OKR Check-ins: Making Consistent, Meaningful Progress

by Bart den Haak | November 6, 2019

Uncertainty

People hate uncertainty. Research has proven that people can experience stress and illness when dealing with ambiguity and obscurity. Our brain appreciates certainty the same as food, sex, and social connections. We humans are rather predictable creatures, ruled by genetics and time-honoured survival mechanisms. There are few things that give us more satisfaction than having a firm sense of control over our environment, safety, and working towards a goal (acting with purpose). In a word, progress. Only above that, making progress in meaningful work where even a small win can defeat multiple losses. However, over the course of a day, week or month, if we consistently have a sense of overwhelming defeat, then a win of any magnitude will lose its power. The best antidote to this: a clear plan of action and a methodology to track progress. Without these things, we feel unhinged, we lose track of our progress (and purpose!) and worse yet, our motivations quickly dwindle as we spin-out into doubt, insecurity and deeply rooted discomfort.

Stress Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor

Why Goals Alone Aren’t Enough

While goal-setting reduces uncertainty, a vague goal can still have just as much of a negative, undesired impact as no goal (or objective) at all. The common questions raised when an unclear goal is introduced are predictably: But how? What needs to get done and in what order? How will we know if we are on track? What’s the timeline? Who will do what? This is the reason why effective goals contain measurable and appropriate metrics.

In a modern, digital age, with access to technology, apps, and boatloads of information at our fingertips at any given moment, it is likely that you have heard of “the addiction to busyness”. Spinning our wheels, distracted by a constant flow of digital notifications, and the perception that the busier we are, while being pulled in every direction, the more effective we must be! Jocelyn K. Glei is a writer and also the creator of RESET and of the podcast Hurry Slowly. In her writing, she notes that “we work tirelessly but rarely feel like we’re accomplishing anything of import. What’s wrong?’ She introduces some key factors that maintain the status quo:

  • Addiction to meaningless progress;
  • Failure to define meaningful goals;
  • The lack of a method for tracking our progress.

That is why I like to work with OKRs in most of my client engagements. With OKRs, you can overcome the tragic story of “status quo” working habits and replace that with measurables; tracked progress that moves clearly and with purpose towards a goal that represents conquering a real problem or issue.

In the experience of making progress, our bodies release the feel-good hormone, dopamine, which makes us feel happiness, contentment and even joy. We are motivated by our wins, regardless of how minor the milestone, to continue on in our pursuit of satisfying performance and enjoying the results. The effects of that hormone are also addictive, so as you are crossing off items on your To Do List by charting out your goals (Objectives) with dedicated indicators (Key Results) on how you will know if you’re on your way to achievement while also measuring your headway on a regular basis (Check-Ins), you can enjoy visually tracking your baby steps and also gather the momentum to continue on.

Now, ask yourself this: What if your whole company was doing this? What would or could that look like? Put simply: You would get one big, happy workforce.

Let’s explore the power of progress.

Making Headway

“The power of progress is fundamental to human nature, but few managers understand it or know how to leverage progress to boost motivation” wrote Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer in their Harvard Business Review article titled The Power of Small Wins. They continue, “In fact, work motivation has been a subject of long-standing debate. In a survey asking about the keys to motivating workers, we found that some managers ranked recognition for good work as most important, while others put more stock in tangible incentives. Some focused on the value of interpersonal support, while still others thought clear goals were the answer. Interestingly, very few of our surveyed managers ranked progress first.”

For OKR check-ins, this reflects a very real misconception between what factors managers perceive as being effective, and which actually satisfy the very real human desire in all of us for advancement, development and growth. In the personal sphere, we feel rewarded when we have met a goal; in the business world, we feel rewarded when, likewise through discipline and commitment, we have seen a project come full circle. In our personal lives, we track progress with apps that keep track our fitness progress, sleep rhythms, and even time spent meditating. In the business world, we do this through daily, weekly and quarterly check-ins that set the tone and pace based on confidence scores.

Progress Takes Priority

In a 1968 issue of Harvard Business Review, Frederick Herzberg published a now-classic article titled “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” The findings of today, more than 50 years later, are consistent with his message: People are most satisfied with their jobs (and therefore most motivated) when those jobs give them the opportunity to experience achievement.

Looking back at the research of Amabile and Kramer, who reviewed diary entries of more than 230 employees from seven different companies, pouring over more than 12,000 diary entries of workday highs and lows, what they uncovered as the underlying mechanism of a sense of achievement, taking priority over recognition for good work, incentives, and interpersonal support (and by this point, their conclusion should come as no surprise to you): making consistent, meaningful progress.

