Does this sound familiar? You and your leadership team gather to set annual goals. After vigorous debate, various forms of the mission, vision, values, strategy, goals, objectives, target KPIs and the plan are documented. A presentation to the rest of the team is made and the company is excited there is a plan, and ready to go.
Two weeks later…no one can find the shared docs with the strategy, goals, objectives, etc. The individual departments put together their plan with the best information they have, but still prioritize day-to-day work over strategic goals.
Two weeks after that…KPIs and product/feature delivery dates are all anyone talks about. Company executives stare at shared spreadsheets or dashboards in meetings and ask things such as: “Why are leads off track?” or “Is the new product really going to be delivered in time for the launch?” or “What’s going on with our churn rate?”
Two weeks later…Oh crap! Our funnel metrics are off, let’s put together a plan. PANIC sets in. A committee or task force is formed to resolve issues, a War Room concept is established, but no one knows what the heck that is.
Now it’s the end of quarter, somehow you struggle through it, and everyone seems roughly content with the progress that’s been made on all fronts. A general sense of organized chaos remains, but you’re not sure why or how to solve it.
Rinse, repeat. Or not.
You could unbreak the process. How?
Naturally, I recommend the Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) methodology popularized by Intel, Facebook, Google, etc. And…recently reinvigorated by John Doerr’s book: Measure What Matters. The OKR methodology has gained traction as a de-facto standard in some industries. The core difference between OKRs and other goal setting methodologies is that OKRs are frequently set, tracked, and re-evaluated – usually quarterly. OKR is a simple, fast-cadence process that engages each team’s perspective and creativity. Creating alignment in the company is one of the main OKR benefits. The goal is to ensure everyone is going in the same direction, with clear priorities, in a constant rhythm.
But…rolling out OKRs isn’t as easy as it seems.
And chances are you only have a small percentage of employees who understand the methodology well. For this work, however, everyone needs to understand it, and to accomplish your goals, your whole company needs to embrace the following steps:
Goal Management Best Practices
- Identify a Champion Who Owns the Process
- Develop a Playbook to Define the Purpose and Provide Clarity
- Cascade Goals Top-Down, While Supporting OKRs From the Bottom-up
- Emphasize the Why In Addition to the How of Your Goals
- Set the Right Cadence for Both Planning and Performance
- Drive Innovation (And Embrace Failure)
Step 1: Identify a Champion who Owns the Process
We feel strongly in imbuing a single person-you might call them the OKR champion-with owning the process itself. This is a different role than who’s accountable for actually delivering your objectives and key results. This corresponds with crafting a playbook (see Step 2 below), and once you’ve decided how you’re gonna incorporate goals into your meetings, its identifying the person who is going to ensure that process is followed, done well and best practices are maintained. This person would format, coach, provide a champion mentality around doing the process well and educating people around that playbook.
There are some practitioners we’ve met who believe that this role can be left to the managers. But we would argue that the manager has so much going on that it’s not realistic to expect them to become an OKR expert. Yes, they need to have a working knowledge of the OKRs they’re working in. But, what we’ve seen work time and time again, is that when there is a champion, or coach who has an embedded degree of expertise in the organization, they know what comes next, and by owning the playbook, they’re able to own the process as well.
Step 2: Develop a Playbook to Define the Purpose and Provide Clarity
In order to make sure that everyone is on the same page across the company, we encourage you to develop a playbook. Doing so involves delineating how you’re going to use OKRs in your organization, because there are multiple ways of interpreting and applying them. For example, there are a lot of questions when people hear the term objectives and key results if they’re not familiar with them. It can also cause a lot of anxiety in people if they’ve only come across these terms in relation to performance management. Time and time again, the first question we get asked is, how does this affect my pay? How does this affect my focus? How does this affect my promotion prospects? If the answers to those questions are clear, and people are also clear on policy, you can preempt such early signs of resistance by addressing them in the playbook. It’s the first step in your change management process.
One of the things we talk about with our customers is the importance of being thoughtful about where you introduce your goals or OKR discussion into the cadence of your regular meetings. This may occur at your weekly staff meetings, where you make sure that you not only talk about what’s happening tactically, but reserve it a chunk of time to have a conversation about your goals and that bigger strategic picture. What’s important from a change management point of view, is that you’ve got a far better chance of success if you’re trying to integrate your process into what already exists, as opposed to laying something new on top of what’s already there.
Further, without that clear vision and strategy in place, it becomes much more difficult. Well, actually impossible for people to correctly align. Where are they going to get that sense of purpose from? Because that purpose comes from alignment and purpose. So without that vision and strategy, we will not actually develop OKRs. It’s absolutely fundamental though. Look, 85 percent of respondents we talked to said they wanted to use OKRs to improve the alignment of the business. That’s a huge amount. But you have to have the vision and the strategy crystal clear if they’re going to improve alignment.
We also want to reference the importance of clear communication. What we see time and time again is that teams who live and breathe the development of vision statements, strategies, plans and priorities, instinctively get it because they live and breathe it day by day. But this can often create a blind spot because they can fall into the trap of thinking that whatever they’re communicating instinctively gets to the point. As you’re documenting, double check that you’re using simple and easy to understand language as you create your objectives and define your problems?”
One piece of pragmatic advice we’d like to give is, if there’s an acronym that’s part of your objective, can you not use that acronym? It’s possible that every single person in your organization will have a context that the executive team does to understand what you’re saying, but it’s just as likely they will not and it’s much easier to understand what you write down if the purpose is to clearly drive alignment.
Step 3: Cascade Goals Top-Down, While Supporting OKRs From the Bottom-up
In terms of what already exists, you must address the planning cycle itself, the challenges around actually setting goals and what you can run into there. So, first is the topic of goal cascading. And this involves having a simultaneous top down and bottom-up goal setting process, where you end up with something that looks a little bit more like a network of goals rather than a hierarchy or a tree structure. One of the absolutely fundamental principles of an OKR system is that they’re ideally used to empower, not constrain. However we see organizations where achieving an OKR becomes the objective of the next OKR down. We also see how the OKRs have been literally bolted together and that becomes difficult to work with. You want your system to provide guidance, context and direction, all the parameters in which everything else should then work. But then you must allow teams or the functions to develop their own goals off the back of them. Obviously there’s got to be some negotiation and sign-off, but you’re not dictating what their OKR should be. Instead, you’re allowing these teams some freedom and empowering them. The message is we trust you to go away and have a go at drafting these on your own.
If a team is inspired by the top level organization or company goals, as well as the departmental objectives, one question you might ask is: how aligned should their objectives and results be with higher level objectives and key results versus a set of objectives and key results that aren’t necessarily aligned. Is there any standard to know they’re doing this right? Said differently, when are you not aligned enough and when are you too aligned?
If you’re an company that is keen to innovate, you allow people the chance to go off and try new ideas, test out new thinking and whatever those projects might be. They might not necessarily have a direct line of sight to the top level goals for this particular period. However, when somebody is asking for some time and some resources to go and focus on something, there isn’t any harm integrating that with an OKR and ensuring that it stays within the review process, maps with the key company goals, anticipates key pinch points and provides for regular cadence of discussion, a check-in and some ability to track it.
Which is to say, it doesn’t necessarily have to align, but there needs to be a degree of governance around that to make sure somebody’s not running a little cottage industry of their own, which is never going to produce any benefit for the business.
Want to know what to do next? Part II will be published next week with the remaining steps.
Matt Tucker is CEO of Koan.co, a free software for aligning your business goals and tracking OKRs.