Photo by Christian Perner
OKRs have become a popular way to set and track company objectives and associated results. They have been successfully applied both in large corporates and small startups. And rightfully so: OKRs are a simple, yet powerful way to align teams on company goals. This also applies to product teams. One immediate question that arises often is: how do product roadmaps and OKRs relate? In the outstanding book “Inspired” Marty Cagan suggests that OKRs are to some extent a superior alternative to product roadmaps. As we will argue in this article, they should instead be seen as two complementary tools, that work well together.
Hierarchies of goals
OKRs and other systems for setting, communicating and tracking objectives are often applied a) at a regular “rhythm” e.g. yearly and/or quarterly b) in a “trickle-down” way. In other words, every quarter, the company’s leadership sets the objectives for the company. Then individual teams set their own objectives to help achieve the company objectives. And then individuals in the teams set their own objectives to contribute to the team (and company) goals. This way, a “tree” of goals is built every quarter that can be navigated up and down from the company to individual goals and vice versa.
Product teams apply the same method. In addition, they also manage a “parallel” tree of product goals. (Of course, these goals should not stand in contradiction to the company goals, as will be elaborated below.) This product hierarchy of objectives starts with the product vision, product initiatives, product requirements. They can further trickle down into features/stories, and implementation tickets for new development efforts. The tree of product objectives is not distinct from the companies OKR’s. In fact, many of the product team’s OKR’s will and should map directly to product roadmap initiatives. After all, the goal of building the product is to reach the companies objectives.
However, there may be some items that are justified efforts, but that do not immediately relate to this quarter’s OKRs. Furthermore, the product vision is something that should and will evolve at a slower pace than quarterly changing company objectives. The vision should stay stable for a longer period of time and serve as the “top” of the product objectives. At the same time, the product vision can never stand in conflict with the company’s vision or goals.
The first step to aligning OKRs and product roadmaps is, of course, aligning the company’s and the product roadmap’s planning cycle. Typically this will be quarterly. So, towards the end of each quarter company objectives are set. The product team then also meets and defines a) the product roadmap for the upcoming quarter (1) and b) the team’s OKRs. Roadmap items will map to company and team objectives in an n:n fashion: often a roadmap item may map directly to one company objective. But sometimes multiple roadmap items map to one objective or one roadmap item affects multiple OKRs. It makes sense to consciously consider how each initiative in the product roadmap’s current quarter affects the objectives and key results of the company. This can be done simply by discussing and documenting it, or by explicitly mapping it in a matrix fashion.
In this article, we have shown how product roadmaps and OKRs are complementary tools, that work well together. We have also demonstrated how roadmap initiatives relate to OKRs, and how their relationship can be mapped in a matrix to ensure that the product roadmap serves the company objectives.
(1) The emphasis of the detailed roadmap planning is the upcoming quarter. However, your roadmap will typically span several quarters, for example, 3-4 quarters. The quarterly planning session is to also “reshuffle”, complete, and “clean” future quarters. Most time should be spent on the upcoming quarter, and then just a little team on the future quarters.