If you deliver all your tasks, and nothing improves, are you successful?

This question was dropped by Felipe Castro at the first Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) forum in Amsterdam, an event that brought together OKR experts and enthusiasts from around the globe.

Great questions bring interesting answers, and this one had me thinking for the rest of the day. Later on, Jan Paul van Vliet helped me connect the dots when he argued that being engaged at work was not the same as being productive.

For someone who has, by choice, only worked for nonprofits, this struck a chord. Engagement isn’t hard to come by in the sector. We’re all striving to achieve ambitious goals and drive sustainable change. But a lack of resources leaves many nonprofits with little capacity to plan, coordinate or monitor their work. People are usually juggling a thousand balls at once, and when one drops, someone else picks it up. We want to fix things. We fill in the gaps as we go.

Given my background in business administration, and my focus on marketing and communications, I’ve always seen the value in bringing business approaches to the nonprofit sector. While it’s people that realise goals, I am strong believer that the right systems, structures and processes can help us get there faster.
If you deliver all your tasks, and nothing improves, are you successful? / Via @meetfelipe at the #OKRForum #OKRAmsterdam / Click To Tweet

So how do you ensure that the activities you are engaged in actually get you closer to your organisation’s mission? That’s where OKRs come in. And that’s why I spent a full day at the first #OKRforum in Amsterdam last week, learning from the direct experience of those who have rolled them out.

OKRs in a nutshell

OKRs is an increasingly popular management framework that allows organisations to implement strategy and track progress towards goals. Some of the main benefits of this framework include improved focus, increased transparency and better alignment.

At Akvo, we rolled out OKRs within the marketing team and the Akvo Flow team in 2017. Other teams joined at the beginning of 2018 and started openly sharing their priorities and focus points. As we prepare for 2019, we are exploring the possibility of rolling them out globally.

We want to contribute to sustainable and inclusive impact as quickly and effectively as possible. We’ve always worked to disrupt the sector and change the way data and tech is used by organisations and governments. So why not adopt a methodology that has been successfully rolled out across thousands of technology related organisations as well?

In short, an OKR consists of two things:

  • Objective: A simple, memorable, and inspiring goal
  • Key Results: Targets to measure progress towards the objective

For example, an organisational level OKR could look like this:

Objective: Delight our partners
Key result 1: Achieve a Net Promoter Score (NPS) of 9 from our partners
Key result 2: Realise a customer retention rate of 98%
Key result 3: Increase tool usage by 50%

By default, an OKR should give a pretty clear indication of what success looks like. It should be ambitious (but realistic), measurable (either with a percentage, or a number based on a specific metric), public (any level of the organisation can see it) and aligned (keep everybody focused and moving in the same direction).
People realise goals. Processes, systems and structures don't. / Via @jpvvliet at the #OKRForum #OKRAmsterdam Click To Tweet

The framework is pretty simple and allows everyone to move from an output-based thinking (what are we doing?) to an outcome-based approach (what benefit will our work bring?). What I like most about OKRs is that they help communicate company strategy to the whole organisation and translate it into actionable items for every team.

My takeaways from the event

With a crew of 16 speakers and over 200 attendees, the conversations between talks were as enriching as the talks themselves. The attendees were a fun bunch of accountability nerds, transparency advocates, agile evangelists and overall, people interested in working smarter rather than harder.

The “Now I know” model. On how OKRs can improve correlation between engagement and performance.

Via Jan Paul van Vliet.

At the event, we got insight into how this framework actually works, how it can be rolled out in organisations of several sizes, and what the usual wins and pitfalls are. OKRs are not the holy grail. They are just a framework. As with everything, it’s up to the people using them to make them work. So here my main takeaways from the event:

