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I work with multiple teams, whereby the company culture has been somewhat command and control, and also "shielding" the team from any sort of "management", "leadership", and "mundane" tasks.

The teams are not product teams, but rather they provide services such as cloud monitoring, and network maintenance (physical and virtual).

Recently, the company started going down the OKR route, and when it comes to teams, it teams that the teams are reluctant to even participate in any kind of "management", "boring", or "useless" activity such as setting goals and finding ways to measure the teams' success.

I do think it's a cultural problem, however, the line managers and leadership insist on getting everyone behind, and attending OKR creation. My job as a Scrum Master is very difficult since I find it hard impossible to engage the team in the activity. I understand that if people don't want to do it, they won't do it, but, are there any opinions or similar experiences on how to approach this?

The ideal scenario would be to have the team understand "Why" they do what they do, and therefore put them behind some common goals (Objectives). But they seem reluctant to even engage on the activity.

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    Recently, the company started going down the OKR route. Why? Is it because they want to be cool like everyone else, or for good reasons? What were you doing before? Was there another system in place?
    – Bogdan
    May 18, 2022 at 15:09
  • There was no system in place, just good old yearly planning, and then fire and forget. Now, they want the teams to understand the value they offer, and understand how they'll measure it.
    – dqm
    May 18, 2022 at 15:14

3 Answers 3

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Identifying Some of the Problems

You actually have multiple problems, which is why you have this particular X/Y problem. Let's look at a few of them:

  1. You are calling yourself a "Scrum Master," but Scrum is a time boxed framework that often doesn't fit ongoing support processes without throwing out (or at least redefining) the notion of Sprint Goals and Product Backlogs.
  2. Scrum has implicit OKRs and explicit commitments. If you're using Scrum you're using OKRs; you just may not be calling them such.
  3. You might have a Scrum Master title that has nothing to do with Scrum, in which case you haven't defined the framework that you do operate within.
  4. Your original post doesn't even define bounded iterations or a measurable Definition of Done, so "objectives" and "key results" are likely equally undefined.

Collectively, these all add up to people just slogging through their work days without either accountability or clearly-defined goals. If this has worked well for them personally, it's hard to see why they would want to change.

Non-Agile Solutions to a Non-Agile Problem

Ultimately, your company is taking a hand-waving approach to defining OKRs anyway. In general, OKRs shouldn't be defined bottom-up by engineering or support teams, as they are most useful as management or governance metrics rather than engineering measurements. That isn't to say goals can't be valuable; it just means OKRs in a typical business sense are about measuring objective business outcomes by determining whether or not they deliver certain key results.

By pushing the definition of OKRs down to the team in this particular way, your leadership isn't empowering the team. Instead, they are themselves avoiding responsibility for understanding what the team does and how it contributes to the business' organizational functions in a systemic way. That is itself an anti-pattern.

Communicate the Requirements and Inherent Opportunities

Nevertheless, if there is now a company policy that teams will set OKRs and the matter is not open to discussion with your leadership team, then your only real option is to point out to the team that:

  1. These are commandments from "on high," and they may be held accountable to whatever extent the policy is actually enforceable.
  2. They are missing a prime opportunity to define objectives and results for themselves as things they are already doing well so that they don't actually have to change anything.
  3. If they leave it to someone else to set their objectives or identify the outcomes to be measured, they are very likely to be unhappy with the fiat goals set by people with no intimate knowledge of what the team does day-to-day or how its internal processes work.

Whether you take a coaching approach to the items above or a "tough love" approach is up to you in this case. There's a lot of missing context about your organization, so either approach (and maybe others besides) are equally appropriate absent specifics about the culture, organization, and framework in which you're operating.

Perform Your Own Due Diligence

Personally, if the business decision has already been made and is non-negotiable, then I'd frame it to the team as such. Then, while you can't make them go through the exercises, you can still put it on the calendar routinely until:

  1. the OKRs are defined per your company policy;
  2. leadership or line management intervenes in a process they own, and clearly broke either previously or with the OKR edict;
  3. the policy is abandoned.

None of these are great options; they're just the realistic ones. Management by fiat is never very effective, but neither is cultural or organizational change without changing both the structure and the composition of an organization. If management is trying to set a new "tone at the top," I suspect they've failed; however, it remains to be seen if the team's resistance to change is warranted or not within the current organization.

Openly Discuss the Risk

Senior leadership owns the outcome of this organizational process change. However, the team owns the risk of failing to adapt to change if there's genuine organizational change afoot. If you haven't at least asked them if they've thought that all through then you've missed a coaching opportunity that has nothing to do with frameworks and everything to do with corporate life.

If this change is real, and not just a passing fad, then someone is likely to need to brush up their resume very soon. Whether that's senior leadership, line management, you, or the team is undefined at this point. It's often worth pointing out that executive leadership rarely takes the blame for failed initiatives, though, and again this is a useful coaching opportunity or an upcoming life lesson for both the company and the team.

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A good way to bring the team together is to understand how is it affecting them. You mentioned there was no system in place before the OKRs. How did this affect them in their day to day? What problems have they encountered as a result of not having a system in place? That could be a starting off point to rally them behind a cause and then move on the idea of a solution to these problems: OKRs

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Measure What Matters, "Stretch" chapter excerpt:

OKRs require organization. You need a leader to embrace the process and a lieutenant to ride herd over scoring and reviews.

A company really committed to OKRs should offer a supportive structure so that everyone understands why the company is willing to take this approach. This structure would support you on this challenge.

How could this supportive structure exist? Excerpt from the "Commit" chapter:

For structured goal setting to prosper, as our company learned the hard way, executives need to commit to the process. It may take a quarter or two to overcome your managers’ resistance and get them acclimated to OKRs—to view them not as a necessary evil, or some perfunctory exercise, but as a practical tool to fulfil your organization’s top priorities. Until your executives are fully on board, you can’t expect contributors to follow suit.

With that in mind, I'd suggest to discuss this matter with the leadership pushing for OKRs. They might be perceiving other teams offering the same resistance. Instead of having every SM reinventing the wheel on how to address such resistance, use the experience from the people already dealing with it.

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