Organisational Culture Shock – Introducing OKRs

by Bart den Haak | October 30, 2019

Getting Started with OKRs

So, you have recently heard about this new management goal-setting method called OKRs and you are really eager to implement them within your organization. If Google and all of the other big tech giants are using them, then they need to be good right? So, what do you do next? Like with any other management technique, you pour over all of the books, TED talks, podcasts and blog articles you can get your hands on. How hard can it be to implement such a simple tool?

Like with any other big-change initiative, it can be extremely challenging to implement any new changes within an organization and OKRs are no different. If you’ve heard of OKRs, then it’s likely that you have also heard of Change Management. OKRs are a significant cultural shift. Remember the last time your organization tried to adopt Scrum, DevOps, or method ABC? OKRs could be even more of a challenge. Sure, if you are a five-person start-up, things can go fast and smooth with everyone on the same page from the very beginning. If, on the other hand, you are scale-up company or you want to introduce OKRs within a large enterprise, prepare yourself for facing some severe push-back.

Culture Shock Photo by Troy Bridges

Clarity about “The Why”

When you start with OKRs, people within your organization will ask “Why OKRs? Why now? Don’t we have enough on our plate?”. You can’t blame them. It’s a very legitimate question. Do you have an answer? You should!

In fact, you need to be crystal clear why you want to use OKRs. OKRs is first and foremost a tool and, when utilized properly, can solve specific problems. To use an everyday metaphor: if your organisational problems could be materialized as a DIY self-assembly IKEA kitchen for example, OKRs would NOT be a hammer designed for smashing the problems to bits, but rather the multipurpose allen key paired with a clear instruction manual.

Before ushering in change within your organisation, first, be clear with yourself: Do you know what you want to solve with OKRs? Steer clear from ambiguous “goals” such as: increasing alignment, transparency, and focus. Indeed, they are nice added benefits of a successful OKR implementation, but it is your role to paint the picture how OKRs will help solve real, tangible problems that affect everyone. Sit down with a pen and paper and define the objectives, the scope and the advantages (and if you want to be extra prepared, then have solid, honest answers for the naysayers, too, when it comes to what prospective challenges or risks there could be).

Envision the Ideal

How would the world within your organisation look with OKRs, from beginning to end, and how would you get there? What kind of customer or employee behavior is aligned with that vision? What would you expect from your workforce? How would we define the success of OKRs? Devise a plan whereby you can test out OKRs within an isolated environment with a trusted team before you begin describing that vision and behavior or communicating that message to your workforce. This way you can provide some solid results from practical issues, adjust your vision and scope, and have a sketched-out plan for introducing OKRs, what the workforce could expect (how their world would change), and what kind of team(s) would be required., This could, for example, mean choosing to follow the Agile Fluency Model with distinct zones of learning phases that encourage the use of the natural proficiencies of your workforce combined with the desired outcomes. Scroll down for some practical ways a few organisations have tested out OKRs before establishing them as the new normal.

Northern Star Photo by Bjørn Are With Andreassen

Laying the Groundwork

Repeating the reason why you want to start using OKRs is important, just as important as good preparation (even if during phase one, you are repeating it mainly for yourself). For example, without a well-defined mission, vision and strategy, OKRs will not work. OKRs need to connect to them. If there is nothing to connect with, the whole exercise will become obsolete.

Today, there is a trend to focus only on one key metric for your vision and strategy, for example: northern star metric, BHAG or OMTM. I prefer to use a Single OKR for your vision and strategy because of reasons described by Casey Winters, formerly Growth at Pinterest. (TL;DR: you need multiple perspectives which is possible by having 3 to 4 KRs). Make sure you have your mission, vision and strategy defined before starting with your tactical OKR cycles.

Other things that need to be arranged before you can start are: an evaluation of current work processes and systems, accurate lists of function profiles and the organizational structure, proficiency overviews and competency development. A suitable OKR training session or workshop from a skilled OKR trainer will definitely help to up your OKR skill sets within your organization. Are there other things that can also be arranged within your organization to support OKRs?

Emotional Management

Introducing OKRs requires significant change in employee behavior and an even bigger change in your workplace culture. OKRs require people to change both their way of thinking and their way of working (which is their own invented, time-tested, most-efficient method for them, not necessarily for the business). What you are asking from people isn’t something small. Implementing OKRs isn’t a project that you do. It’s how you and everybody in the organization are going to do work from now on.

To get people out of their comfort zone – that is to say, to change their behavior – you need to have a strong incentive. Without this, your OKR implementation will undoubtedly fail. The ‘why’, as described above, will give you some guidance. For example: “Our financial market gets disrupted by Fintech companies. If we don’t work differently, we will soon go out of business”. People need to feel the urgency. This requires from Senior Management that they increase the emotional temperature in order to kickstart this behavioral change, otherwise nothing will change at all.

Problematic Patterns

For OKRs to flourish, existing cultural and operational patterns of the organization need to be upgraded. If all existing patterns remain, then the organization will simply do more of the same (with the same subpar results). Even with OKRs in place, I have still come across organizations with siloed departments, misaligned teams, low employee engagement, even lower commitment and little-to-no innovation.

If you have seen the attempted implementation of Scrum or DevOps to become more “Agile” and it failed miserably, then why do you believe OKRs will work? If change initiatives fail within your organization, then there might be a structural problem; a pattern. Evaluate the roadblocks and fix those first before starting to implement OKRs.

The most successful OKR implementations I’ve seen are within organizations that are already fluent in Agile practices. That doesn’t mean your organization won’t be successful in implementing OKRs, it just requires a momentus upfront investment from Senior Management.
Intensive investment in:

  • Team development and work process design;
  • Accepted lowered productivity during technical skill development;
  • Social capital expended on moving business decisions and expertise into the team;
  • Time and risk in developing new approaches to managing the organization.
Patterns Photo by Andrew Ridley

Scope of change

To increase the likelihood that OKRs will truly launch within your organization, you should try to reduce the scope of the implementation at first. There are a few options but here are some of my favorites that I often recommend to clients:

Company level only
If you’re the leader of a company, on the Board or somehow in charge of the business, you might want to start with OKRs just in your executive team.

Perhaps start by just setting a strategic OKR and/or only using them on a quarterly basis. Don’t announce or distribute the OKRs just yet. Try using them within your C-team for a few OKR cycles first. If they work for your team, you can present your learnings and insights to the rest of the organization. Leading by example is a management technique I favour and always recommend to my clients (test driving first also means your talking from experience, not theory).

OKR Pilot
Start an OKR pilot project. Use a cross-functional team or department as your test group.

When OKRs start to bear fruit, you can use this group as an example to other teams and departments. Alternatively, you can wait until other managers spot the team’s superior performance and use this as the trigger to experiment with OKRs at higher levels within your organization (hopefully now with those managers’ buy-in).

Tips to get you started

Start with WHY and think about what problem(s) OKRs can solve for you
Prepare yourself before you start with OKRs, considering the HOW
Describe the urgency for this change to kickstart behavioral change
Accept that OKRs are a significant cultural shift that will be met with resistance
Find out which patterns in your organization need to change. For example, becoming fluent in Agile helps with implementing OKRs.
Test out and adjust your scope

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