How to turn Chickens into Pigs with Objectives and Key Results (OKR)

9 minute read

A picture of bacon and eggs
cameraPhoto by James Kern on Unsplash


As a start-up your success and investability relies heavily on the quality and performance of the team you build around you. Unfortunately, the aims and needs of your business often end up at odds with the aims and needs of your team members.

Setting stretch goals for your business can help you achieve more than you thought possible. Sharing those goals with all team members and letting them find appropriate solutions empowers them and encourages them to stick with you on your journey.

This post explains why Objectives and Key Results are a powerful tool for creating ambitious start-ups with empowered teams.

Living in a box

In my last blog post I wrote about techniques and processes for turning a group of inexperienced computer science graduates into an effective development team. The motivation for this post came from speaking with start-up founders who had been left in the lurch by the departure of key members of their development team.

One of the significant points in this post was the apparent contradiction between the aims and needs of the start-up and the aims and needs of the development team members, and how these aims and needs could be brought into alignment to the advantage of all involved.

A disadvantage for effective developers (or, indeed, just about anyone) working in a medium- to large-sized company will be the compartmentalisation that usually comes with being part of such an organisation.

It’s a rule of thumb that once a company grows beyond around 50 people it is no longer able to operate in an ad-hoc manner where everyone can be involved in everything: more people means more organisation.

Once a company starts creating departments and divisions it’s a pretty sure bet that effective communication will be the first process to suffer as a result. Simply calling an organisational element a division reveals a hidden truth to me - you have divided your workforce.

There is a common pattern for development team members in a company like this:

  • A Business Executive will determine that the company needs to create a new product or service and will assign a Product Owner to this task.
  • The Product Owner will assign one or more elements of the product/service to be created to one or more Project Managers.
  • These Project Managers will then liaise with their Development Team Leaders to create a set of tasks necessary for completing the element they have been assigned.
  • The Development Team Leaders will then select Team Members to work on this feature or that function, as dictated by the contents of that period’s Sprint.
  • Individual developers will be given a task to complete as a nice, neat package (if they’re lucky!) - they simply follow the instructions they have been given until the next sprint begins.

Anyone who has ever worked as a developer for a company like this will be familiar with the pattern I’ve just described, even if the names of the players are slightly different. So far, so good.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the process described above if it’s done right, but in my experience (and that of most of the developers I know) it is very rarely done right. As a consequence, also in my (humble) experience, working as a developer in this way is frustrating, dispiriting and unsatisfactory.

The reason is that in this kind of environment you have no idea why you are doing what you are doing. You probably don’t know who your customer is, let alone what problem the product/service is solving for them. Consequently you can have little or no input into how the product develops. You’re just given a highly prescribed task to do and you do it.

So much for that expensive degree you worked so hard to achieve!

Sadly, this pattern will more than likely be repeated in each of the departments/divisions you have created, be they Product Development, Finance or HR. Much like ‘80’s synth-pop group Living in a Box you will likely end up feeling like you’re “Living in a box…. Living in a Cardboard Box”. This state of affairs is anathema to an innovative start-up.

This begs the question:

What is the right way to run a successful, innovative, motivated company?

I’m glad you asked.

Small is beautiful

Question: In a bacon-and-egg breakfast, what’s the difference between the Chicken and the Pig?

Answer: The Chicken is involved, but the Pig is committed!

This riddle is something of a cliche in the software development world. When it comes to developing products or services, chickens have input on the product/service that is being developed but pigs decide how it’s going to be done and the rate at which it can be accomplished.

The idea is that your development team members are the pigs while the product owner, customer, vendor, executives and other ‘important people’ are the chickens. Both pigs and chickens are needed to make a good breakfast/product/service.

Mildly amusing though this riddle is, the issue for me is that Development Team members are rarely made to feel committed to what they are creating by the structure of the company they are working in.

Most Development Team members are so far removed from what the business is trying to achieve that it is virtually impossible for them to be committed. In fact, in the process I described above it’s hard for me to identify exactly who the pigs are. It seems like everyone is an involved but no-one is committed.

As a start-up founder you are in a position to change this.

When Geovation first opened it’s offices in Goswell Road in 2018 one of the first people to be invited to speak there was Marty Cagan, founder of Silicon Valley Product Group. Marty was talking about his book, Inspired: how to create tech products that customers love, in which one of the central tenets is the creation of empowered teams.

