Learning how to manage OKRs by playing Dungeons and Dragons

Learning how to manage OKRs by playing Dungeons and Dragons

August 19th, 2020 by Rachel Hickey

Welcome, adventurers, to the tomb of Aldruin Greenwind. After days of searching for the entrance, you’ve stumbled upon a nondescript trapdoor in a very unusual place—the forest. Can you survive the dangers and make it to the burial chamber before becoming another spectre in this forgotten place? 

While this clearly is a sample introduction to the popular “Greenwind Depths” Dungeons and Dragons campaign, it could just as well be describing a parallel concept seen over and over again in business–OKRs.

First developed as “Management by Objectives” by Peter Drucker in 1954, the model evolved into the “Objectives and Key Results” or the OKR model we use today as a goal management framework. In 1974, John Doerr joined Intel, learned about OKRs and later adopted the same strategy as an adviser to help Google scale in the 1990s. 

Dungeons and Dragons, one of the best tabletop roleplaying games ever made was also created 1974 (coincidence? I think not.) 

So what do OKRs and Dungeons and Dragons have in common? Here at BitBakery, we think they’re more similar than you might think. Here’s why:

Setting goals and objectives 

Referencing the “Greenwind Depths” example above, imagine this:

Welcome team, to the tomb of objectives lost. After hours of searching for the right location, you’ve stumbled upon a nondescript door in a very unusual place—the offsite meeting room. Can you survive the objectives and make it to the key results before becoming another spectre in this forgotten place next quarter?

OKRs help managers and employees align the work they do, ensuring everyone in the organization is moving in the same direction. You can think of an objective as a set destination on a map (ex. Launch the most popular new iPhone App) and a key result as a signpost with a distance marker (ex. Get 50 five star reviews on the App Store).

These decisions involve a specialized team meeting to learn about and set OKRs at the company, team and individual level. It also involves the intention to review and adjust OKRs throughout the year. But in many circumstances, these meetings are put on the back-burner and accountability is ultimately lost.

How can you keep your team accountable, and what does this have to do with D&D?

Guiding and working together as a team 

Before you start using OKR it’s important to have a clear understanding of the challenge you want to solve. For this to be successful, the implementation and management of OKRs should have an owner within the organization. This person is usually called the “Ambassador” and the role is to ensure that everyone who will be using OKR, is trained, engaged and has ongoing help and guidance.

In D&D, each player creates a character who is an adventurer and teams up with other adventurers. One player, however, like an Ambassador, takes on the role of the “Dungeon Master” (DM) the game’s lead storyteller and referee. The DM runs adventures for the characters, who navigate its hazards and decide which paths to explore. 

The DM describes the locations and creatures that the adventurers face, and the players decide what they want their characters to do. It’s also the DM who determines the results of the adventurers’ actions and narrates what they experience. 

This process is something we really miss as a team. When one of our developers,  Edson Mesquita moved from Brazil to join our team last year, his love for adventure and board games rubbed off on the team. While we were still working out of the office, a group of BitBakers played bi-weekly.

“I wanted to get to know the team better, so I offered to take the lead as DM in an office D&D campaign,” said Mesquita. “For some members, it was their first time playing. This makes it even more fun as new players don’t really have any bounds, they try new things that you weren’t expecting, and that is really cool to see.”

Every role is important

The DM has the final authority on how the rules work in play. If there’s ever a question about how something functions in the game, the DM provides the answer. This helps keep the game moving. Because D&D is a cooperative game, however, it is important that the DM makes decisions that enhance the enjoyment of your group, and that teammates are engaged.

Another important D&D guideline in a campaign according to Mesquita, is to never split the party. Just like your specialized team works to achieve your set OKRs, each player has specific roles and attributes that make the campaign work, and every piece is important to the team’s collaborative success. 

“If you get caught out alone without the rest of your party to help you in a dangerous situation, it's probably bad news, and it's not great for player engagement,” said Mesquita.

If the party is split, the DM has to switch between two or more scenes. Then, whenever the DM is describing the scene the other party is tackling, there's nothing the other party can do to participate. This takes away from engagement, and is more work for the DM switching between scenes.

While working on OKRs as a team, you can imagine it would be difficult to achieve success if your team is always split up. This is why it is so important to consistently check in on each objective so you stay engaged and on track.

OKR goal-setting connects the employees with the company’s objectives, increasing engagement, and people achieve remarkable results when they’re engaged with a purpose. 

Autonomy and accountability

“In a D&D campaign, because the DM can improvise to react to anything the players attempt, the game is infinitely flexible, and each adventure can be unexpected,” said Mesquita.

With OKRs, teams can receive clear direction and are free to choose how to achieve their OKRs. They become responsible for their objectives and if done right, have a clear success criteria that is known to the whole company to help create mutual obligations.

In any campaign or project, the unexpected is bound to happen. If objectives are clear and results are reviewed, there is more room for innovation and improvisation while still staying on track.

Can D&D make your OKRs more effective?

While we’re not saying that you need to start a company-wide D&D campaign to achieve successful OKRs, the comparison can offer helpful insights on the importance of teamwork, problem-solving, and accountability. 

Keep your objectives aligned and time-bound and your key results specific and within influence, and you will be set for your next campaign– I mean– project!

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