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How OKR and Agile Work Together

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Some organizations rely on OKRs for goal attainment, while others swear by the agile methodology for continuous progress toward a desired outcome. However, OKR and agile don’t have to be mutually exclusive — the best results come from using them together. Combining OKR and agile can foster a purpose-driven, streamlined, and effective way of achieving desired goals. To understand why these two frameworks work so well together, we must first take a look at how these two frameworks function individually. 

What are OKRs?

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is a goal-setting methodology used by organizations to set ambitious and time-based goals with measurable results. Objectives refer to a short, qualitative description of what you’re looking to achieve. Each objective is accompanied by 3-5 key results, which measure progress toward objectives. A simple formula for writing OKRs is:  

We will (objective) as measured by (these key results)

The 5 stages of the OKR cycle 

The OKR framework consists of five cyclical steps. These are: 

  1. Define objectives: Create a list of the qualitative goals you’re looking to achieve over a certain period
  2. Create key results: Write out 3-5 key results for each objective to help you measure progress and define goal attainment
  3. Align: Communicate your OKRs to relevant teams to reorient efforts, resources, and direction toward OKRs
  4. Track: Establish regular check-ins to monitor OKR progress, anticipate obstacles, collect feedback, and ensure continuous learning
  5. Retrospective: Once the OKR cycle is complete, hold retrospective meetings to create, improve, or scrap OKRs for the next cycle  
The 5 stages of the OKR cycle

A brief history of OKRs 

OKRs stemmed from the theory of Management by Objectives (MBO), which was coined in 1954 by Peter Drucker in his book The Practice on Management. MBO was the first theory to highlight the importance of improving organizational performance, employee participation, and alignment using defined goals and objectives. Expanding on MBOs, Andy Grove — CEO of Intel at the time — created OKRs as a measurable approach to goal achievement. The OKR methodology was further popularized by John Doerr, who introduced it to Google in 1999. 

What is the agile methodology?

The agile methodology is an overarching project management philosophy initially created for software development, which other industries have since adopted. It uses a collaborative and iterative approach to project development, where an initial version of a product is developed and then continuously improved during sprints (i.e., short-term phases where teams work together to complete tasks). As such, improvements, updates, and fixes under the agile umbrella are made quickly, with value-added activities being prioritized. 

A brief history of the agile methodology 

The agile methodology was made to overcome the shortcomings of traditional project management methods (e.g., the waterfall methodology). In 2001, 17 software developers — including Kent Beck, Ron Jeffries, Ken Schwaber, Martin Fowler, and Jeff Sutherland — formally wrote the Agile Manifesto. This documented a set of guiding principles and values for efficient software development, paving the way for the widespread use of agile methodologies. 

The agile manifesto 

The Agile Manifesto outlines 12 principles and four core values for the agile methodology. The 12 principles are: 

  1. Satisfy customers through the early and continuous delivery of valuable software 
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even in late development 
  3. Deliver working software frequently, with a preference for shorter timescales 
  4. Daily collaboration between businesspeople and developers during the project 
  5. Build projects around motivated and trusted individuals 
  6. Face-to-face conversations are the most effective methods of communication 
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress 
  8. Sponsors, developers, and users should maintain a constant pace 
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design 
  10. Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential 
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from autonomous teams 
  12. The team regularly reflects on how to become more effective and adjusts their behavior accordingly 

And its four core values propose: 

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools 
  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation 
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation 
  4. Responding to change over following a plan 

The 5 phases of the agile development lifecycle 

The five stages of the agile development cycle work together to create a continuous feedback loop (aka sprint):   

  1. Concept: The team discusses with stakeholders to define the scope, objectives, and priorities of the project 
  2. Design: Team members, tools, and resources are arranged to ensure optimal production 
  3. Development or iteration: The team works on the development (or iteration) of the product based on the discussed priorities and requirements  
  4. Release: The product is tested, finalized, and deployed into production 
  5. Review and monitor: Once the product is released, teams monitor its performance and solicit feedback from stakeholders to update the next sprint’s backlog  
Agile Cycle

Types of agile methodologies 

There are several agile frameworks under the agile umbrella, with Scrum, Kanban, SAFe agile, Lean agile, and Crystal being the most popular. 

Scrum 

Adaptability and reprioritization are the basis of the Scrum framework. In Scrum teams, product owners collaborate with team members continuously, where a hypothesis is established, tested, reflected upon, and improved based on circumstances. Therefore, Scrum heavily emphasizes sprints, with solidified roles, responsibilities, and meeting cadences. 

Kanban  

Kanban visually depicts the agile methodology to make completing tasks more effective. This is done using a collective Kanban board that segments tasks under “To do,” “Doing,” and “Done.” In Kanban boards, a specific number of tasks are allocated to each segment, meaning new tasks can’t begin until previous tasks have been completed. This transparency helps teams understand which parts of the projects are stuck or moving forward. 

SAFe agile  

SAFe Agile (aka Scaled Agile Framework) focuses on implementing agile principles at an enterprise scale, with the coordination of large numbers of teams using agile being a priority. 

Lean agile 

Lean agile combines lean and agile principles: it removes waste while ensuring continuous product improvement. This helps organizations maximize value by removing activities and tasks that are ineffective, wasteful, or futile.  

Agile Methodologies

OKR and agile: Differences and similarities

Understanding how these two frameworks compare can help us visualize their complementary nature. As such, this section covers the differences and similarities between OKR and agile. 

