How can product leaders be better communicators?

Luke Grimstrup

The typical corporate goal-setting process usually happens once a quarter, managers scramble to set goals, throw them into an HR system (often last minute, or late) and do not tend to look at them or keep them updated until the end of the quarter. What happens next typically comes down to the discipline of the leader to action it, which is often a personal process rather than a standardized one.

How are you increasing the visibility to the most important objectives across the broader organization? How often are you as a leader, reflecting and checking in on your goals?

There are many solutions out there that allow you to set up your goals (the quarterly scramble), track your goals (in an HR system, a spreadsheet, or shared document), it typically falls on an individual leader to keep these up to date. There is very little help available to help communicate and share the progress towards achieving these goals.

Common pitfalls with OKRs

Setting great OKRs takes practice, and early in the transformation towards a more dynamic, outcome-based culture, it’s easy to go off the rails. Some frequent mistakes when planning with OKRs include:

  • Focusing on tasks rather than outcomes. Don’t overspecify. A watertight plan at the start of the process will choke out creativity and innovation as new information becomes available down the line.
  • Not sharing OKRs publicly. OKRs are all about transparency, and hiding them away makes it impossible to builds accountability or alignment.
  • Waiting on “Cascading” OKRs. The most effective OKR rollouts start with executive buy-in, but once high-level company objectives are set and clearly communicated, teams shouldn’t have to wait for departments (or anyone else up the org chart) before setting their own.
  • Having too many OKRs. Planning allocates resources where they’re needed most. Organizations, teams, and people that split time between too many objectives are less focused on the ones that really matter.
  • Setting easy and/or unrealistic OKRs. Objectives should always stretch the organization, and if they’re achievable through “business as usual” they probably aren’t hard enough. Nor should they feel impossible. Employees know absurdity when they see it, and goals set too far over the horizon won’t fool (or motivate) anyone.

1. Communicate up, down, and around

The best leaders are the ones that communicate up, around, and down and share the progress towards goals and outcomes.

You might do this at the moment in status meeting check-ins with other senior leaders in the organization, or as a cross-functional team.

Sharing progress towards a goal allows everyone to see the momentum you’re gaining, becomes a discussion point for identifying challenges and new ideas, as well as celebrating the wins you might be getting along the way.

2. Meet with your team to get updates

A team meeting (or the first part of a 1:1) is a great place to get the latest information on how particular initiatives are progressing. The book Radical Focus has a great concise framework on how teams can be presenting back their updates on a weekly basis in a single slide. The format of presenting updates on a single slide is a great forcing factor to ensure you’re not focusing on too much!

Slice a single slide into 4 quadrants

  1. Priorities this week: No more than 3 - 5 - these should be activities that contribute to your objectives.
  2. OKR Confidence: For each objective and key result give a score out of 10 on how confident you are on achieving it.
  3. Next 2 - 4 weeks priorities: What are the top priorities for you over the next 2 - 4 weeks.
  4. Product Health: If you have a product health metric you’re monitoring, track it here.

For the best results, you might find that a team meeting focused on objectives and providing an update on each becomes more cross-functional over time.

Download the template here:

3. Communicate with the broader team

This is probably the most often overlooked tip. Often you’re so wound up in running from meeting to meeting that you forget to keep the broader team informed of what’s happening, or even make time for yourself at the end of the week to decompress and get ahead of the next week.

As a time-poor product leader myself, here’s what I do in the last few minutes on a Friday before beer o’clock:

  • Block out 30mins to 1hr at the end of the week in your calendar for putting together an update.
  • Reflect on the progress made this week, check the data, what’s moved in the right direction, what wins have you and the team had this week?
  • Plan the next week, as a product leader this might be who you need to check in with, topics to discuss, or simply blocking out time in your calendar to do things.
  • Write an update that goes goal by goal for your team and share it broadly within your organization using

By following those three key tips you’re avoiding the common pitfalls with OKRs, where you’re linking activities to outcomes, sharing OKRs and the progress towards objectives publicly in meetings, slides, and email updates, and trying to limit the amount of work in progress at any one point in time.

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