Tips for OKRs Coaches

I recently detailed my journey into OKRs coaching and reflected on how much I enjoy being an OKRs coach.  And it’s true, I really like using the OKRs framework as a way to work directly with my clients.  However, as I look back on 2019 and prepare for 2020, I find myself collaborating more and more with other OKRs coaches around the world.  This collaborative coaching approach feels exciting.  I feel like there is unlimited potential.  In 2019, I met with about thirty OKRs coaches to informally share tips and exchange learnings.  In several cases, I collaborated on actual client engagements with coaches as far away as India and Africa.

In addition to working directly with my clients as an OKRs coach, I am making it my 2020 New Year’s Resolution to formalize my work with OKRs coaches around the world.  Now is the time to scale the OKRs coaching model as demand for OKRs coaching continues to grow exponentially.

I see two major reasons for the increased demand in OKRs coaching:

1) The Book! Doerr’s book, Measure What Matters, is a big deal.

2) It Works! OKRs coaching from an OKRs expert outside your company is surprisingly valuable.  As one of my early coachees, Wayne Eckerson, observed, “I forgot how valuable it is to take a step back and re-assess what I’m doing and why.”

I am currently testing out a beta OKRs certification program with a group of close to 20 OKRs coaches around the world.  Sid Ghatak, a certified OKRs coach on my team, is helping coordinate this program with as there is no way I can make this happen on my own.  Sid was my first OKRs client back in 2013 and we worked with OKRs together even before then.  When Sid and I announced the OKRs certification program on the OKRs.com site to assess interest level, we immediately confirmed the demand was there.  In fact, the number of inbound requests for information about our OKRs coach certification program more than doubled our total inbound leads!

After just one month of interviewing potential OKRs coaches, we closed our beta program.  Keeping the group small will ensure we get to know each coach and will enable us to optimize learning.  Once we confirm the program is working well, we will explore expanding the OKRs certification program.  In addition, we will introduce the OKRs Coaching Network for those looking to take their OKRs coaching skills to the next level, but do not want to commit to a demanding OKRs certification process.

Unlike most prior posts, this post is intended to include comments from OKRs.com certified coaches like Dikran, Karen and Sid as well as tips from OKRs coaches in our beta program.   Sid and I will kickoff the conversation by sharing our big 3 tips for OKRs coaching.  We invite you to add on or ask questions about these tips using the comments below!

 

3 Tips for an OKRs Coach, Ben Lamorte

(fine print: I reserve the right to add more tips!)

  1. ALIGN ON AGENDA:  Be 100% clear on the agenda before you show up at an onsite training with your client.  In fact, you may want to align on the “OKR for the Onsite Workshop” before you show up.  I will provide sample OKRs for OKRs workshops in the upcoming OKRs Fieldbook.  If you’d like to be on the list to get a preview copy of this book, please click here to make your request.
  2. START WITH MISSION AND ALIGNMENT CHECK:  When coaching your client through the process of drafting team-level OKRs, it is tempting to jump right into objectives.  However, it surprises me how valuable it is to take the time to develop a team-level mission and performing a quick alignment check before drafting objectives.  For more on this, refer to the 7 Steps for Team-Level OKRs.
  3. STICK TO YOUR DEPLOYMENT PLAN:  One of my recent clients embraced my recommended pre-scoring system whereby each KR is written as an amazing outcome with the .3/commit and .7/target added below the KR.  You can see an example of this key result scoring model here.  However, one team wanted to write their key results as “commit” with the .7/target and 1.0/amazing scoring levels added below the KR.  In other words, they wanted to lead with the committed level of progress rather than leading with the aspirational outcome as defined in our deployment parameter for pre-scoring.   As the OKRs coach, I allowed this one team to do break the mold for a few key results.  Several other teams started breaking this rule as well!  My OKRs project lead gave me clear feedback that giving teams flexibility was not a good move.  By letting some teams write KRs as commit and other teams write KRs as amazing, we created confusion.  The learning was that we needed as standard approach for defining and scoring key results.  Thus, the tip for the OKRs coach is to keep your deployment parameters simple and stick to them.  For example, if you agree that each team needs to set missions as context before the define OKRs, enforce this practice. Your client is looking for you to make the OKRs program consistent even if it is not totally optimal for everyone.  An effective OKRs coach ensures their client completes a cycle or two with strict deployment parameters in place before even exploring possible changes.

