-level plan (which is why it's important to have clear Objectives!).

Some teams may choose to re-use the top-level Key Results as their Objectives, and that's okay! But other teams may decide to amend their OKRs for clarity, and that's also good.

How to replicate the benefits of cascading OKRs

There's a good reason why the idea of cascading OKRs is appealing:

  • You can clearly trace the relationships between OKRs
  • It makes it easy to identify issues visually

The good news is that you can get the benefits of an OKR tree without having to take on the maintainance costs.

Step 1. Start by aligning OKRs plans in your org

Once you've added your company OKRs at the top of your org, you can let your teams freely create their OKRs using sub-plans in Tability. This process is quick and easy because each team can work on their goals without needing to trickle down every OKR from a parent.

You can then use the Strategy Map to visualise how all your OKRs align through your org.

The Strategy Map is an easy way to:

  • See all the OKRs in progress
  • Compare the content of your OKR plans (ex: making sure that Marketing and Product teams are aligned)
  • Quickly identify areas that need your attention.

Step 2. Connect KRs together

Once teams have locked in their OKRs, they can easily add parents or dependencies for each Key Result.

This is a quick way for teams to link back the relevant Key Results back to a parent. This approach is flexible and will also allow teams to connect related KRs together.

Step 3. Visualise dependencies with the Cascading Map

Once you have connected KRs across different plans, you can use the Cascading Map in your company OKRs dashboard to see existing dependencies.

With that view, you can easily see how different teams are contributing back to the top-level goals. You're now getting the same benefits as having cascading OKRs, but with the lean UX of an aligning model.

The aligning model will simplify goal-setting and make your strategy more agile. It's also an easy way to let more teams contribute: the KRs might not be relevant to them, but they can quite often help with the Objectives.

Best practices for aligning and cascading OKRs

Focus on the Objectives

In a cascading world you focus on Key Results. But aligning is all about the Objectives. Your top-level Os should be clear, inspiring, and expressed in a language that is understood by all teams. They explain what you're trying to achieve while KRs show how you will measure progress on your goals.

Metrics can be interpreted in different ways — your Objectives should tell which way it is.

Make top-level OKRs easy to access

I know a company that printed their quarterly OKRs and put them everywhere to see — even in the bathrooms. That may be a bit much but you need to provide an easy way for people to keep in mind the top priorities.

People are busy with meetings, emails, calls every day. A quick nudge can be helpful.

Review progress on OKRs weekly

Checking progress early and often will make it easy to identify a bad set of OKRs. That's how you compensate for the lack of a detailed master plan — you adjust things organically as you monitor how your efforts are moving the needle.

Weekly reviews produce great benefits at a low cost, and it helps keep your roadmap agile.

Have some shared Objectives

A simple way to facilitate alignment is to re-use the top-level Objectives in your own team OKRs. It creates a common language in the company and makes it easier to see how things contribute back to the main goals.

"Create a state of art developer community" can be a shared Objective for the Product, Marketing and Advocacy team — they'll differ on the Key Results.

Semantic focus rather than rigid networks

Asking your team to reduce their strategy to a complete network graph will generate a lot of frustration. But, making sure that everyone shares the same focus is absolutely attainable. The key is to replace complexity with more frequent conversations. Have weekly OKRs reviews. Share monthly company-wide updates on top-line OKRs. Make sure that keeping track of progress is easy, and that teams can adjust their strategy in a few clicks.

OKRs graphs don't make your teams more focused. Repeated conversations about the goals do.

Aligning AND Cascading OKRs

I'm extremely grateful for the book Measure What Matters, but I've seen hundreds of teams struggle to replicate its version of cascading OKRs.

Orgs can be quite complex and in my experience it's a lot easier for teams to adopt an approach where they align then cascade OKRs.

Got questions? Find me on Twitter.

Table of contents

Related content