Rigor and Discipline

OKRs are definitely enjoying a “moment” right now. Popularity is sky high, with implementation numbers soaring globally. And no wonder, when applied with rigor and discipline OKRs can deliver enhanced focus, alignment, employee engagement, and numerous other benefits. It’s that pesky “rigor and discipline” phrase I’d like to acknowledge and explore in this post. Based on conversations I’ve had with OKRs adopters and prospective users, it appears that many consider the framework a panacea for all that ails them. They read an inspirational book like “Measure What Matters,” and think, “This sounds great,” or “It just makes sense.” Sure it does, but the methodology itself has to be accompanied by a strong commitment to roll up your sleeves for change management and governance should you hope to achieve success with OKRs.

Three of the most sought-after benefits of OKRs are accountability, alignment, and focus. Let’s examine each through the lens of governance.

Accountability

During initial calls, many prospects tell us they want a more accountable team. Let’s think this through. You decide to implement OKRs at the team level. All teams now have objectives and key results. How does that step on its own translate into increased accountability? It doesn’t. It has to be accompanied by at least a two-step process. Step one is the approval of your OKR(s). Each team must draft OKRs, then enter into a negotiation with their boss to ensure both strategic alignment with company goals, and shared understanding as to the desired business impact of the OKR. With accountability for results clear, the team transitions to a focus on execution.

At the end of the quarter it’s time for step two:  Meeting once again with the leader, this time to review and analyze results. What happened, why did it happen, what are we going to do about what we learned? If results were far below expectations, was it a resource issue? Did the team aim too high? Accountability stems from the discussion of OKRs at both the time of creation, and more importantly, at the time of review.

Alignment

When I ask clients what they hope to achieve with OKRs, without a doubt the most popular reply is “achieving better alignment” (especially cross-functional). This isn’t surprising given the data on alignment. For example, a recent survey of more than 540 employees worldwide conducted by Price Waterhouse Cooper showed that only 28 percent of respondents reported feeling fully connected to their company’s purpose. Just 39 percent said they could clearly see the value they create, and only 34 percent thought they strongly contribute to their company’s success. More than half weren’t even somewhat motivated, passionate, or excited about their jobs.”[i]

Instituting OKRs doesn’t magically eliminate silos and promote cross-functional collaboration. Perhaps more than any other attribute, for alignment to prosper it must be accompanied by a robust governance system. My first question to you should you be hoping for alignment from OKRs is this: What specific alignment problem are you trying to solve? And, can you provide examples of “mis-alignment” and how that has negatively impacted your results?

In the spirit of one of my favorite dictums – a problem well-defined is a problem half-solved – what is the challenge you’re facing? Let’s assume for the sake of discussion it’s a lack of cross-functional collaboration with teams often working at cross-purposes. OKRs can help with this, but only if you put in place the mechanisms for real conversations to take place on dependencies and shared OKRs. When crafting OKRs, each team should document who they rely on for assistance and carefully and specifically – not using bland generalities- document exactly what they need. Examples could include engineering hours, marketing expertise, accounting advice, etc. Saying “We need Marketing’s help on this” does nothing to solve your alignment problem.

Articulating dependencies is the easy part. Now you must find the discipline to ensure teams with dependencies have face to face meetings to discuss what is required from each, should they hope to achieve their OKRs. And, building upon that, you’ll require another layer of governance to discuss escalations for the inevitable circumstance of teams not agreeing on levels of support.

Focus

In my experience as an OKRs Coach, this topic, more than the others, is the most prone to the deleterious effects of unintended consequences. OKRs are designed to help you focus on what matters most, but I have seen many organizations do the opposite. Rather than engage in the mentally taxing effort of methodical thinking about what is most vital, they do the opposite and litter their roster of OKRs with anything that could possibly impact success. As we all know, this is the opposite of what OKRs are intended to help you with.

Once again – you need a governance system to ensure focus. In this case it takes the form of disciplined strategic thought when contemplating and drafting OKRs. There is likely an inverse relationship between the amount of time taken to draft an OKR, and its effectiveness as a driver of execution. Those that are thrown together rapidly tend to feature phrases such as: “Increase efficiency,” and “Improve quality.” Vague words that are open to interpretation will not drive the clarity and focus promised by OKRs.

Governance is the Secret Ingredient

Nothing discussed in this blog is necessarily difficult. There may be logistical challenges to overcome, and habits to form, but at the end of the day, should you hope to get the most from your investment in OKRs, what it truly requires is a commitment to put in place the machinery of good governance.

Paul Niven is president of OKRsTraining.com, and a leading OKRs Consultant.


[i] From: Sally Blount and Paul Leinwand, “Why Are We Here,” Harvard Business Review, November-December 2019