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Written by Zoe Greensit

Last updated 3 February 2022 ·

Cascading Objectives: Top-down or bottom-up?

Objectives at all levels of an organisation need to be fully aligned to the top-level overall strategic vision for the business. Full team alignment requires everyone within an organisation to be in sync, on the same page and all moving forward together in the right direction. We often get asked if it is best to set strategic objectives at the top and cascade them down throughout all teams or if frontline team members should set their own objectives aligned to their areas of specialism and cascade them upwards in reverse. The main argument for the latter is that people are more engaged and motivated by the objectives they create themselves.

Cascading top-down

Cascading objectives means communicating objectives effectively throughout all levels of an organisation. For more detail on this, check out our blog to learn exactly how OKRs cascade.

OKRs can cascade downwards through an organisation from the CEO level, through the senior leadership team, followed by the management team, right out to the frontline workers. Each time the OKR plan is cascaded to another level, the focus will become more specialised according to the area of professionalism. For example, Marketing will interpret the CEO-level OKRs and take the parts for which they have direct responsibility and power to influence. Sales will handle the sales content, and HR will take any parts which relate most to people management.

Potential drawbacks vs advantages

However, some argue that cascading objectives top-down within an organisation leads to a lack of autonomy if every detail of the objectives and key results are dictated without input. Whilst the strategic focus of the business should be set by the CEO and communicated effectively to direct focus, it’s important that employees at every level contribute their valuable input. They can directly influence these strategic goals and identify the most effective ways to achieve them.

This way, employees are assigned the overall objective, aligned with the business vision, and then given the freedom to decide which key results apply to ensure the objective is fulfilled. Whilst they are given the area of focus, i.e. the ‘what’ to achieve, employees are then allowed the autonomy to decide for themselves exactly ‘how’ the objective will be achieved.

Cascading OKRs works effectively to ensure that the overall strategic business vision and priorities are maintained throughout all levels. Employees at each level of the organisation can then personalise these OKRs according to their field of work without losing sight of the bigger picture.

The importance of a consistent structure

When OKRs are cascaded, it does help if a consistent planning structure is used throughout the organisation to ensure consistency and ease of understanding at all levels. That’s why the 1-3-5® OKR planning methodology is so effective as all employees work on the same structure with 1 vision at the top, followed by 3 mission-critical objectives, each with 5 key results per objective. This removes any potential confusion caused when people use a range of different formats such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint or others to plan out the details of their OKRs and log progress.

Bottom-up workflows

It’s no secret that higher engagement leads to better performance and that people are more engaged with what they help create. Allowing employees the autonomy to decide how best they can achieve a particular objective is empowering and can often lead to high performance as well as a greater sense of ownership.

Allowing frontline employees to create their own set of OKRs that are then cascaded upwards through management and leadership teams risks losing sight of the overall business vision and the ambition of the CEO to drive the business forward. It’s fundamental that this high-level direction and focus for the business is set by the CEO and backed up by insightful corporate financial information.

For bottom-up workflows to work effectively, the business vision and top-level objectives still need to be shared with all teams in the business in a practical way, making them easy to understand for the wider business. Employees need to also be familiar with the idea of goal-setting and educated in how to write their own set of compelling OKRs to set themselves up for success. Without following a solid, clear structure set by those above them in the hierarchy, this could become an area of confusion if different departments follow different structures. If any cracks in the process and structure are feeding upwards, it will expose weaknesses higher up and could potentially cost valuable time and resources to fix.

Collaboration is key

We have recognised that the ideal solution here is a combination of both. Whilst the business’s key strategic vision and objectives must be cascaded effectively throughout leadership, management and frontline teams, employees at each of these levels should be given the autonomy to decide how they go about achieving each objective in the most effective and timely manner. This is agile work in action. It allows employees to manage upwards and be proactive in their approach to high performance as they are aware of the bigger picture and are free to influence that as best they can. It ensures that strategic focus is maintained at all times through all levels, which is fundamental for business success.

The 1-3-5® OKR planning structure allows for total transparency of roles and responsibilities, increasing accountability, team alignment and engagement. OKRs are cascaded effectively, and employees at all levels can be recognised for their hard work and celebrated for their success.

To find out more and start creating OKRs that cascade effectively throughout your business, download our free workbook - The OKR Builder™, which provides a step-by-step guide.

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