How I make OKRs more playful for my team using Hill-Charts

OKRs for Managers and C-Level? Great! But have you ever asked your teams? In this post I am sharing how I make OKRs less dry and more enjoyable for the teams I manage.

How I make OKRs more playful for my team using Hill-Charts

OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) is a goal-setting framework used by many companies to align and measure progress towards specific objectives. They make sense because they provide a clear and measurable way to track progress and ensure everyone is working towards the same goals.

From my experience working with teams, I have found that while OKRs can be effective, they can also become dry and frustrating due to their rigid focus on metrics and constant measurement of progress. Additionally, as a team manager, I have felt the pressure to continuously monitor the team's progress towards their OKRs, which can create a sense of micromanagement and reduce team autonomy.

So over the years I have been looking for a better way to get the team understand how we progress towards our goals.

The OKR “Hill Chart” game

Chances are that you have never heard about the concept of a Hill Chart (if you have, bear with me!).

Animation source: Basecamp
Hill Charts are basically a type of graph that help people track their progress towards a goal.

What I like about them? They don't focus on a linear scale (0%—100%) but rather on a more realistic view of our day-to-day project challenges. Progress is more like a hill than a straight line.

  • Uphill: figuring things out (uncertainty, unknowns, problem-solving)
  • Downhill: making things happen (certainty, confidence, execution)
If you want to read more about Hill Charts, you should check out this page from Basecamp (I believe they invented them).

What I want to achieve (with or without hill-charts)

  • Remove uncertainty early on
    Nothing is worse than uncertainty. When you're in the dark you will struggle in all those areas: planning, expectation management, stakeholder management, team morale, motivation.
  • Re-adjust our “flight path” by zooming out
    Projects succeed by regularly zooming out and looking at the big picture. It is human to focus on details and develop tunnel-vision. When we stop what we're doing and remind ourselves of the big picture, we can understand how our day-2-day work fits into it and adjust accordingly.
  • Synchronize the feeling of progress within the team
    One of the (in my view) most important accomplishments is that everyone within the team knows and understands where we stand. This can be especially challenging when the team scope is broad, and you have people focusing on different areas. The feeling of context and progress empowers us to take better decisions and allows team members to lead us into the right direction.
  • Take action, keep moving
    With a sense of where we stand, it becomes easier to identify the next action. To me, this is a consequence of realizing where we are as a team. Typically, everyone is interested in achieving our goals.  
  • Acknowledgement and realizations
    If you can't accomplish something, or you realize that the set OKRs do not fit anymore, you want to realize and acknowledge that as soon as possible, so you can act and adjust. Realizing that we have to adjust isn't a failure, but a valuable learning. Remember: we take decisions based on the context we had when taking them. If context changes or new information emerges, we want to use this towards our advantage.

How I use Hill Charts to achieve the above

Within our team, we run the exercise by using a Miro board. I have created a free Miro template that you can use. You can copy it or translate it into your preferred tool. I bet that Google Slides or Apple Freeform also work great for the purpose.

Every three weeks, we have a 25-min call to perform this synchronous exercise. You can read more about this choice in the FAQ section below.

Here are the 3 stages that we are going through:

Step 1) Explanation of why we do this exercise and how it works

I usually take 1–2 minutes reminding everyone what hill charts are, why we are doing this exercise and how we can all benefit from it. After this exercise became a team habit, I also encourage individual team members to be the facilitator once in a while, so that everyone becomes comfortable articulating the “why”.
If you check out the template, you will see that the explanation hill-chart in step 1 includes numbers. Those will help the team in step 2.

Step 2) 🗣️ For every Key-Result: Agree on a number where we would place the KR on the Hill-Chart

This is the most valuable part of the exercise. Here we drive for a common agreement on where we as a team think each of the key-results go.

If there are only 2-3 key-results, we usually go through them all together.

If your team is big, and you have lots of key results, it is very likely that not all team members are familiar with the initiatives of every KR. In this case, I like doing breakout rooms, focusing the team into smaller groups that tackle the KRs that they are most familiar with. After 5-8 min alignment, we present the results to each other. This way everyone, unfamiliar with some initiatives, will gain visibility and develop an understanding of where their teammates are. Sometimes this even results in team members offering their support.

The conversations are the most important part of this step. Here we listen and if a key-result is at risk, we coach each other, so that we have a plan on what to do about the given key-result (e.g. schedule a spike, resolve a blocker, …).
In step 2 of the template, you can see that I also include the time horizon and a picture of the team members who are most familiar with the initiatives behind each of the KRs. This makes people take the driver seat rather than falling into listening-only mode and ensures that we are reminded about the time-horizon of the commit key-results.