Sid Ghatak, OKRs.com Certified Coach3 Tips for an OKRs Coach, Sid Ghatak

Hello OKRs coaches!  I am going to share three tips from a single OKRs coaching engagement.  Most our coaching engagements run about 6-8 months so we can coach our clients through two complete OKRs cycles.  One of my recent clients, a tech company based in Canada, expanded our coaching program to a full year.  So, I took some time to write up a case study with Ben to capture learnings along the way.  As I reflected on the lessons learned over my year of coaching with this one client, I identified three tips to share with OKRs coach colleagues.

  1. Train before OKRs Cycle Coaching:  Ensure that everyone who will be creating OKRs has been through the training.  As with all our coaching programs, we planned to complete training with each team before getting started with the OKRs cycle.  I thought we were on track with our training workshops going well and naturally leading teams to begin drafting their OKRs.  However, when some executives asked their staff to create OKRs without any training, the result was not good.  We had to put in quite a bit of time reworking and editing what they created.  We addressed this issue in the second cycle by explicitly requiring everyone complete training prior to drafting their OKRs.  The process went faster and produced higher-quality OKRs right from the start!
  2. Avoid temptation to “copy and paste” from Top-Level:  Get team leads to act as if they are the CEO of their organization.  Put in some hard work upfront to create OKRs for each team rather than adopting Top-Level objectives or key results.  Ownership was only achieved when each group created their OKRs that related to the company OKRs using their own words.  When the company OKRs were simply translated and carved up, there was no ownership and follow through.  For example, if a top-level Objective is “Improve employee engagement,” that does not mean that each team needs an objective to improve their team’s engagement.  Some teams might already be highly engaged, so this can be treated more as a health metric.  However, some team leads may simply use the top-level objective as their objective.  Similarly, they might try to copy a top-level KR and turn that into their team-level O.  This approach may work in certain cases, but it should not be done by default.
  3. First, get OKRs working, then get an OKRs tool: Ben said these exact words to me a few times.  But I’m a tech guy myself, so I didn’t really follow his advice.  After working dozens of OKRs projects, I advise you avoid using a formal tool when first getting started with OKRs if possible.  In this particular engagement, the dedicated OKRs software program (I’d rather not name it here) had limitations.  There was a substantial amount of time spent getting the software tool to be match our deployment parameters.  In some cases, features had to be ignored or modified so that it could be useful.  This created confusion and actually led the EMEA region to opt out of the OKRs program.  Had we been able to complete an OKRs cycle or two using a Google Sheet or an Excel spreadsheet, we would have made more rapid progress.  With a dedicated tool, the OKRs are nicely displayed and there are cool features such as automated alerts to update KR status each week.  However, we would have been better off defining our OKRs and focusing on what makes OKRs effective before making them look good.  Bottom line advice to OKRs coaches: If your client already has purchased an OKRs software tool, consider taking some time to define deployment of the OKRs program, complete OKRs training and even a full OKRs cycle before moving OKRs into the dedicated software solution.

 

10 Comments

  1. Mukom Tamon

    I’m Mukom Tamon and I’ve been doing OKRs since 2016. I introduced and run OKRs in my team for 1 year without information management (and lived to tell the tale 😉

    Here’s what I’ve learnt coaching my team since then.

    1. At the team level, company mission and vision might be too vague. Instead, start by modelling the team around what people actually do. I’ve done this using the SIPOC canvas and business model canvases

    2. Identify the ways by which the team’s work is measured — measures, metrics, KPIs etc

    3. Take the KPIs that are suffering and make them into Key Results

    Reply
    • Ben Lamorte

      Mukom,
      Love the idea of taking the KPIs that are suffering and making them into KRs.
      I’m curious to learn more about the SIPOC canvas as this appears to be a useful tool for setting context before jumping into OKRs. And, creating a strategic context for OKRs is quite important. So, any approach that helps create context is worth a look.

      Question: have you ever ran into a situation in which there was no KPI to measure progress of an important objective? In other words, have you ever needed to create a “baseline key result”?

      Reply
  2. Paul Barker

    *Beware the second-cycle-black-hole*
    Fairly simple. When you start out training to run a marathon, it’s exciting. The shoes are new, the routine is fresh. But you hit a training drag a few weeks in – you haven’t seen enough progress, and the effort you’ve put in isn’t commensurate to the results. But you will only know the real “runner’s high” when you push through. And from experience, we know it’s better on the other side!
    The same will happen with your OKR implementation. The first cycle is fresh and exciting. But by the second or third cycle, the clients “haven’t seen enough progress, and the effort they’ve put in isn’t commensurate to the results”. As a coach, give them the assurance to trust the process. We’ve seen this movie before.