Typically (as described above) teams are given a backlog of stories and asked to deliver those stories. Alternatively, they may be given a roadmap of features and asked to design and deliver that roadmap.

Both of these approaches serve the Business. This is how you create involved Chickens.

Empowered teams are given customer or business problems to solve and are asked to discover, design and deliver a solution. They are held accountable for their results. This is how you create committed Pigs.

To put it another, slightly more complimentary, way as described by the Venture Capitalist John Doerr:

We need a team of Missionaries, not a team of Mercenaries.

The way to empower teams is to give them problems to solve rather than features to build.

To quote Steve Jobs:

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

Marty identifies the following steps which are key for creating empowered teams:

  • Make sure all team members are involved in discussions with the customer so that everyone understands the problem they are solving.
  • Once the problems have been identified, set clear Business Objectives that define how the company will create solutions to the problem.
  • Back up these Business Objectives with measures, otherwise known as Key Results, which indicate whether the Objectives have been successfully achieved. The Key Results should measure business results, not outputs or tasks.
  • Make sure that all the members of your Organisation understand these Objectives and Key Results and how their contributions help achieve them.
  • Your product and design teams can then focus on how their own objectives can be rolled up into achieving the Organisation’s objectives.

These themes are echoed in the book Change by Design by Tim Brown. Both of these authors challenge the myth that innovation is effected by brilliant ideas leaping fully formed into the minds of geniuses.

It is not the job of the Product Owner or Project Manager to come up with the solution. They should exist to empower the team to come up with the solution. Make the best use of these extremely talented and expensive individuals you have hired!

Challenge your business with Stretch Goals

When setting personal goals or objectives it can be counter-productive to aim too high. Failing to meet our personal goals can lead to all kinds of psychological issues relating to guilt and self-worth. This is not to say that you shouldn’t stretch yourself, just that you should be realistic. Aim, perhaps, for the top of the next hill.

I guess we all know about SMART goals. The ‘A’ in SMART stands for achievable or attainable (depending on who you read). This is fine for personal goals, for the reasons I’ve just mentioned, but there is a danger that you may be setting your business goals to be a little too easy.

Stretch goals are goals that challenge you. The point of a stretch goal is to push you past what you think is possible into the impossible. Impossible does not mean unrealistic, however, it means something you don’t know how to do - yet. Great things can happen to businesses that chase the impossible.

Shoot for the moon

When it comes to business, it is better to aim for the stars. Well, maybe not stars (we have to be realistic, right?) but perhaps aim for the moon. When Kennedy set the goal for landing on the moon in 1961 he was aiming for what seemed at the time to be extremely difficult but not unrealistic.

The goal was to get to the moon within the next decade, not the next week. Sure enough, in 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon and returned home safely.

At the time the goal was set, neither Kennedy nor NASA had any idea how to achieve that goal. Despite this they focused on the goal, did tests, and landed there within the decade as required.

Let the train take the strain

In the 1950s thousands of people and large amounts of material were transported daily between Osaka and Tokyo. It sometimes took up to 20 hours to complete that trip. The head of the Japanese railway system set a challenge in 1955 to make a faster train. The engineers returned several months later with a train that travelled at 65mph. The head of the railway system said this wasn’t good enough - he wanted a train that travelled at 120mph.

The engineers initially said it was impossible, not to mention extremely dangerous. It’s worth noting that the land speed record for a record for a passenger train at the time was 126mph, set in the UK on the East Coast main line between Peterborough and Grantham. Only the French had gone faster, setting a record of 206mph in 1955 using a specially designed diesel engine developed specifically for the test. That train badly damaged the track during the test itself.

So the Japanese engineers begin making lots of changes. One extra mph here, another there. For example, they dug tunnels through the mountains so the trains wouldn’t have turn. In 1964, the first bullet train left Tokyo and arrived in Osaka in 3 hours 58 minutes with an average speed of 120mph. This was critical to helping trigger Japan’s economic growth.

The take-away

If you want your team members to work best for your business they need to be committed to it. Creating Business Objectives and sharing them with the team helps them understand why they are doing what they are doing. Empowering them to come up with solutions and holding them accoutable to delivering your Key Results is a much cheaper way of creating a committed team than offering everyone shares.

Leave a comment