Differences 

  • Focus: Agile is used to direct project management, while OKRs establish action-oriented goals for employees, teams, and wider organizations 
  • Time frame: OKR goals are typically set per quarter or year, while agile teams work in short sprints (1-4 weeks) to deliver product iterations continuously 
  • End goal: The agile process doesn’t have a defined end goal, while OKRs do 
  • Size: OKRs can be adopted by individuals, groups, and entire businesses, while the agile framework recommends team sizes of at least three members 

Similarities 

  • Transparency: Agile teams ensure visibility across the agile development lifecycle, while those using OKRs require transparency to see how their work contributes to broader goals 
  • Frequent monitoring: Both OKR and agile teams need regular monitoring and check-in meetings to function effectively 
  • Collaboration: Collaboration is at the forefront of OKR and agile, with goal setting and product development requiring a coordinated approach 
  • Cyclical nature: OKR and agile involve cyclical processes, with agile focused on ongoing improvement and OKRs continuously updated at the end of (or during) the OKR cycle 
  • Flexible: Both OKR and agile methodologies are adaptable to change, where they embrace shifting circumstances and encourage the reprioritization of tasks and goals 

How can OKRs support agile?

OKRs can fortify the agile process. They enhance the ‘how’ of each sprint, decentralizing decision-making and boosting accountability by focusing the backlog on a specific end goal. Therefore, using both OKR and agile can create complementary synergies, as the advantages of one methodology compensate for the pitfalls of the other. 

The 5 benefits of combining OKR and agile

Not convinced about the power of using OKR and agile together? Check out the following benefits. 

Improved business outcomes

OKR and agile can work together to create superior outcomes. While agile achieves this by frequently testing products and improving them using feedback, OKRs do this by encouraging goal flexibility and the continuous measurement of progress. 

A focused backlog

Solely relying on agile can make prioritizing backlog tasks difficult, as the agile methodology’s end goal of value generation is subjective. By using OKRs to supplement the agile process, you can help your development team prioritize tasks, enabling it to see which tasks contribute to key results and which ones are irrelevant. 

More effective meetings

Coupling agile with OKRs improves the efficiency of your meetings. While both methodologies involve consistent meetings, agile has a short-term scope, while OKR focuses on more extended periods. As such, combining the two frameworks avoids meeting fatigue by ensuring all short-term activities are aligned with long-term objectives. 

Create measurable product iterations

OKRs can add measurability to each product iteration, making it an effective way to depict value throughout the agile development lifecycle. This way, your business can avoid making product improvements that are perceived as valuable but don’t necessarily yield results. 

Create self-organized teams 

OKRs act as a North Star for your organization, ensuring teams work toward overarching objectives. Teams are encouraged to ask themselves if the value created during each iteration brings the organization closer to company-wide goals. As such, combining OKR and agile can improve team autonomy, as OKRs remove ambiguities surrounding the end goal of the agile product lifecycle.  

How OKR and agile can work together

You can make OKR and agile work for you in multiple ways, either by nesting one methodology into the other or giving both equal weights in the process. Here are a few ways of combining OKR and agile: 

Creating agile OKRs

One way to integrate OKR and agile is by building OKRs using agile principles. This involves using an adapted sprint cycle to create your OKRs, such as: 

  1. Planning: Identify your main OKRs for the coming period, appointing OKR product owners, scrum masters, and team members 
  2. Strategy: Weave your OKRs into existing strategies and highlight critical performance nodes that need to be addressed 
  3. Design: Prioritize OKRs and restructure to-do lists to accommodate these, weighing each component 
  4. Systemize: Integrate and solidify OKRs into existing processes 
  5. Meetings: Make OKRs a typical part of your meeting agenda, nesting these into each other  
  6. Launching: Spearhead your OKRs using an initial performance management meeting and begin the process of continuous improvement 

Integrate OKRs into your agile routine 

Another way of making OKR and agile work is to integrate OKRs into your agile routine by, for example: 

  • Regularly aligning OKR and agile, allowing you to assess progress quantitatively and reprioritize goals from one sprint to another 
  • Splitting sprints into two sections, with teams working toward OKRs for the first half and responding to stakeholder feedback in the second half  
  • Incorporating OKRs into agile sprints for transparency  

Use OKRs tools for daily agile operations

The agile methodology requires constant visibility. While some businesses use tools such as Slack for this, these can breed miscommunications and errors as teams and individuals on these platforms tend to be disjointed. Therefore, specialized tools such as OKR software tools can act as a centralized hub for outlining progress, confidence, and updates — with ownership visible throughout the entire organization.  

Align OKR and agile roles

OKR and agile teams have similar roles and levels of ownership. For agile, these roles consist of: 

  • A product owner: Who’s responsible for setting the direction of the agile cycle 
  • A team lead: Who instills agile principles 
  • An extended agile team: Who takes on the other aspects of the agile process 

While the OKR process includes: 

  • An OKR champion: Who is an expert on OKRs and establishes the OKR cadence  
  • The product/project owner: Who sets the overarching focus and target of OKRs  
  • An extended team of KR owners: Who manage the tasks and actions required to fulfill OKRs 

As the roles in both frameworks are similar, aligning the two can enhance ownership, collaboration, and cross-functional success, where progress is visible and steady across teams. 

Conclusion

OKR and agile are compatible methodologies that allow businesses to achieve alignment, establish measurability, facilitate continuous improvement, and orient day-to-day operations toward long-term goals. Therefore, combining OKR and agile philosophies is a great way to improve your business’s operations and adaptive capabilities


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