Why OKRs can be critical to your growth, and where to start with them

Guest Posts, How to, skills

Roger LongdenRoger Longden, May 25, 2017

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

Roger Longden leads the team at There be Giants, who apply the principles of agile to the way clients develop and execute their strategy.


So, you’re on the path to growth, with plans to scale up. No doubt you’ve focused on the financing, the product development, and you’re ready to kick off your go-to-market strategy. Everything is pretty much going as per your business plan and when you need to reprioritise, you can do so easily because you’re still a small team, right? You’re still at the point where you could pivot on a dime.

Let’s roll the clock forward 12-18 months and assume you’re doing great, the revenues are looking strong, demand is high and costs are on track. Chances are that the team has grown and you’re not as close to the front line as you once were. That’s not a bad thing, as you understand you’ll become a bottleneck to growth if you try to keep your hands on everything, but then you start to wonder “if I’m not around as much, how will my teams know what to focus on?

When faced with choices – as they will be every day – how will they have the confidence to make the right decision without slowing business down, while they wait to speak to you?

Keeping your team onboard

What we’re talking about here is making sure everyone understands the plan, particularly the part of it they are responsible for. It’s the foremost challenge that all growing enterprises face – how to get their plan into play in an agile and responsive way which delivers the results they need. Some might call this performance management.

For a long time, the only reference point in how to approach this has been what corporates have done for many years, which is often built around an annual appraisal. I’m here to tell you that what lies down that path is the enemy of agility: it will kill the responsiveness of your people and cause overall ‘drag and lag’ to the velocity of your business.  This will limit your growth and your results.

But, there’s another way.

Taking inspiration from Silicon Valley

To find this, we need to look to the early adopters and innovators in tech from over the pond. US businesses in this sector have been grappling with the challenges of transforming performance management since the mid 90’s. It all started with a guy called John Doerr who was working at Intel. He was refining the management-by-objectives approach originally proposed by Drucker in the 50s.

Doerr wanted to increase the focus on the specific results an objective was designed to achieve – i.e. the business outcome, so he created OKRs (Objectives & Key Results). Doerr then moved to Google in the early noughties, which is when OKRs (and Google) took a big leap forward.

It was around 2010 that businesses like LinkedIn, Netflix and Spotify went on to adopt OKRs, and then in 2015 the global professional services firms of PWC, Accenture, Deloitte and KPMG all made announcements about doing away with their annual appraisal systems. These businesses have rafts of global clients who look to them for innovation, so it’s safe to assume that what they are doing for themselves, they will be starting to do for their clients too.

This means that the OKR approach to performance – a more ‘iterative’ approach – is at a tipping point. It’s at that 17-18 percent market saturation point on the diffusion on innovation curve and is about to accelerate, and not before time.

Credit: Startup Stock Photos. Creative Commons CC0

More than just an acronym

Now, let’s get something clear.  OKRs are not just another TLA (three letter acronym). They come with a whole ethos and set of principles which are key to getting the best from them and driving them like a pro.

The great thing is that these principles have evolved as businesses have adopted them and shared their experiences, which is why I think of OKRs as being genuinely open-source in nature. There was no single author who came up with a rigid model and set of rules; they are an approach fit for the pace (and variability) of businesses today.

It’s safe to say that the OKR movement has now grown much further afield than just the hip and hooky pioneers of Silicon Valley. There are three very compelling explanations for this.

1. Biology

At a biological level – an “iterative” approach (like OKRs) works better than an annual appraisal. This is down to our fight/flight response. The pressure and expectation that leads up to an annual conversation that might decide our pay rise, promotion etc. has been found to put most of us into a “threat” sate – i.e. we want to secure what we believe we are due, what we believe is fair. David Rock has much to say about this

Why does this matter? 

It matters because as long as that threat state persists, it cuts off the hormones that make us able to think objectively, creatively and collaboratively.  Given these are regarded by most businesses as being essential in delivering great work, it makes sense to keep them open as much as possible.

As OKRs allow for much more frequent lighter-touch check-ins on performance, the opportunity for anxiety to build is reduced and the risk of a threat-state developing diminished.

2. Millennials

Whether you subscribe to the label or not, there is no escaping that the current generation joining the workforce bring with them a different set of drivers and expectations. For employers, this means they need to take a long hard look at how they should manage them, as the old ways are not guaranteed to work anymore.

