Last week we explored the first key benefit of OKR – Focus – leaving us Alignment, Engagement and Stretch, (if you didn’t read the article on Focus, read it here – OKR Focus).  This week we are going to dive into Alignment and examine why this is so important to an organization’s ability to achieve its Big Vision.

Office Space

Have you ever seen Office Space?  Every time I see that ‘efficiency consultant’ walking around with his mug of coffee, wandering from cubicle to cubicle, using hackneyed phrases, like ‘We all need to be rowing in the same direction,’ I cringe.  His smooth, polished and frankly fake voice, the words he uses, the euphemisms and metaphors he employs…are all contrived. Talk about giving consultants a bad name.

But here is the funny irony – several of those old, abused and roll-your-eyes-when-you-hear-them phrases, like ‘Everybody needs to be rowing in the same direction’ or, ‘We need to cross-walk our goals across teams’ or ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast,’ are abused precisely because they are right.  One thing you can say about human nature, when we land on a metaphor that accurately describes an experience, we use it until it is worn out!

The truth is, for an organization to achieve its Big Vision, everybody does need to be rowing in the same direction. So, let’s ‘swim’ with this rowing metaphor for a minute since it has been abused so much over the years.

Rowing in the Same Direction, or Rowing in Circles?

Imagine a team of 10 rowers. one third of these rowers does not know where they are going; the other two thirds are in conflict on where they are going; and each has their own metronome singing out, ‘Row, Row, Row’ at different cadences. What will be the result? Obviously, this team of rowers will get nowhere fast, wasting a lot of work and energy in the process, which reminds us of another metaphor – rowing in circles.

And while this seems like a silly example, you would be surprised at how many organizations – managed by thoughtful, talented and well-educated professionals – are doing exactly that! Teams and business units are all working feverishly, headed in the opposite direction. Indeed, everybody seems to be working like crazy but nothing is getting done.

So how does this happen?

Four Reasons for Misalignment:

  1. Lack of a clearly articulated, well-communicated and easy-to-understand corporate strategy. Think about it – it’s virtually impossible to align to a north star if your people can’t see it. Or, back to the rowing metaphor, it’s hard to row in the correct direction if you don’t know where you are going. This is why it is so important for your organization to drive a strategic stake firmly in the ground before starting an OKR Implementation. For more on strategy, see last week’s article on Focus.
  2. The tendency for organizations to suffer scope creep as they scale. Scope creep occurs when teams get so locked up in their own purpose/cause/passion that they lose touch with the corporate strategy and begin to incrementally fall off course, which often takes them in the wrong direction. Scope creep also occurs when you have a lack of transparency and accountability across the organization, which takes us to:
  3. Lack of transparency across the enterprise. Organizations that can’t ‘see’ what other teams and business units are doing and how it contributes to the overall mission are setting themselves up for conflict and competition between groups with shared missions.  We’re talking about the dreaded ‘silo effect’ – where your worldview is all about you and your team, business unit, or fiefdom, regularly at the expense of the broader corporate strategy.
  4. And finally, the lack of a small set of clear Objectives and Key Results that are tied to, aligned with, and pointed at the organization’s Big Vision.

The Big Vision

This last point illustrates why Alignment is one of the four key benefits of OKR. Through a proper OKR Implementation, you will create a clear organizational strategy that is easily understood, communicated and shared by all, and serves as a line-of-sight for all your teams and business units to align to as they create their own OKR.  By keeping OKRs transparent, you keep everybody honest on what they are doing and how it contributes to the Big Vision.

And finally, but definitely not lastly, alignment gives your contributors a direct line of sight between what they are personally doing and what the organization wants to accomplish. Numerous studies have shown that employees want meaning in their work, and this drive for meaning in work can be a stronger motivator than money in many cases. The best ‘meaning’ you can create is to demonstrate through your OKR Framework how every employee is personally contributing to the overall strategy.

Now That’s Alignment!

It may be apocryphal but I like the story about the janitor who was cleaning the floors of a NASA building when  a consultant approached the him and asked ‘What is your roll here, sir?’  To which the janitor replied, ‘I’m helping keep the floors clean so that we can put a man on the moon.’

Talk about alignment.

Kevin Baum is a Global OKR Coach with