Last week, I introduced the concept of OKRs, a goal system widely used by organizations like Google and Intel but it’s also very applicable to small businesses. Hey, we use it on our 8 person team. For Steps 1-3, read Part I here with the remaining steps below.
Step 4: Emphasize the Why In Addition to the How
Properly written key results can empower autonomy. One of the first things you see is that the key results of the early stages are written as tasks. And all people are doing is tracking activity. They’re not tracking the outcome. If you’re just writing a list of activities that you’re going to complete, that leaves no room for autonomy or empowerment. But what if instead, you state what the finish point is and allow people to work at how they get to it? So long as they do it,and don’t cause any harm to anyone or anything along the way, then where’s the problem? What the message in this is, “you know, I trust you. I chose you because you’ve got skills, capability and knowledge, which I value. So, I’m trusting you to use it.”
One of the biggest challenges for organizations that are embracing a key results concept for the first time is it just feels natural to make a key result being the list of tasks because that’s how we approach it. A lot of goals and our personal approach tends to be identifying what you want to do and listing out the things you need to work on in order to achieve that. Obviously an OKR framework proposes something quite different. Instead of saying, “here’s what we’re going to do,” it becomes, “here’s how we’re going to measure whether we’ve achieved that outcome.” And that’s a pretty big challenge the first time you tackle it. It gets easier though.
It also takes time. It’s generally around nine months before organizations start to consistently see outcome focus and key results. We hope it feels obvious, but we would issue a challenge to set less goals. If you can do that, then that’s gonna at least kick off this process, not make it too heavy and allow you to go on a journey of setting better key results over time.
Step 5: Set the Right Cadence for Both Planning and Performance
Now let’s dig into the challenge of the planning cycle. There are a number of interesting topics to talk about around OKRs and planning cycles. And in particular, seeking to understand what the right frequency of goal setting is. There’s almost a default of, hey, this is always a quarterly business process, but a lot of organizations and teams struggle with that. Maybe we should be doing this yearly. Or every six months?
So, one of the planning cycle challenges is not having enough rigor around when a planning cycle begins and ends. And so therefore you find yourself, a week, two weeks or three weeks into the next quarter and you haven’t gotten to our goals, your OKR is locked-down and now you all feel like you’re behind. On the other hand, how do you execute a planning cycle, before the last quarter ends and then the next one starts? Because we see organizations focused on delivering by the end of the first quarter and they forget to actually prepare for the next quarter. This is where it really pays dividends to have regular check-ins both in terms of progress, but also confidence, around completing that objective or key result by the end of the period.
What we encourage is to do retrospectives at the end of each cycle. Ask yourself, was this the right cycle? Was this right for us? One example is an organization who did a retrospective at the end of the first 12 months of planning. They decided that they wanted to have a complete month of downtime at the start of the next year to give themselves enough space to breathe, to plan, to work out what the next 12 months would look like, and to design OKRs that ensured people were aligned. They made that first cycle just two months, and that’s fine, they’re not breaking a rule or doing it wrong. What they’re doing is adapting it to their organizational culture. And as long as you don’t lose sight of the fundamental principles of your OKRs (and once you’ve learned the lessons that apply to your organization), adapt them for yourselves.
And when you have progress you can use that data to help inform your predictions about where you might finish. Obviously one of the perspectives that we have as an organization is this is a place where software can come in and really help with those types of disciplines and make it easy for teams to follow the process.
Step 6: Drive Innovation (And Embrace Failure)
We also run into addressing how to identify goals in relation to performance management. People say, “we like the idea of having metrics associated with our objectives. But you know, we’ve always had this culture of linking the goals to pay and promotions.” And this is perhaps one of the most sensitive aspects of what we talk about, because what do you want to use OKR for? If you’re looking to use OKRs to drive innovation in particular, and if you’re looking to use them to help really drive growth, but drive growth through trying new things, finding new ideas, going in new directions, you can’t expect that to be successful 100 percent of the time.
You want people to come up with that crazy idea and within some parameters, give it a try. People are not going to feel confident enough, safe enough to do that if they know that if they fail, if they miss or if they don’t achieve 100 percent, then their pay or bonus or promotion is at risk. People will play it safe and you’ll end up with mediocre average results. So to some degree that’s what they’ve achieved. But you can also focus on what they failed on, and what they did as a result of that failure. For example, how did they adapt? It’s what we call Adaptive Performance, which is widely regarded now as the aspect of performance and individual’s performance that sets them apart from their peers. People get that a tactical performance is the focus on the numbers or focus on targets, on budgets and so on and so forth. But it’s adaptive performance, which is about the ability to be creative and resilient. That’s what’s important. If they fail at something, how quickly have they bounced back, what have they learned and how have they applied that learning?
Ultimately, how to do this is to think about it as a business process that is designed and ideally written out into that playbook. Second, to identify an owner that is responsible for the whole organization. And to put it in a context, what you’re trying to achieve as an organization is to align the process with your purpose and your values, so that you’re actually unlocking the alignment and the drive, hopefully as the reason you’re putting a goals process in place in the first place. Working parallel with your values is a fantastic way for organizations, or for people, to demonstrate the organization’s values, as well as how values are the building blocks of the culture. Prior to this, maybe the culture didn’t promote open and honest discussion. It didn’t feel safe enough to have that conversation. And so you couldn’t say, “I’m not so confident we’re going to hit this by the end of the quarter.”
So, don’t underestimate the change that OKRs represent and make sure that you’ve managed the change so that people are well communicated with and feel supported through the change. Also, give people the chance to try it on and work out for themselves so that they’re not being dictated to.
Finally, what’s the one thing you can focus on to make sure that OKRs are successful?
It’s the regular practice of reflections. This is how high performance is achieved. It doesn’t happen by accident. It doesn’t happen by chance, it’s achieved through routines and rituals. Plain and simple.
Matt Tucker is CEO of Koan.co, a free software for aligning your business goals and tracking OKRs.