    *You’ll become a master through meditation, not through mistakes*
    There’s a lot of sayings to the likes of “we learn from our mistakes/failures, not from our successes” or something similar. I’d like to add to that and say that if you neglect meditating on your mistakes, you won’t learn from them – you’ve made a mistake but have no idea why.
    Don’t neglect the reflect sessions in the OKR cycle. You want to optimise the process continually; the only way to achieve that is to reflect on what you’ve done. We’ve seen a lot of clients who are so eager to get into the next cycle that they feel reflecting is a waste of time. I’d submit it to your consideration that I believe these sessions provide some of the best return on effort in the cycle.

    *People above purpose. Always.*
    We can get so consumed with goal setting that we neglect people during that process. However, if we go back to first principles, the reason that we set goals (OKRs) is to change behaviour in the organisation. If you’re simply writing down a set of OKR that you’re already doing, it adds a layer of administration and absolutely no value.
    And change management, in turn, is about the people. As a coach, you’re the one that will need to bring the objective lens to let the organisation realise they’re trying to do to much – even if they’re able to get something done, do the individuals, the people, have the emotional capacity to deal with all the change? During an engagement with one client – they had 5 teams, with 5 objectives for each team – it was an “aha” moment they realised they’re trying to make 25 changes to their organisation every quarter. Even IF they achieve this, it’ll leave the organisation (i.e. the people) spinning at the end of every quarter. We’ve cut that down to 1 objective per team – let’s see how that works out!

    Reply
  3. Omid Akhavan

    Hello everyone, my name is Omid and I’ve been working with Ben & OKRs.com since mid-2019. I have helped small to large companies implement or improve their OKR framework.

    You may be an OKR Coach already, someone who would like to be one or maybe someone who’s just curious. Regardless, based on my experience, I have 3 fundamental tips that are actually very critical to be handled properly right from the beginning of an OKR engagement. I will add more (advanced) tips later on here or in Ben’s upcoming (field)book.

    1- In my opinion, the main controversial point about OKRs (and one of the biggest challenges when implementing it) is the relationship between OKRs and performance evaluation (specifically bonuses and incentives). You probably know that the best practice is not to link OKRs directly to bonus/incentives (make sure you know why), yet it’s recommended to integrate them (indirectly) with the company’s performance evaluation framework. When this topic comes up, you will be asked tons of questions from everyone…employees, executives, HR, etc. So before it comes up, you need to figure out how exactly OKRs are gonna be linked with the company’s performance evaluation framework and make sure HR and executives are onboard with it. Hey, I am not saying it’s easy, it may actually be the toughest part of OKR implementation, so make it a high priority right from the start.

    2- Clarify what’s the exact difference between KPIs and OKRs (and even strategic/annual goals), how these work together and how they complement each other. Ideally, you want to make sure KPIs are defined and understood first and that the company knows the true meaning of these 3 words (key, performance, indicators) and their combination very well. After all, every KR has some sort of metric in it which may include one or more KPIs. Then ask for the company goals (and strategies) and/or sit with the executives to define at least the annual ones for the next 12 months and how they relate to KPIs. Once these steps are done, you could comfortably focus on OKRs. Almost all clients get confused about these 3 and couldn’t quite understand how to handle them at the same time. Folks typically don’t get it in the first shot so you have to be patient and reiterate it in various training and coaching sessions.

    3- Another issue that often comes up is about the scope of OKRs and more importantly “why” OKRs. Companies typically think that every individual should have OKRs all the time. One reason is that they would like to use OKRs as an HR tool to evaluate their employees (I see this a lot). Hence, before even thinking about OKR implementation, companies should know “why” exactly they would like to implement OKRs and you need to help them understand it clearly and maybe even change their mind (about using OKRs at all) if they want OKRs for the wrong reasons. Then make sure you have answers to these “scope” questions: Should all individuals have OKRs or we should stop at team level? Should all departments/teams have OKRs in every cycle? What if company OKRs are not (directly) linked to a specific department? In large companies how many levels (down from company level) should have OKRs?

    Reply
  4. Mulyadi Oey

    Please allow me to share a note that has served me and my team well in our multi-year journey to become OKR coaches.

