Tips for making OKRs part of your DNA
Googlers often tell me, “we’ve used OKRs since we started… it’s part of our DNA.” But what if your company’s culture is already in place? How can OKRs become part of your DNA if your corporate culture is already established? Early in my OKRs journey, I felt that getting a software tool in place to manage OKRs was the critical step to making OKRs part of an organization’s DNA. However, I’m learning that while software can help, it’s certainly not the key requirement for creating a sustainable OKRs program. In fact, dedicated software is not the place to start. Several of my larger clients, that are doing quite well with OKRs, still do not have a dedicated OKR tool or they’ve created their own system. Many organizations that approach me already have purchased a dedicated OKRs software application, but they are struggling to get OKRs to become part of their DNA.*
My latest reflections on what makes OKRs become part of a company’s DNA includes the following:
- Executive Sponsorship
- Train OKRs Experts
- Align OKRs with a Facilitator
- Own Key Results
- Conduct a Mid-Quarter Review
1. Executive Sponsorship
Get buy-in at the top, right? As with any new initiative, your chances of success are much higher when leadership is driving the process. When a leadership team clearly presents company-level OKRs to articulate near-term strategic priorities, the organization is primed to begin using OKRs. Executive sponsorship alone does not ensure OKRs will be successfully sustained across the entire organization over the long haul. Starting at the top just provides the initial spark. It quickly gets workers thinking about OKRs. Let’s look at some steps organizations can take to ensure the spark catches fire.
2. Train OKRs Experts
Some organizations rely on managers to somehow magically know how to define great OKRs from the start. A small portion of leaders may not need any OKR training. These leaders have already used OKRs or simply have excellent critical thinking skills and know how to communicate effectively and ensure everyone on the team is helping shape the direction of the team. However, most teams benefit by having one or two OKR experts. An OKR expert simply knows how to recognize a high-quality OKR and how to ask basic questions that lead teams to effectively draft and refine their OKRs. One of my largest clients has found that teams with just one or two OKR experts are able to get OKRs to be part of their team’s DNA. Some of my clients refer to these experts as “OKR Ambassadors.” And, I’ve trained 100s of these ambassadors around the world. It’s amazing how quickly some people pick up this super-valuable skill set and serve as resources to support OKRs within their organizations.
3. Align OKRs with a Facilitator
Creating your team’s OKRs the first few times is no easy task. I’ve found that bringing in a neutral facilitator or “Naïve Coach” can make the process of drafting and refining OKRs better. This Naïve Coach is not an expert on the team’s work. Such a coach often asks basic questions that revisit the team’s most basic assumptions, forcing everyone to take a step back. It is often challenging to facilitate OKRs creation when the facilitator is part of the same team.
- Roles get blurry. The coach may got lost in details and even start suggesting Key Results.
- A team leader helping their own team may want to steer OKRs in a way that reflects their own thinking.
- When a team member plays the facilitator role, the team loses input of a valuable team member. This facilitator is focused on facilitation, not providing input.
Moreover, getting an OKR Expert from outside the team to help facilitate OKRs drafting may be the best option. It’s risky to leave it up to the team lead or an internal team member to facilitate the OKRs drafting.
4. Own Key Results
It often makes sense to simply have the team lead state the OKRs for the team when first getting started with OKRs. Remember, the team lead needs to get the green light from a supervisor before finalizing the OKRs, and team members often learn best about OKRs simply by getting started right away. You can manage expectations by referring to this first quarter as a “learning quarter.” During this learning quarter, it’s a top-down OKR-setting process by design to start and the team lead can communicate that it will be more bottoms-up after everyone’s familiar with OKRs.
The next Quarter, the team lead should specify the Objectives and 1-2 Key Results for each Objective without adding scores. The team can then brainstorm additional Key Results and add scoring. This mix of bottom-up and top-down OKR creation drives ownership.
Organizations that are successful with OKRs often assign a single owner to each Key Result. This owner is not the only team member impacting the Key Result.
The owner simply is responsible for knowing the status of the Key Result. Team members as well as workers on other teams know who owns each Key Result. So, everyone knows who to contact with ideas for impacting the Key Result or with questions about the latest status of the Key Result.
5. Conduct a Mid-Quarter Review
Consider a formal, mid-quarter OKR review. Even just one “OKR check-in” will help you avoid the “set-it-and-forget-it” problem. Failing to review goal progress is inherent, not only in the traditional annual goal-setting models, but also with early-stage OKR implementations where some organizations simply set-it-and-forget-it each quarter rather than each year.
For the mid-quarter review, learn from my mistakes! Do a dry-run. For a companywide review, it’s worth going through a dry run of mid-Quarter OKR content with several key players prior to review with the larger group. The format isn’t too important as long as it is communicated to everyone clearly upfront. For example, if you have 10 teams who need to present their OKRs, advise that each team can take six minutes and will be cut off at 12 minutes. This ensures the meeting does not run over two hours. I just don’t believe meetings should go over two hours!
You may also have each team start with the Key Result they are most proud of so far so they can start off on a high note. Then, require that each team presents one or two Key Results where things are not going so well. For example, they might realize a Key Result is obsolete, too dependent on another team, or conflicts with other priorities. Quite often, the team just knows they will not make progress on a certain Key Result this Quarter. In such cases, they can clearly alert the company now, rather than waiting until the Quarter’s over.
To make OKRs part of your DNA, you’ll want to make sure you have executive sponsorship, trained OKR experts spread throughout the organization, access to an OKR expert outside the team to facilitate OKRs drafting sessions, a plan for getting individual contributors to help define and score Key Results, and a mid-Quarter Review. Assigning an owner for each Key Result can also get team members more involved in the OKR process as each owner knows they are responsible for monitoring progress on a Key Result.
* My OKRs colleague, Christina Wodtke, recently wrote “Getting Started with OKRs” where she refers to Gartner’s Hype Curve. I suspect many organizations purchase dedicated OKRs software as they are approaching the “Peak of Expectations.” As I, and others, have noted elsewhere, I highly recommend evaluating OKRs software tools only after using OKRs for a couple cycles (roughly 6 months). Doing so will enable you to clearly define your requirements prior to committing to a specific tool.
If you’re trying to make OKRs part of your organization’s DNA, please contact me to set up an intro.