• Written by Alvaro de Salvo
    16 October 2019

Above: Felipe Castro giving his keynote 'OKR is the New Black: How to avoid bad advice and make OKR work' at Europe's leading OKR conference. 3 October 2019. Photo by Alvaro de Salvo.

In this time of environmental, socio-political and economic uncertainty, there’s an urgent need for us to pause and reflect on what’s really important. Organisations across the spectrum are faced with the challenge of engaging, empowering, and aligning teams to work toward not only sustainable profit, but also care for the planet and its people. 

Objectives and key results (OKRs) are an increasingly popular management framework for goal setting. They were initially popularised by big tech, but since the release of John Doerr’s “Measure What Matters,” the adoption of OKRs in other sectors has grown enormously. At Akvo, we’ve always been at the forefront of innovation in an attempt to disrupt and transform the international development sector. Adopting OKRs is one of the ways we’re doing that today

OKRs are simple to understand. But simple doesn’t mean easy, and having the clarity of thought to write them correctly and roll them out effectively across multiple teams proves to be a challenging adventure. OKRs should give a clear indication of what success looks like. They should also 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 them) and aligned (keeping everybody focused and moving in the same direction).

 

"If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority" via @meetfelipe at the #OKRForum19 / @aj_desalvo

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In short, an OKR consists of two things:

  1. An objective
    A simple, memorable, and inspiring goal. 
  2. Key Results
    Indicators to measure progress towards the objective.

The framework’s main benefit is that it helps everyone move from output-based thinking (the things we’re busy doing daily or weekly) to an outcome-based approach (the benefits our work actually brings). What I like most about OKRs is that they help communicate company strategy to the whole organisation and translate it into actionable items that every team can influence and measure to move things forward.

Past 3 October 2019, I attended Amsterdam’s second OKR forum to get inspiration and hands on advice from some of the leading OKR practitioners, with topics ranging from cultural values and scalability to agility and OKR implementation pitfalls. During the event, I also facilitated a breakout session on creating purposeful OKRs, exploring how to use OKRs to make explicit your organisational focus on the three elements of the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit.

 

Above: Providing my breakout session ‘Creating purposeful OKRs’. 3 October 2019. Photos by Bart den Haak (Left) and Computer Futures (Top right), Alvaro de Salvo (Bottom right).

Here are my takeaways from this year’s event

1) Don’t believe the hype: According to Felipe Castro’s keynote ‘OKR is the New Black: How to avoid bad advice and make OKR work’. Searches for OKRs have quadrupled in the last 12 months. This increasingly popularity means more content, more consultants, and also more adoption. Yet, this also brings fake news, such as bad content, bad examples, and very bad advice from people who haven’t actually experimented with them. Do your research and see if OKRs are really for you.

2) Set priorities: If everything is a priority then nothing is a priority. Get your head around OKRs first. Test their benefits and see if they work for you. Start small. With a project, a pilot or a team. One objective, three key results, and then continue from there. 

 

Above: Henrik-Jan van der Pol at his ‘Theory vs. Reality in OKR’ inspiration session with great advice: “Introduce OKRs the same way you introduce vegetables to your kids: you might not like them, but they are really good for you”. 3 October. Photo by Alvaro de Salvo.

3) Measure value, not effort: What’s the real impact of your work? Key results should be able to pass the “So what?” test. Many times. Here’s an example: 

“We are going to publish 10 blogs“ > So what?
“We are going to get 10% more website visits” > So what?
“We are going to get 100 Marketing Qualified Leads” > So what?
“We are going to get 50 SQL leads” > So what?

4) Check your culture: OKRs are not for everyone and can only thrive in the right environment. Key ingredients such as transparency, collaboration, psychological safety, and accountability are necessary for OKRs to flourish. According to Roger Longden, there are four steps involved.

 

Above: Roger Longden in his ‘Your toolset to build an OKR Culture’ inspiration session. Measure and clarify, Design and agree, Contextualise and commit, Embed! 3 October. Photo by Alvaro de Salvo.

5) Ask why: It is crucial to get clarity on why you want/need to do OKRs in your organisation. Things like alignment, focus, empowerment, transparency are all means to an end. Why do the chosen objectives and key results matter? Let everyone in the organisation know why they should care, and what the urgency is. Create context that people can relate to and contribute to. 

6) Focus: Start with a few organisational and strategic OKRs (ideally one objective and three key results). This will create great focus in the organisation and guide efforts and initiatives for the other teams to come up with their quarterly tactical OKRs.

7) Be agile: Set strategic objectives annually, but define key results quarterly per team. Shorter goal cycles allow teams to adjust faster, reduce risk, and focus on what really matters.

8) Have 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. Everyone fails the first time.  

9) Separate engagement and performance: According to Jan-Paul van Vliet in his talk ‘How OKRs cross the gap in between engagement and performance’, causation and correlation are not the same thing. So focus on performance first, and it will drive engagement. Not the other way around. 

 

Above: Jan-Paul van Vliet in his ‘How OKR crosses the gap in between engagement and performance’ inspiration talk. 3 october 2019. Photo by Alvaro de Salvo.