    *Start small* — especially when you are just starting out this exciting journey as an OKR coach.

    Coaching a group of 5 people is very different compared to 10 people. Coaching 3 teams _simultaneously_ to build their (weekly or bi-weekly) cadence is very different from doing it _sequentially_ (team A first, then team B, then team C). All these different configurations require us coaches to adapt promptly. And, it will be easier when you’re dealing with a group. (Easier, not easy!)

    Together with my team, we have benefited from this start-small approach. We first started our 6-month engagement as OKR coaches for 4 (functional) teams. Now, we are selected to coach a newly established company with 40+ (cross-department, agile) teams, in a much longer engagement period.

    The learning points we had acquired during our earlier and smaller engagement proved to be valuable. From a more tactical one such as training on how to maintain OKR dashboard*, to a strategical endeavor e.g. internal narrative that OKR is a leadership exercise, not a mere HR exercise. We’re thriving with our larger engagement because we had earnestly gone through those hours and days, learning as a coach.

    *We used Google Sheet as the OKR dashboard. Thank you Sid for your tip no.3 on this.

    Becoming a valuable OKR coach requires time and support. Thus, I am glad Ben and Sid with other OKR coaches around the globe are building this network and its supporting program.

    Reply
  5. Karen Schroeder

    Three Tips for an OKRs Coach, Karen Schroeder

    1. Help them understand the Critical Thinking Framework

    A major factor driving the success of the OKRs is the quality of the critical thinking that takes place when writing them, especially the Key Results. Companies have a thousand indicators floating around and they tend to think they can just use the ones they have and skip the work of thinking through what metrics would truly demonstrate that they are driving toward the outcomes they have identified as areas of highest priority. The coach must help them take a step back and get them to discuss what they are focused on, why that is important and why it is the highest priority at this point in time, how they can achieve that outcome and how they can measure that progress. Absent a great deal of prompting, they tend to default to mental pathways that are well-trodden, decisions they have already taken about tasks and indicators they are comfortable using. Clients know at some level that they are seeking help because old ways of thinking haven’t been as productive as they would like, but breaking those habits is hard. The role of the coach is to help them find new ways of thinking about their priorities, see alternatives for reaching those goals and document them with metrics that truly measure progress toward outcomes.

    2. Persuade them to use real metrics

    I am always surprised at how weak the metrics are that even engineers tend to use. Quite a large proportion of my clients are software engineers and despite that, I regularly have to repeat that a metric should measure some form of progress along a trajectory from x to y. Most often, the problem is getting them to state their current starting point, even though that is vital. There is no way to know how aspirational a key result is if it is impossible to assess the size of the gap between where they currently are and where they want to go. In fact, the gap may be huge, small or even non-existent. I had a client that was very focused on the metric of employee engagement, which I agreed was a great thing to measure and improve. We were in the process of nailing down their key result on this subject when I realised they didn’t have a baseline in the metric. They wanted to get to 90% employee satisfaction, but hadn’t documented what the current status was. When I asked about their baseline, they were very pleased to be able to tell me that they had done the work on that and they had a survey with a final score. They pulled up the survey and it turned out they had already reached 94% employee satisfaction! As a result, we all agreed that they were already outperforming their KR and should move this to their health metrics to be monitored, but further improvement was not needed.

    3. Steer them away from putting their whole work programme into the Key Results

    Following on from the previous example, there is good reason to have ‘health metrics’ or some other set of indicators for aspects of the team’s responsibilities that are not currently in need of improvement. They need to be able to continue to monitor those parts of their work that will not be OKRs or they will try to get everything they do represented in a key result. I had one client with a team that was not represented in the OKRs at all and was therefore concerned that they would be considered a lower priority. I think they were worried that their budget might be cut because not having an OKR meant that they were unimportant. We set up a health metric that was directly related to the objective and visible to the senior management team and that gave them the visibility they needed to accept that not having a key result was, in this case, actually a compliment. But the concern remains real and team members whose work is not reflected in an OKR may easily feel that they could be overlooked or considered less necessary to the success of the company. The coach should help both the teams and senior management understand that parts of the team or the company that are not currently directly involved in an OKR could become part of one in a future period and that work outside the OKR process is also vital to the company’s success.

