Cascading OKRs is costly, and you should avoid it

Cascading OKRs gives you a comforting view of your business. It feels like everything is under control — but this sentiment comes with a high price tag.

Cascading OKRs is costly, and you should avoid it

"Should you cascade your OKRs?" is a question that comes back in every workshop and meetup about OKRs. My simple answer is "No": it seems like a reasonable way to drive alignment, but cascading will be harmful as you scale.

What do we mean by cascading?

Cascading starts by defining the top-level OKRs. Then, each Key Result becomes an Objective in the layer underneath. In his book Measure What Matters, John Doerr illustrates that with an OKRs strategy for an American Football team (yes, I'm European 😅️).

The GM's Key Results trickle down as Objectives for the Head Coach and PR office. In turn, they will see their KRs trickle down into further Objectives. In the end, you'll get a picture similar to the one below.

Cascading OKRs is often popular with exec teams because it produces a reassuring master plan view. You can see how every department, every person contributes back to the top priorities.

It feels like everything is under control.

But, this sentiment comes with a significant price tag.

Trickling down OKRs causes team paralysis

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.

Strict linking will become a burden

There's another tax that comes with cascading OKRs. Any change in a Key Result will result in a big overhaul of the entire plan. Let's look at what happens if the leadership team realizes that one of their KR is bad.

They update it, but cascading OKRs has a strict relationship between Key Results and the lower-level Objectives. So you end up having to trickle down the changes down the entire org.

Maintaining OKRs that are cascading is an expensive activity. Thankfully, there are ways to drive alignment while giving your team flexibility and agility.

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 time saved can be reinvested in execution and will help you deliver more value to your customers. You'll get faster feedback cycles which will help you refine your strategy.

Five tips to align rather than cascade

1. 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.

2. Make top-level OKRs easy to access

Last week I heard about a company that had 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. Use Tability!

Tability is built to make the whole thing easy to manage:

  • It automates focus and accountability.
  • It nudges the team to share progress and makes weekly check-ins quick and easy.
  • Everyone can access the top-level OKRs, or subscribe to get updates directly.
  • You can see the status of the things you care about at a glance.
  • It shows you trends on your Key Results and helps you see if you're getting off-track.

What's next?

Check out our OKRs guide for Startups to help you adopt OKRs, and we also have a bunch of tips for outcome-driven teams.

And of course, you can try Tability for free to keep track of your OKRs, goals and projects.