We need some way to assign and manage work to product teams, and we want to do this in a way that is empowering and executes on our product strategy.  This is the purpose of Team Objectives. Assuming you have embraced the empowered product team model, and you have capable leaders, it is fairly straightforward.  

Here are the most important keys to effective team objectives:

  1. The most important thing is to empower teams by assigning them problems to solve, and then give the teams the space to solve them.  In order to make good decisions, they will also need you to share the strategic context, including the strategic focus and the strategic insights.
  2. We love it when product teams volunteer to work on specific objectives, and we try to accommodate this when possible to leverage their motivation and enthusiasm for the problem, but we can’t always do so because we need to make sure we cover everything we need to.
  3. Selecting the objectives to be worked on, and ultimately deciding which team or teams works on each objective, is the explicit responsibility of product leadership.  However, and this is critically important for empowerment, the key results need to come from the team.
  4. It’s normal that there’s a back and forth – not that the leaders are doubting or questioning what the teams propose as their key results, but rather judging which investments are worth the effort and associated risk.  For example, suppose a team believes that with their other objectives, they can only make a very minimal improvement to a specific important KPI. The leaders might consider having that team focus exclusively on the one objective, or decide to ask a different team to pursue or help.
  5. There is nothing wrong with assigning the same objective to multiple teams, each approaching the problem in its own way.  In fact, for difficult product problems, this is often a very effective technique. On hard problems, we expect that not all teams will make the same level of progress, and we can’t anticipate in advance what the teams will learn when they each get deep into their product discovery work.
  6. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with asking multiple teams to collaborate on the same objective.  Especially when the problem requires different sets of skills, it’s not unusual to ask multiple teams to work together.  A common situation is asking a platform team and an experience team to collaborate on a difficult problem.
  7. In order for product teams to come up with key results, it’s essential that they understand the level of ambition you are looking for from them.  We need to be clear with teams when we want them to be very ambitious (aka “moon shot”); when we want them to be conservative (aka “roof shot”); and when we need them to make an actual high-integrity commitment.
  8. Product teams can only be accountable to the results if they are empowered to figure out a solution that works; and if they are the ones to come up with the key results.
  9. The product leaders have to realize that while team objectives are critically important, they are not the only things that the product team is working on.  Every team has some level of ongoing “business as usual” or “keep the lights on” activities. Fixing critical bugs, handling customer situations, etc. 
  10. Normally these team objectives are created or updated every quarter.  That gives teams enough time to make real progress, yet not too much time that the business can’t adjust to changes.  There may be occasional situations where team objectives need to change during the quarter, but these should be the exception rather than the rule.

To keep all this in perspective, remember that the essence of this is simply having a knowledgeable leader sit down with the product team, and explain the strategic context, and then explain the problem you need the team to solve, and how success is measured. 

Whether you use a formal technique like OKR’s to do this is much less important; the key is to have this conversation, and for the leaders to give the product teams the space to solve the problems in the best way they see fit.

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