Step 3) ⛰️ Put the Key-Results on the Hill-Chart

After putting our key results on the hill chart, we get a nice exportable visualization.
The result of this exercise is a snapshot of where the whole team feels we are. We usually keep a history of the hill-charts, so that we can easily compare them with the previous ones and spot when some KRs are stuck.

FAQ on my approach

The following questions and answers serve for clarification and additional context about the “OKR Hill-Chart game”.

How often do you recommend me doing this exercise?

In our organizational setup, we set big aspiring Objectives for one or multiple years and commit to team level Key-results aligning with those objectives quarterly.

If you are in this kind of situation, I recommend the hill chart game every 3 weeks.

  • Every three weeks is short enough to have the first exercise in the first weeks of the quarter. During this time, it is important to make decisions and focus on resolving uncertainty. Remember: uncertainty is the worst situation you can be in, it is like navigating blind, you don't even know if you're going into the right direction.
  • You also want to make sure that you schedule those exercises at times when you can still take action and deliver an impact (for example, don't schedule it on the last day of the quarter). You easily run into this issue if you schedule them every 4 weeks. Also, you want to avoid doing them too often. They're there to help the team, not to feel like a burden.
  • In edge cases (e.g. if it falls on a bank holiday or the last week of the quarter) I reschedule them to make the timing support the purpose. Be pragmatic.

Can I also let my team do this exercise asynchronously?

I'm a big fan of async communication. For this exercise I recommend against it as one of our main goals is to sync a feeling of progress and accomplishment among all team members.

Can I automate this?

Using Miro or similar software is manual. At the beginning of the quarter, someone has to copy over all the committed key-results. To me, it is worth the effort, and all the other tools that I have found so far unfortunately make you lose one or multiple of the above listed desired positive outcomes.

You could give this tool a try. I tried it, but I found it to be less engaging than the Miro solution.

There are also tools that integrate with project management software like Basecamp and Jira. Especially in relation to Jira, I want to express that I'm not a fan of mapping individual tickets to a hill-chart. You could do this on an Epic level, but keep in mind that Epics usually don't represent all the success criteria of KRs. Our team KRs often include success criteria that ensure proper communication of what we deliver (demo, presentation, documentation, training videos, …).

Not every project is the same and the hill might look different. Have you thought about this?

Yes, and I agree. There used to be a great blog post by Jordan Koschei addressing this (I can't find it anymore). He suggested that some projects have multiple or steeper hills. So far I have not focused on changing the shape of the hill, as the classical shape gets my team to where we want and triggers the right conversations. To me, this is a matter of pragmatism.

My team can't decide if a KR is a 2 or a 3, can it be more granular?

In step 2 team members should agree on a number and put the number in the placeholder next to the key-result (see template)

Be pragmatic about it and don't overthink. If we think it is somewhere in between, we say 2,5 and in the final stage we put the Key-Result dot between 2 and 3. The conversations and the team feeling have priority. It is not about fitting my template.

Can I use this for reporting?

It depends on the kind of reporting you need and want. Hill charts are always a team subjective matter and require additional context. But they are a good place to start a conversation.

Let's say that you are a team leader/manager, and you have to report project status up the ladder. You could use the result of step 3 and present it to your leadership team with the context that you have gathered from the session with the team. This is great for you and your team, because no one has to do anything else besides the regular hill-chart exercises. Bear in mind that reporting is not the goal of this exercise – it is only an additional benefit or better phrased as side-effect of the exercise. The exercise is for the team, not for senior leadership.

You might also be interested in reading the answer to the next question, “can I convert this chart to numbers […]?”.

Can I convert this chart to numbers (e.g. to compare teams)?

You can try to, but I don't recommend you to seek for additional reporting. Progress within an iteration cycle is a subjective topic and by asking for numbers, ticket statuses or scores you won't get a more accurate view over how projects are moving (pls convince me otherwise).

Everything outside the iteration cycle can be measured using the success criteria of the defined Key-Results (they are measurable by definition).

I believe that Hill-Charts are a great balance between trust and reporting. Every step too far towards reporting will result in the team feeling micromanaged, and you will end up with ineffective + not trusting instead of high-performing teams.

Since when do you do this exercise?

Around 2 years (2021), first with my team and over time other teams started to adopt the approach. I knew about Hill-Charts before, that's why they came to my mind when looking for better ways to approach OKRs.

Bonus: Other suggestions on how to rock at OKRs

Here are some other things I recommend doing:

  • Maintain an Opportunity/Initiative backlog: The end of quarter is before the next quarter. Instead of coming up with KRs on the spot, I recommend maintaining a backlog. Whenever someone in your team has an idea or there is an expectation from the outside, you can document it. This will ease the process of preparing for the next iteration.
  • Coach the whole team on OKRs and S.M.A.R.T: Empower your team to come up with those OKRs. In the end, no one likes “top bottom” approaches, so get the team involved and ensure that they are familiar with the goal setting framework.

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