10) Embrace challenges and solutions: OKRs can provide multiple benefits, yet the learning curve is definitely full of challenges. Tomasz Bienias, who focuses on human behaviour and OKRs, provided the following pitfalls and solutions:

  • Impatience > tell a good story (winning hearts and minds)
  • We love planning > think long term (people don’t like change so think long term)
  • Everyone is busy > build habits (takes 90 days to change a habit)
  • Loss aversion > involve mid level managers (everybody fails the first time)
  • Hating mistakes > celebrate progress (for every step in the way)

11) Rooftops and Moonshots: Each organisation should find the way OKRs work for them and their culture, cadence and style. If moonshots feel rather uncomfortable or can be frustrating at first, aim for rooftops. A bit over business as usual. 

12) Follow the cycle: According to Bart den Haak, in his ‘The power of OKR check-ins’, the OKR cycle is the system for achieving your OKRs, and there are many variants available. Without it, the whole framework is just a house of cards. The OKR cycle is the starting point for many organisations and getting it right is a critical success factor. It’s also vital to ensure your organisation adjusts the cycle to its needs and culture. The power of a good check in? Accountability, collective intelligence, clear communication, fast feedback and most importantly, seeing meaningful progress! 

 

Above: Johannes Mueller (Workpath) moderating a panel discussion about ‘Companies & OKR Use Cases’, involving Ian Harvey (Elsevier), Cynthia Hohlstein (Auxmoney), Zwetomir Karagaschki (Metronom) and Elie Casamitjana (Ingenico). 3 october 2019. Photo by Computer Futures.

13) Make it visual: I really enjoyed the breakout session from Per Lundquist, “Using visualisation to boost OKR results.” In it, he emphasised on the importance of visual thinking to imagine the desirable future as not everyone can write well, and there is a huge part of the brain that we miss out on if we don’t work with images. It can be quite revelatory to think visually with different techniques,  like the “What if?” question, the miracle exercise, the revolving door, or thinking in movies.

14) Top down and bottom up: The leadership team should be OKR role models. If there is no buy in from the top, they will most likely fail. People do what their bosses do. Still if things are imposed top down and context is not created to work bottom up, they will also fail. That’s why it’s crucial that tactical team OKRs are pitched bottom-up. It’s a conversation. 

15) Find ambassadors: You need a dedicated group of people to keep the flame and momentum going while helping everyone align and level up. Middle managers are a key bridges to get right in any roll out.

16) Say NO: More and more, it becomes evident that OKRs are not about what you say YES to, but actually about how you use them to remind 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.  

17) Create shared OKRs: The hidden gem in this framework. In the end, you want to align teams to work together, so fostering shared OKRs to avoid a siloed organisation is the way forward. 

18) Don’t rush: Take your time to figure what really matters. Not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that is measurable matters. So rather than jumping quickly to conclusions on what you need to achieve next year or quarter, delay decision making, think thoroughly and take your time to figure what matters.  

 

Above: Two great breakout sessions. Tomasz Bienias – ‘Human behaviour and OKR’ (Left) and Per Lundquist – ‘Using visualisation to boost OKR results’ (Right). 3 October 2019. Photos by Alvaro de Salvo.

At the event, we got lots of insights 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. A great internal communication tool as well, and as with everything, it’s up to the people using them to make them work in a way that fits their culture to achieve the impact they want. 

Other interesting stuff happening at the forum

  • Free Email OKR course – I was very enthusiastic to learn that Bart den Haak launched a free email course to get people up to speed on OKRs. It’s full of valuable insights, so if interested in learning about OKRs, I highly recommend you to sign up to it, as it will provide you with 13 valuable lessons delivered every two days, straight to your inbox.

  • European Center of OKR Excellence – At the forum, Jan Paul van Vliet (Objeqts/Great in OKRs), Roger Longden (There Be Giants), and Nicholas Stanforth (Win With OKR) announced the future roadmap of the European Center for Excellence in OKRs, a platform where knowledge, experiences and enthusiasm all come together. As they said, Europe is one, but there is a huge mix of cultures and the nuances are definitely different approaches to OKRs from those from the United States, where OKRs originated. The European Centre of OKR Excellence promotes the exchange of insights from a cross-cultural perspective. Customers, consultants, trainers and anyone excited about OKR are welcome to get involved in this initiative.

 

Above: Dinner with all OKR Forum contributors. 2 October 2019. Photo by Levi Claes. (Top left) / Bart den Haak, Melanie Wessels and Alvaro de Salvo. Photo by Alvaro de Salvo. (Top right) / Agilist Martin Catuara Solarz, Felipe Castro, Alvaro de Salvo and agilist Rafa Lucero (Bottom left) / Mark Richard and Peter Kerr (Auxin OKRs) and Alvaro de Salvo. Photo by Alvaro de Salvo.

So what’s next?

At Akvo, we started working with OKRs in 2017. Three years down the line and as we gear up for 2020, we trust that OKRs will keep on helping us become more focused, effective and impactful. 

If you’re interested in talking about OKRs, just get in touch via LinkedIn or ping me on Twitter.

A huge thanks to Albert van Reenen (Computer Futures) for organising such a fantastic event, to MC Melanie Wessels (Message Bird) for the great hosting and stage management of the day, to Levi Claes (Computer Futures) for thoroughly thinking of every detail and producing it, and to Johannes Muller (Workpath) for sponsoring the event. I’m really looking forward to taking part in next year’s edition, and seeing what it will bring to this flourishing community. I can already envision it will be great. 


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