How Fast is Your Strategy?

Like just about everyone else I know, my scarcest resource these days is attention, and if you’re a writer wanting to get on my radar here are a few words that just might penetrate the armor: fast, execution, strategy, agile, and of course OKR. I recently came across an article written by two Boston Consulting Group thought leaders that ticks all of those boxes, except OKRs. I highly recommend their article: Fast Execution Needs Fast Strategy. I appreciated the advice they offered and recognized immediate ramifications for accelerating success with OKR. In this piece I’ll provide a concise overview of their main points and make the link to OKRs.

The big question posed in the article is “How can leadership teams develop and communicate strategy in a way that guides an agile organization towards sustained competitive advantage?” No easy task indeed, but they highlight a number of actions designed to do just that. In the sections below I’ve chosen to highlight three of their recommendations, and then make the connection to harnessing the power of OKRs.

Communicate a consistent mission:

The authors stress that “The more complex and fast moving the external environment, the more important it is to align agile teams on a stable overarching purpose or mission.” I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, there are those that still view Mission statements through the lens of a Dilbert cartoon, lampooning these valuable declarations as corporate window dressing. And of course if Mission statements are hastily thrown together using a blender of popular buzz words that’s what they are.

However, when conceived with care and true insight, the Mission can act as a company’s north star, guiding strategy and behavior from top to bottom. At we stress to our clients that OKRs can’t be created in a vacuum; context is critical. Mission statements provide that context. All OKRs should help translate the long-term mission into day-to-day action. To do that, you must have a guiding Mission in place.

Establish a shared strategic context:

There’s that word again: context. And this time we’re getting closer to the action. In order to prove successful in today’s hyper-speed markets all teams need to understand the strategic landscape in which they operate. How are the needs of customers’ changing? What are the dominant business models of successful players? Are there emerging competitors or disruptors? What segments are we playing in? These are the rules of the game for any business, and to create effective OKRs they must be widely shared and completely understood.

We define OKRs as a “critical thinking framework.” This means we encourage our clients to look beyond the numbers, digging deeper to find what the numbers are telling them about their business. In other words, how they can learn and turn that knowledge into a competitive advantage. The only way to foster these insightful conversations is to ensure everyone – top to bottom – understands the strategic context of the organization.

Design for speed:

Effective communication drives execution, innovation, and pretty much every other treasure in the pot at the end of the organizational rainbow. Everyone knows that, but sadly most organizations don’t practice effective two-way communication. The authors rightly suggest: “To ensure that communication is two-way rather than just cascading down from the top, such organizations hold regular forums in which teams play back their understanding of what their objectives are and how they plan to achieve them.”

We advise our clients to think of OKRs development as a negotiation. Teams draft the OKRs they believe will demonstrate their contribution to overall success, but then, importantly, they must defend those choices to their leaders. That dialog is vital, and often missing in most management systems. Conducting this conversation allows the team to display their knowledge of strategy and convince senior leadership that their chosen OKRs are the best course of action. Conversely, should there be gaps in the teams visibility into the strategy, the discussion provides leaders the crucial opportunity to reinforce the priorities that matter most to the organization.

Forgive the cliché, but that is a true win-win in an era when, despite the universal refrain that strategy execution is king, the vast majority of surveyed employees can’t name even a few of their company’s most important goals and thus have little chance of creating relevant OKRs.

Thanks again to the BCG authors for the inspiration to write this blog. They captured my attention, and I hope these lessons capture yours.


Paul Niven is a Global OKR Coach and author of Objectives & Key Results, Driving Focus, Alignment and Engagement with OKR.