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OKR Performance Management for Value-Driven Teams - Case Study from EA Games

by Dorottya Csikai
/ August 10, 2022
#Management
Jehanzeb Khan

OKR Performance Management for Value-Driven Teams - Case Study from EA Games - Interview with Jehanzeb Khan (Senior Software Engineering Manager, Electronic Arts)

Setting the right goals is essential in leading high-performing, value-driven organizations. 

This is where SMART goals or OKRs come into play. These performance management systems help you align your teams’ tasks so that everyone works towards the same goal and sees the bigger picture throughout the process. 

You need to implement an OKR performance management system mindfully to prevent resistance from your teams and to allow it to transform the way you track and evaluate progress.

How can you do that?

Jehanzeb Khan, Senior Software Engineering Manager at Electronic Arts, builds and leads OKR-driven teams, and has implemented this goal-setting process with great success. He talks about introducing, using and customizing OKRs for your organization’s benefit. 

This blog post was written based on episode 68 of the Level-up Engineering podcast hosted by Karolina Tóth

This post covers: 

What is OKR performance management?

The definition of OKR

OKRs stand for Objectives and Key Results. It’s a collaborative goal-setting method to set up challenging goals and to track progress. 

OKR performance management allows you to set goals in a more quantitative, measurable way. This method also helps with team alignment by making sure that everyone moves towards the same direction. 

OKR-driven organizations

You can have teams working with their separate OKRs while collaborating with a larger group and their North Star goals. The North Star goals of each business unit can get aligned, because every team across the company uses the same performance management method in the process.

This way, the company moves towards one shared direction, which results in better output.

OKRs show you the bigger picture

Think about your company’s bigger picture as a tapestry. When software engineers work on a piece of code, they only see a small part of the tapestry. They are looking at their own contribution, and they don’t see how it adds value. 

OKR performance management helps them to take a step back and see the tapestry in its entirety, so they can value their own contribution more. Knowing that your work adds value is an important aspect of being a software engineer. 

OKR performance management and cross-functional collaboration

OKR performance management can improve cross-functional collaboration, especially for people whose roles greatly differ. Designers who are thinking in qualitative measurements and engineers who rely on numbers don’t always understand each other’s input and how those inputs contribute to the final product. 

In homogeneous teams, OKRs also help people to understand what key results need to be achieved in order to reach the final goal. 

Whether you work with cross-functional or homogeneous teams, OKR performance management helps by being the gel between teams. It’s a great mechanism to keep teams engaged, aligned, and highly performing. 

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What’s the process of using OKR performance management?

Determining OKRs 

The North Star and the bigger objectives are determined by the leadership team because they concern the entire business unit.

The rest of the goals can be open for discussion, even the definition of completing a task. Involve your team in these conversations and determine together what it means for each task to be done. For our team, breaking them down into small steps helped. When all the checkboxes are ticked off, that task is complete. 

Key results and smaller goals are democratized: anybody can put up a source of information and explain how it ties to bigger objectives, and other team members can evaluate it. 

Visualizing OKRs

You can visualize OKRs in an Excel sheet, a Google document or a Miro board. We illustrated our North Star as a golden star. Instead of cascading down, everything was feeding up to it. It made more sense. 

We used post-its and moved them around if we wanted to change something. It was a visual representation of our current state, which we could revisit in each meeting to see if it was still relevant. 

Aside from this visual representation, we gathered information from Jira and GitLab - those metrics were concrete, so it was easy to create a dashboard out of them. Anytime we checked the dashboard, we could see the real-time progress of our teams. 

What’s the difference between an OKR-driven and a non-OKR-driven organization? - Story from EA

The problem with SMART goals

A few years ago, we were trying to shift to a more quantitative approach in performance management. We wanted to see how the input from engineers added up and how they contributed to the quality and the value of our product. 

We were working on three things: 

  • tooling and services, 
  • test automation for the larger product, and
  • the product itself. 

We realized that setting up SMART goals - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound goals - wouldn’t be as aligned. 

For example, we wanted to be the best place for the best people, and provide the best opportunities, but it was hard to set the goals to achieve all these aims. Being “the best place for the best people” is a difficult goal to measure for anyone who’s not a manager working directly with people. It’s challenging to break it down into actionable steps. 

Customize & blend systems

It’s important to have a performance management system that helps you capture input. A good system also helps by making your progress more transparent, so that everyone in the company can check it.

You can do this by setting SMART goals or using OKR performance management - both can work, because you can mix and match elements from both systems. 

We set up 

  • Objectives, which were the things we wanted to do, 
  • North Stars, where we wanted to align to, and 
  • Key Results, which were the metrics that made sure that the objective was achieved. 

