360 Degree Transparency

One of the biggest benefits of the OKR framework, touted enthusiastically by practitioners and consultants alike, is transparency. In most organizations utilizing the system, the norm is open communication of OKR, with every group or team having the opportunity to see the OKR of any other unit. This fosters shared understanding of goals and promotes cross-functional collaboration as teams recognize opportunities for cooperation, which frequently leads to shared OKR.

Transparency often begins at a quarterly Town Hall meeting or other gathering of multiple groups, during which each team or department will share their results for the prior quarter, and outline the OKR they’ve chosen for the upcoming ninety days. It’s the latter agenda item – sharing the next quarter’s OKR that I will address in this post. I’ll cover reporting of results in a future OKRs blog. I’ve chosen future OKRs because in my experience, having sat in on many of these meetings for several clients, they have, let’s just say, the most potential for improvement.

That’s being somewhat euphemistic.

Death by 1000 OKRs

While the range of effectiveness of these meetings varies widely, I find many organizations struggling to maintain a productive level of dialog and discussion. By the latter part of the meeting the session often devolves into a rapid-fire reading of OKRs with absolutely no questions or requests for clarifications arising from an often bored and otherwise engaged (with their phones and laptops) audience stooped in their meeting chairs stealing glances at the clock. In fact, a common theme I’ve discovered is that the presentations get shorter as the day advances.

It’s not uncommon to hear something like this, “Well the last group took 3 minutes for their OKRs. We think we can beat that and do it in 2.” Everyone chuckles, but I sense the sentiment below the laughs is one of “Yes, please, hurry up.” This is the epitome of a wasted opportunity. Organizations invest substantial human and financial resources in OKRs, pursuing the promise of improved execution, then allow that to slip away in a fog of dreary presentations that hold the possibility of bringing the framework’s very potential into question.

In many respects this is as much a meeting problem as it is an OKR challenge. And, of course, dozens if not hundreds of books have been written on the art of meeting management. Therefore, I won’t delve into those well-worn tips and techniques, but instead will offer three ideas I believe will assist you in harnessing the power of transparency through better engagement of your meeting participants.

Context is King

Remember the story: Every story ever told – your favorite novel, movie, or play – adheres to a roughly similar formula. Start with conflict, the problem faced by the protagonist compelling him or her to action. Next comes transition, the phase of the story during which our hero ventures forth into the world encountering increasingly difficult obstacles on their chosen path. Every story reaches a climactic point of action or drama during which the protagonist either achieves, or is denied, their ultimate quest. Finally, the story closes with the “new normal” state for our hero.

The problem in most OKR sharing meetings is that virtually all groups will simply read aloud their OKR. In a story narrative, that’s the climax. But without the conflict and transition we, the audience, have no context for that climax. Little wonder we don’t engage – we don’t know what led the group to that choice of OKR!  Wouldn’t it be more impactful if the group began by outlining the specific challenges they face at this moment – the conflict in their environment; and then pivot to discuss the options they considered to overcome those challenges in the form of OKR (their transition)?  Now we’re ready to hear the selected OKR, and as the audience we now have the context necessary to either agree or challenge their choice.

The takeaway here is this: Don’t allow your groups to simply read what is on the screen behind them. Challenge them to frame their OKR in a story. It’s better for them, and much better for engaging the audience.

Third Person Teaching

Draw on the wisdom of Steven Covey: One of my favorite (of many) principles put forth by the management guru Steven Covey is ‘third person teaching’. Covey rightly believed that the best way to learn anything is to teach it. We can draw on that wisdom to improve the engagement in our OKR sharing meetings. Before the meeting assign dis-similar groups to conduct the initial presentation of another team’s OKR. Perhaps HR will be assigned to present Engineering’s OKR and vice versa. The team who owns the OKR will of course provide additional details, and answer any questions, but this process forces teams to learn more about other groups’ work, building empathy and laying the path for potential collaboration. Each quarter you can re-shuffle the deck, building bridges between what could previously be considered unrelated functions.

Transparency Doesn’t Work Unless Your Teams are Present

When I sit in on these meetings, the organization’s OKR Champion and I will often interject after every third or fourth presentation to share the themes we see emerging, offer overall advice, etc. We typically tell the group at the outset of the meeting that we’ll be filling this function. But over time, I’ve begun to question this practice. By broadcasting the fact that we will be offering input we basically absolve everyone else in the room from the responsibility of being an active participant. Why bother soaking up the presentations and paying precious attention when you know the Champion and I will provide a summary in just a few minutes?

A better approach would be to nominate other teams or individuals to play that role. One option is to make three teams the official observers for the first set of presentations. Make it clear that it will be their responsibility to offer feedback at the conclusion of the first round of OKR. Of course, others may chime in as well, but at the very least you’ve guaranteed the attention of a subset of your audience. A second option is to draw randomly from the group – after a set of presentations, choose a random set of teams to offer input.  This forces everyone in the room to stay present.

OKR Only Works When You Work Your OKR

I frequently advise our clients that OKRs are not like a piece of software you plug in and – Presto – your organization is transformed into an execution machine. Rather, it’s a framework that requires disciplined and rigorous execution along with a good bit of nurturing as you go. Improving the way you share OKR, in an effort to promote transparency and cross-functional collaboration, is one of the areas that requires significant thought and effort should you hope to achieve the benefits offered by Objectives and Key Results. By following the advice in this article, you’ll be clearing that path and well on the way to more engaging and productive meetings.

Paul Niven is the author of ‘Objectives and Key Results, Driving Focus, Alignment and Engagement with OKR’ and the President of OKRsTraining.com.