  • Define a clear “why?”: Get clarity on why you want to do do OKRs in your organisation and even more clarity on why the chosen objectives matter. Let everyone in the organisation know why they should care.
  • Focus: Start with a short number of organisational OKRs (one to three). This creates focus in the organisation and guides efforts and initiatives for the other teams to come up with their OKRs.
  • Common language: OKRs are a great way to create a common language for people to discuss priorities, strategy, and later on look for ways to translate this into measurable action. This can align teams and improve collaboration both vertically and horizontally.
  • Transparency: OKRs enable teams to understand organisational focus and allow  teams to become responsible for their objectives, setting clear success criteria and creating full accountability for everyone.
  • Agility: Set objectives annually, but define key results quarterly. Shorter goal cycles allow teams to adjust faster, reduce risk and focus on what really matters.
  • Patience: Give it time and aim for good, rather than perfect. OKRs are simple, but simple is not easy. Failing is part of the learning process. OKRs are difficult to write and to track. It takes some iterations to get it right.  
  • Find out what works for you: Every organisation has a different mission and distinct values and dynamics. Each organisation should find the way OKRs work for them. My main takeaway from Christoph van der Klaauw, who shared his experience at Travelbird. 
  • Separate outcomes from outputs: OKRs should be an inspirational and qualitative description of what we want to achieve and should be separate from activities done to help you get there.
  • Involve the people at the top, from the start: The leadership team should be OKR role models. If there is no buy in from the top, they will be most likely fail.
  • Who is in your OKR team. You need some ambassadors. A dedicated group of people to keep the flame and momentum going.
  • Move FAST:  Alla Alimova’s inspired us with the story of Ebay, and brought us on her journey with the FAST approach, a four phase way to see how OKRs produce benefits. Ebay is right in the middle.
  • It’s about saying NO: During the event, it became clear to me that OKRs are not about what you say YES to, but actually about what you say NO to. It’s extremely difficult to reach such a level of simplicity and focus, and one can only do so by discarding things you don’t prioritise.  
  • Piggy back on your current processes: Introduce OKRs to your weekly check ins and keep track of three things. Progress (how are we doing with each OKR?), problems (which problems are we facing?), and plans (what are we planning to do next week about them?)
  • Prepare, implement, maintain: Melanie Wessels was in the team responsible of rolling out OKRs to the 17,000 employees at Booking.com. “Create a winning team. Roll them out. And then maintain, maintain and maintain.” She advised.

Other interesting stuff that also caught my attention

  • OKRs and KPIS: OKRs are different to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), but they encompass them. While OKRs help you define your strategic goals and identify how you will achieve them, KPIs help you measure performance against your goals. In that way, KPIs are an important component of OKRs. One feeds into the other.
  • OKRs and performance reviews: It is very important to decouple OKRs from performance reviews and compensation. Using stretch goals, even partially, enable teams to set bolder, more challenging goals. When tied to performance, this can lead to sand bagging, encouraging people to aim lower and keep things safe.
  • OKRs and cultural values: OKRs are a great way of mirroring core organisational values and reflecting upon how these are being lived within the organisation. How would values like “open,” “transparent” and “innovative” look when measured against key results?
  • OKRs across different teams: It’s possible, and in fact recommendable, to have cross functional teams share OKRs.


“Misalignment” by Henrik Kniberg


So what’s next?

We’re heading toward a global roll out of OKRs in 2019. For a dispersed and tiny multinational organisation like Akvo, this can help us work together in a complementary way and measure progress according to real data. We’ve already created Akvo’s Theory of Change, which describes what we want to achieve as an organisation and how we intend to get there. But how does each team contribute to this shared vision? What do we need to focus and which short term and mid term goals do we need to achieve in order to make it happen? This is where we trust that OKRs will help in keeping as focussed. If you’re interested in talking about any of this, just get in touch via LinkedIn or ping me via Twitter.

I’ve also put together a list of reading that I’ve found useful along the way, you can find it below this post. For the moment, hat tip to Allan Nunes Messias (Computer Futures) and Johannes Muller (Workpath) for joining forces and organising a brilliant event. Congrats to all the speakers as well. I’ll definitely be attending the next one and who knows, maybe even sharing the success story of a tiny multinational with big dreams.

Alvaro de Salvo is Head of Global Marketing and Communications at Akvo, based in Amsterdam. You can follow him on Twitter @aj_desalvo

If you are interested in OKRs, you might want to read:

  • High Output Management (by Andrew S. Grove)
  • Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs (by John Doerr)
  • Step by Step Guide to OKRs (by Alexander Maasik)
  • Objectives and Key Results: Driving Focus, Alignment, and Engagement with OKRs (by Paul R. Niven and Ben Lamorte)
  • The beginners guide to OKRs (Felipe Castro)
  • Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results (by Christina R Wodtke and Marty Cagan)