Powerhouse companies like Google and Intel have successfully utilised OKRs, making them seem like the magical silver bullet that will help strategy implementation and gain momentum.
But are they really?
Goal management as a strategy implementation tool is nothing new. It’s been around for many decades, with many manifestations: MBOs, SMART, KPI, Balanced Scorecard, 4DX, OKR. These manifestations all stem from the same concept. So how can you use goal management (and OKRs in particular) to your advantage?
In this document, we’ll explore some principles that should be followed to increase the chances of successful strategy execution.
The direction you set
Setting a strategic direction addresses two elements – it’s a clear message that allows people to align behind a common goal, and it drives engagement through linking daily actions to a higher purpose.
“A group of people get together and exist as an institution we call a company so they are able to accomplish something collectively that they could not accomplish separately – they make a contribution to society…do something which is of value.”
Strategic direction allows for alignment with the company mission. The mission is why people come to work, why an organisation exists. We want every person to understand how their efforts contribute to the progression of that mission.
How OKRs allow for this: OKRs should be aligned vertically and horizontally – from organisation to department to team – which will result in all team members understanding how they are contributing.
“When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.”
When people understand how they’re contributing, they engage. As one of our clients said, “we want to push innovation to the edges of the organisation”.
How OKRs allow for this: OKRs are set from the top down AND bottom up – they’re not a one-way street.
The priorities you choose
Completing a few things with excellence bears more fruit than making average progress on a lot of things. For this, we encourage being focused and being practical.
“The person attempting to travel two roads at once will get nowhere.”
Focus on the most important goals, not only the urgent ones. It’s been said that when you focus on everything, you focus on nothing. We want to focus on the must-win battles that will ensure you win the war, the big fish you need to fry.
How OKRs allow for this: Limit the maximum number of objectives to five per team.
“If we can’t find things in our circle of competence, we don’t expand our circle. We wait.”
Be practical about the abilities and capacity in your organisation. There’s value in setting hairy goals, but not to the point of despondency. We typically overestimate what we can accomplish over the short term (quarter or year). If you’re aware of your biases, you can allow for them.
How OKRs allow for this: Firstly, aim for ~70% achievement of goals – enough to celebrate, not enough to encourage arrogance. Secondly, re-assess at the end of every cycle – How did we do? Were we too ambitious?
Not ambitious enough?
The way you communicate
Building trust without communication is impossible. Regular communication in the right format creates clarity about what we’re aiming for and transparency about what we’ve done.
“We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.”
Clearly define the expectation of “done” before you start. Ambiguity can kill implementation – remove ambiguity early on in order to accelerate execution. Implementation occurs when expectations are aligned.
How OKRs allow for this: OKRs are incredibly specific and clear about the business impact and use this (and not tasks) to manage the process.
“It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”
Be transparent even if you think it’s unnecessary. Transparency is not about naming and shaming. It’s about increasing communication, and therefore engagement – creating sincere dialogue and celebrating the wins. Sometimes it’s worth being transparent simply for the sake of transparency.
How OKRs allow for this: Publish goals publicly and talk about them in quarterly sessions – cloud-based tools make this significantly easier.
The commitments you make
Once it’s clear what will be achieved, two more commitments need to be made – who is accountable for the results, and what the deadline for the results are.
“If you want men to build a ship…teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Assign accountable individuals to every goal. Accountability is not only about clarity, it’s also about the social contract. Once accountability is agreed upon, it’s like a contract – it’s not dictated, but rather an agreement between two people.
How OKRs allow for this: Accountability is encouraged at a Key Result level, and absolutely required at an Objective level.
“I’ve never lost a game, I’ve just run out of time.”
Use deadlines to clarify possibilities, not to punish. When used correctly, urgency can drive innovation, which drives results.
How OKRs allow for this: Set a cadence – weekly, quarterly, annually – to define what will be delivered when.
The habits you create
Successes (in companies, teams and people) are not so much created by the goals pursued than it is by the consistency of that pursuit. Make monitoring and reflecting a consistent habit.
“I began to realize that my results had very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed.”
Monitor progress to encourage momentum. Although there’s value in writing down your goals, it’s well researched that goals within a system of regular monitoring are more often met than goals that are “set and forget.”
How OKRs allow for this: OKRs are an ongoing discipline with a regular cadence of check-ins and reflections scheduled from the outset.
“Don’t find fault, find a remedy. Anyone can complain.”
Reflect on the process and the achievement. Sometimes we win because we’re lucky; mostly we win because we followed a disciplined process. It’s important to know which is which, and ensure the process sets you up for success. We don’t learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on our experience.
How OKRs allow for this: At the end of (and possibly mid-way through) each cycle, pause to reflect before you reset your OKRs.
We hope that at least a few of these doctrines spark a thought that will ignite (or kindle) the fire of execution within your organisation. As with any principle, each doctrine contains numerous nuances and details that can (and should) be explored.