One expectation of the new generation is feedback, but they might not always ask for it. They want it often and as near to real-time as possible, as their personal growth is important to them. OKRs – again because of their frequent light-touch check-ins – naturally provide the opportunity for this.

3. The pace of modern business

Gone are the days where a 12-month plan won’t experience the pressure to flex before it reaches completion. This may be due to the age-old challenges like resources, but now it can be due to the pace of technology and competitive pressures. While flip-flopping from one course of action to another is rarely a recipe for success, the ability to flex within the priorities and parameters of your strategy is the agility you need to have.

OKRs help introduce this agility through the (typically quarterly) cycle they take which allows for regular review and reprioritisation. If you fully embrace the ethos behind OKRs then the frequent team and individual check-ins will keep a healthy dialogue on performance open and a focus on priorities.

When priorities are clear, decision making can be sped up. People should be confident to make the right choice without always having to constantly seek advice or guidance.

Credit: Startup Stock Photos. Creative Commons CC0

The five elements behind immediate OKR success

The case for adopting OKRs, then, has some history behind it. The success stories attached to the global brands adopting OKRs are fascinating, and may inspire you to try them out.

To make sure your trial is as successful as Silicon Valley’s giants, it’s important to get these five elements right for a flying start:

Prioritise

Have a business plan that has a very clear set of priorities which can help shape the business-level OKRs. All the team and individual OKRs should then be in support of these (what I call line-of-sight). If they aren’t, then why are you focusing on them?

Calibrate

Pitching an OKR at the right level takes practice. You’ll get better at drafting Objectives and Key Results to support them (as you can have more than 1 per objective) the more you do them.

The Key Results should be measurable and outcome-focused on something that will drive the business forward. An OKR should be growth-focused and the measure of that is if it challenges us to do:

  • Something new
  • Something differently
  • Significantly more of what has been achieve before

Not to repeat something that is routine.

Tempo

OKRs will just wither and die if you don’t build the right routines around them. This means setting up regular light-touch team check-ins, alongside 1-2-1 check-ins.

By raising the discussion of individual OKRs to team level, this increases accountability and the opportunity for collaboration. These should follow a focused structure (i.e. not become a talking shop) and be supported by the current OKR updates on progress and confidence-on-completion. It’s vital these are productive discussions. If there is any element of blame-culture present then they will not work. Often, the right cadence for team check-ins is weekly.

The 1-2-1 check-ins allow for a deeper conversation around individual OKRs. but again, it should be focused and structured conversation. This is where feedback should feature too. A fortnightly cadence works well with these.

My recommendation is to keep OKR discussions separate from personal development conversations. They are very different in nature and require different modes of thinking to be effective. Quarterly is a good frequency for these; there will be development ideas arising from 1-2-1 discussions that you can capture and discuss in the personal development conversation.

Systemise

If you want OKRs to succeed, don’t try and manage them by spreadsheet. They will become unwieldly and cumbersome. People will just opt out as what originally looked simple to understand turns into a monster to manage.

OKRs need to be present and as close to real-time as possible so it’s vital that you choose a system that balances ease of update with the outputs you need to make timely decisions

Find a system that works for you. A number of web-based SaaS options are out there. Some just do OKRs and others have additional features.

I’ve seen performance management fail in the past because poor systems design has driven poor behaviour. I firmly believe the opposite can happen; a well-designed system can help to support the right behaviours.

Up-skill

Embracing OKRs will present new challenges to everyone in your business.  If you don’t already do it, you and your senior team need to become skilled at strategising, prioritising, planning and communicating.

Managers also need to develop their muscles to become better at coaching, feeding back, challenging underperformance and recognising achievement.

Everyone needs to be great at taking feedback onboard too which is its own skill; the ability to remain objective and take feedback constructively is not something which everyone can naturally do, and may require individuals to improve their self-management skills.

Build upon foundations 

If you want to avoid failure, don’t jump headlong into drawing up your first set of OKRs without getting these foundations in place first. You will only see the enthusiasm built up during the planning fetter away while you create the routines to manage and achieve them. A good idea is often to run a pilot for your first three-month cycle.

Also, don’t expect to get them right first time. In my experience, it takes a minimum of 3-4 cycles before clients start to feel like they are getting slicker at setting, reviewing and signing them off.

The beauty of OKRs is that you can learn, reflect and adapt for the next cycle, all without sacrificing the agility of your early days – something the annual appraisal never did well.

If you decide to give OKRs a try, then good luck! I’d love to hear how you get on.