All these were specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound, too. The blend of these two systems changed how we saw progress.

Instead of talking about failed attempts, losses and burndowns, we started talking about measurable, meaningful, value-driven objectives, both in terms of product and people. We broke down “hiring the best team” into measurable goals, such as achieving the desired headcount, onboarding and making new employees comfortable in their work environment. In this way, it was easier to see our progress.

How did you arrive at using OKR performance management?

At my previous workplace, we were in hypergrowth from 2019 till mid-2020. We had two large arms: quality verification and an engineering team. 

We didn’t have a good strategy to measure their goals simultaneously, because they were two different organizations. We had a hard time aligning their goals and outcomes. 

We were contemplating the right way of setting aligned goals. That’s when we arrived at OKR performance management. In the initial phases, we had lots of meetings where we discussed how we would track goals, what the accurate data for each objective was, or what an ideal pace of progress might be. 

This was part of the process: we were debating what made sense for us as a team, and how we wanted to set up the right goals and metrics for us. These debates should be celebrated: it meant we were passionate about OKRs, and we wanted to be as accurate as possible. By the time we had arrived at a conclusion everyone was satisfied with, we had a clear direction, and we were able to visualize our progress. 

How do you introduce the system of OKR performance management to your employees?

Prepare for mixed emotions

Introducing OKRs for the first time can divide teams, because some people will be less enthusiastic about it than others. It can be a mix of emotions, so be sure to implement these changes slowly. 

Experiment with OKR performance management 

Experiment frequently. Have two sets of people: a team who does business as usual, and a team following OKR performance management methods. Review their performance at the end of the quarter. Evaluate what was useful and what wasn’t. Grow your own way of using OKRs organically. 

Be patient

Discuss the OKR performance management system with new hires once they are comfortable in their role. When someone joins a company, they have to learn a lot: the aims of their company in general, the aims of their specific team, and their personal goals. 

Adding one more thing to this list would overwhelm them. You’ll have time to introduce OKR performance management once their onboarding is done and they’re ready to learn something new.

Welcome questions

I bring up OKRs after a month or two of new employees joining. I simply show them the visual representation of our goals, and most of the time, they find it useful and simple. 

My most recent newcomer asked me why we were using this board. I’m thankful he did, because it also made me question our goal-setting methods, and I ended up making our boards more lean and agile thanks to that one question. Reducing the redundant processes improved our efficiency. 

What are possible pitfalls of using OKR performance management?

Copying blindly

If you’re using OKR performance management just for the sake of using it, it doesn’t add value. Implement this system if you genuinely want to measure and track progress in a way that supports alignment.

Never iterating

Using OKR performance management is an ever-evolving process. Rules are not set in stone - if they are, competitors will quickly outperform your company. An organization needs to be lean enough to shift quickly and take on new challenges, but also stable enough to provide the right value for the customer. You need to have a healthy balance between these aspects. 

You can only achieve balance if you’re always questioning your processes and you iterate when needed. The North Star goals are rarely realigned, because they hold the core values of the company. You can modify key results and objectives for a better outcome. 

Team norms are similar: they shouldn’t be prescribed. Team norms should be a living, breathing culture document that can change as the team learns new information. 

Bonus advice for value-driven teams

Be a team player

This is the advice I give to everybody: Be a good team player. I learned this the hard way. 

I would never hire the engineer I used to be in the early part of my career. I used to write difficult code on purpose, because I wanted to show off. That’s not a smart thing to do. I became a loner who worked alone on his tasks. It made sense for my managers, because I could finish them on my own.

I learned from my own failures that being a good team member is important. I’m using this experience to build teams and as motivation to improve team performance and team dynamics.

Set the right direction

If you aim to implement an OKR performance management system, you’ll have to hire the right people first, and for that, you’ll need to set a clear direction. Your goal as a leader is to build the best team so you can provide the best solutions to your customers. 

About Jehanzeb Khan

At the time of the interview, Jehanzeb was a Senior Software Engineering Manager at Electronic Arts. Jazzy - as most people know him - leads engineering teams that build tools and services and are also involved in test automation and release engineering. 

He’s been interested in engineering from childhood, and he majored in vision intelligence and robotics, then worked with software throughout his career. 

He is focused on building and managing value-driven teams. Recently, he has joined Amazon as a Software Engineering Manager.  

In his free time, he likes to experiment with side projects, such as building a self-driving shopping trolley.

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About the author:

Dorottya Csikai is a content marketer at Coding Sans. She has experience in journalism, interviews, management and content marketing. She researches, writes and edits posts for the Engineering Leader's blog.