How to S-C-O-R-E with OKRs
Here are five principles to keep in mind if you hope to succeed with your OKRs implementation.
S is for Strategy: The first question you have to ask yourself when launching an OKRs program is: Why OKRs, and why now? Objectives and Key Results is a proven methodology used by a number of high profile organizations around the world, but that alone isn’t a sufficient rationale. Chances are, as you grapple with this question you’ll ultimately determine that you’re investing in OKRs because you want to more effectively execute your strategy. Which leads to another question: Do you really have a strategy? The OKRs that are created throughout your organization should ultimately help propel strategy execution, and to do so there must be a strategy in place to translate into OKRs. You could create OKRs without the benefit of a strategy to guide their development, but chances are what you’d produce is a collection of metrics designed to drive operational improvements. Enhancing efficiency is important, but at the end of the day it’s strategy that really matters. Do yourself a favor before creating any Os or KRs, and ensure you have a real strategy in place. One that clearly depicts your source of differentiation, has been widely communicated, and is well understood by all.
C is for Commitment: There are two types of commitment you’ll require. The first is executive commitment to, and sponsorship of, OKRs. Here’s one of my pet consulting peeves, and it comes into play more frequently in large organizations than small. A company will decide they want to launch OKRs and when they bring me in I’ll get some time with the executive team. But not much. In fact, I’m frequently granted a very short audience with the leadership team. Ostensibly this is because their time is valuable (which it is), and they have many important matters to discuss. The irony, however, is that the group that absolutely must understand what OKRs are, why they’re being rolled out, and how to use them effectively, is the one that gets the least bit of education on the topic. At least one member of your senior team must be an executive champion of the program, sponsoring the implementation in words and actions. Over time they will (hopefully) bring the rest of the team on board with the idea of OKRs as you begin to show results. The second type of commitment required is one of resources. If your organization is strapped for both human and financial resources – everyone is working two jobs and sitting gingerly on office chairs held together by duct tape – you’re in a substantial hole from the start. While OKRs can be implemented relatively modestly from a financial perspective, you will require someone to run the program internally, and of course require the “bandwidth” of those who will be creating OKRs. No easy task in today’s world of myriad competing demands for our attention.
O is for Ownership: This item is related to, but expands upon, our discussion of commitment. At the end of the day, someone in the organization must own the OKRs program. An executive will sponsor it, but it’s highly unlikely that person will be coordinating the process throughout the organization. You’ll need an internal champion who has the capabilities to foster the growth and development of OKRs. This person will be the in-house guide for all things OKRs. He or she will liaise with the executive team, facilitate workshops, drive OKRs communications, and lead the long-term planning that will ingrain OKRs into the fabric of the organization.
R is for Recent Performance: Is your company currently on a winning or losing streak? The answer can have a substantial impact on your readiness for, and success with, OKRs. One of the guiding attributes of OKRs is that they should stretch beyond ordinary thinking, pushing you past what you think is possible. If you’ve recently enjoyed success you’re well positioned to take on these sorts of goals because winning affects attitudes and behaviors positively.[i] Employees of firms that have tasted victory are more likely to sense opportunity, search for information, exhibit optimism, and embrace flexibility. All of which are traits necessary for achieving audacious OKRs. Conversely, employees of struggling companies are likely to view stretch goals defensively and pursue them in chaotic and ineffective ways. I’m not suggesting you don’t consider OKRs unless your stock is trading at an all-time high and employee engagement scores are through the roof. Just be cognizant of the fact that starting from a position of relative weakness may ratchet up the level of difficulty for your implementation. If you do find yourself in that position, it will be critical to vividly communicate the why of OKRs, and the benefits that await a successful implementation.
E is for Enabling Progress: What would you say motivates people most at work? Think about it for a minute, because the answer may surprise you. If you said making progress, even small wins, on work employees find meaningful, congratulations! You know more than 95 percent of managers around the world who cited that as dead last in a list of possible answers.[ii] This finding has big implications for the design of our OKRs. Whenever possible, you should strive to create key results that allow for steady progress to be made throughout the quarter. As teams, and individuals within teams, work each day and see the ball moving a bit farther down the field on something important to them it creates a virtuous cycle in which they’re even more motivated to maintain or even accelerate the progress they’re witnessing.
[i] Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller, and Kelly E. See, “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Harvard Business Review, January – February 2017.
[ii] See: Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work (Boston, MA., Harvard Business School Press, 2011).