    Reply
  6. Rodrigo Garib

    In my second experience as a OKR coach I worked with a holding company. The objectives were clear, but we struggle a lot trying to agree on the KRs, basically because holding company
    • Does not really impact directly on the business.
    • Is responsible for many different operations/businesses, so trying to focus its very difficult.
    • Tends to think on annual goals not quarterly based.

    We end up just defining global objectives at a holding level (no KRs), so each business unit set their OKRs related to those. We also accepted to have dual cadence, having one annual objective with quarterly KRs. These decisions allow as to move forward and start our first cycle.

    I found that allowing a dual cadence it’s a good alternative in many cases, specially at the first cycles, when top leaders are unable to break down their goals, because they either are used to work on annual bases, or they had committed with the board with an annual goal that they are afraid not to achieve if it’s not explicit along the way.

    It was not easy to understand this so I consulted with Sid and Ben who gave me great advice. I’ll share with you how this worked out as soon as we finished the first cycle. I hope this can be useful for other coaches.

    Reply
    • Ben Lamorte

      Rodrigo,
      Thanks for this critical tip. In summary, be careful when defining the “TOP LEVEL” for OKRs. In a Holding Company, the Top-Level OKRs is simply the sum of the OKRs for each entity. Thus, we do not set OKRs at the Holding Company Level. We wind up with a “Top-Level” for each entity. I’m so glad that our conversation helped clarify this and that the approach is working in the field. Well done!

      Reply
  7. Bryan Sergeant

    *GET SENIOR BUY-IN AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE*

    Securing the buy-in of the most senior management is as important as that of the people that’re leading and running an OKR project itself – ideally from the outset.

    *IF you get their support:*
    Your project team will be more supported and more motivated
    The main opportunity is, of course, that the person with a broad view across the company will see the powerful impact that a well run OKRs process can have on their business. From this they’re likely to seek to replicate that across other areas of the business, thus amplifying the positive impact of OKRs.

    *IF you don’t get their support:*
    The senior folk may, inadvertently or deliberately, torpedo the project. They may redirect resources to other projects or interrupt the weekly check-ins or cast a shadow over the whole project if they don’t see the benefit that can result
    Without realising why or how, if you don’t secure good senior buy-in and interest at the outset, your OKR project may not perform as well as it could.

    *HOW to get Senior support:*
    > Get an introductory meeting to the most senior person possible
    — Ask your contacts if they can arrange for you to meet the most senior person that’s connected with their business – all the way up to CEO if possible (citing the above reasons)
    — When you meet them, introduce yourself briefly (no long stories) and mention some credibility-building points (the name of a respected company that you’ve worked with or the number of OKR projects you’ve led / coached – whichever conveys the most appropriate view)
    — Keep it short, avoid giving a chronology of your career and don’t exaggerate any claims
    — Position OKRs as a solution to challenges and a method of bringing people together to drive improvements. Express OKRs as a practical, quick and sustainable way to define and deploy changes for better results that are based on the organisation’s overall goals and that will galvanise front line staff into pulling together.
    — Try not to position OKRs as a panacea to cure all their ills… setting unrealistic expectations may hurt you later-on
    — If it’s appropriate, make the point that the OKR process, once learned by their staff, can be used over and again to continually drive improvements – positioning it that they won’t need external consultants for ever but that your coaching is important to set them on the right path and support their new ways of working
    — Position yourself as a coach. You’re there to help them succeed, to pass on tried-and-tested skills and to provide objective feedback – being an ‘external’ person gives you the advantage of seeing things from a different perspective and also bring experience from other projects
    > Ask open and directional questions so that you can learn as much as possible about the context into which the OKRs are going to operate
    — Open questions require more than a yes or no reply. They usually start with “What…”, “How…” or “Why…”
    > Listen carefully to what they say… there’ll be clues about their challenges that may help you guide their first OKR experience
    > Don’t forget to show respect and deference… it’s quite possibly their budget that’s paying for your expertise and they’ll want to know they’re getting good value as well as you being an expert in OKRs
    > Make sure they get updates from their people and that you also check-in with them from time to time – to make sure all is well and that they’re seeing the benefits from the process
    > At the end of the first project make sure they’re fully aware of the outcomes and benefits – the overt OKRs themselves, of course, and also the learning that’s happened in their organisation as well as the cultural improvement that often results from teams working together

    Best wishes to all,
    Bryan

    Reply
  8. Gerri

    Wonderful tips and I will be using the M OKR approach going forward! Thanks!

    Reply

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