The Progress Loop

Like most things, we find that our lives have a cyclical pattern. Day in and day out, we are working or thinking about work related matters; this behaviour is influenced by and influences our performance, in a cycle, or loop. A “good day” (or bad day or mediocre day) where we feel satisfied (or dissatisfied or ambivalent), drives our performance which gives a new set of results which in turn has the power to enhance (or diminish, or otherwise impact) our work life; this reveals the potential for self-reinforcing benefits. Basically, the “self-fulfilling prophecy” where our thoughts and beliefs impact our actions which in turn enforce our beliefs and then actions, and so on.

So, in relation to OKR check-ins, the concept of progress is illustrated nicely by the words of Amabile and Kramer: “By supporting people and their daily progress in meaningful work, managers improve not only the inner work lives of their employees but also the organization’s long-term performance, which enhances inner work life even more.”

Weekly OKR Check-ins

If facilitating consistent progress is the key to good performance, then why is it that most managers don’t set a constructive progress loop in motion? Well, mainly because it requires a significant shift in behavior but also because most companies lack a method for tracking progress towards meaningful goals. Most organizations have by now adopted a KPI system, but that isn’t enough. This is where OKR check-ins come into play, the most underestimated tool within the OKR tool-suite.

OKR check-ins are your “sanity check”. Without them, OKRs are almost certainly doomed to failure. As mentioned above, consistency and discipline are vital: Check-ins are usually held at the beginning of the week, every week (Monday morning is a great time) and last ideally 15 to 30 minutes max. In the OKR world, we called this a weekly cadence and it is very important for a successful OKR implementation. If the check-in falls on a public holiday, postpone it by a day, but it needs to occur. This is your team’s most important meeting from now on and you (and other leaders) need to be there to help the team to take action.

The participants of the weekly check-in are typically all members of a cross-functional team or department. Everybody in the team or department needs to attend – no exceptions, no skipping. If your department has 120 people, find a place where everybody can see, hear and chime in. For virtual teams, Google Hangout or Zoom can work.

Weekly Check-in Agenda

The agenda of the OKR check-in will let teams show and track progress towards their key results. An example agenda can look like this:

  • Good news, celebration, appreciation
  • OKRs, Look at previous commitments to “move the needle” and provide confidence scores.
  • Customer/client and employee feedback.
  • Go over the health metrics of your team and company (for example, KPIs)
  • Tap into the Collective Intelligence to generate ideas on how to create headway – the key results – this week. Track progress on running initiatives and make new commitments. Limit the number of topics you discuss. A skilled facilitator can help here.
  • Who, What, When summary. Describe who will take up which action items and record the results.
  • One-phrase close. Wish everybody a nice week. Use some motivational language here.
Photo by Belinda Fewings

Daily OKR Check-ins

Are you crazy? Daily check-ins? Most successful teams I know like to do a daily 10-minute check-in in addition to the weekly check-ins. Maybe you are familiar with the daily huddle or daily stand-up from Scrum. The concept of a daily meeting is used in all sorts of industries. A recent case study in the Rotterdam Eye Hospital in the Netherlands revealed improved patient safety by having a regular 10 minute team meeting every day. The goal of the daily check-in is to craft a plan for the day.

A crucial element of daily OKR check-ins are the daily metrics and they are what will set this kind of activity apart from a status meeting. In status meetings, when you huddle with your team, people tend to look at the past (yesterday I did this or that). OKR check-ins look at the present (the next 24 hours). Defining daily team metrics is an art but so critical for any high-performing team and organization. If you can track progress on a daily basis towards your key results, the objectives seemingly fall into place, and you can enjoy the added benefit of increased performance and enhanced inner work life.

Daily Check-in Agenda

The daily check-in needs to happen at a fixed time every day. This will ensure the meeting becomes habitual. The agenda of a daily OKR check-in can look like this:

  • Goals of today. What is it you want to achieve at the end of today? What is the #1 priority?
  • The key results of today. Can we give a confidence score for each? Can we move the needle on the key results today? If you use quota or activity metrics in your KRs, what do you need to today to make those numbers?
  • Hurdles. Are you blocked by anything, anybody? Can someone help you to remove this challenge?

Like with the daily huddle, the daily OKR check-in needs to be a standing meeting because it increases the productivity of the group.

Dull OKR Check-ins

Both weekly and daily OKR check-ins can become dull at times, mainly because “business as usual” kicks-in. It requires some discipline to keep the meetings running with motivation and passion. Dull check-ins will demotivate people and eventually people will abandon their weekly or daily habits and the status quo will win out again.

One of the keys to a successful OKR check-in are good metrics. Good metrics inside your key results will track progress on a daily or weekly basis towards your objective. Try to avoid vanity metrics like Net Promoter Score or Monthly (Recurring) Revenue as the numbers will not be updated on a weekly or daily basis. Also metrics that are not or cannot be influenced by the team will demotivate people. A mixture of outcome, quota and activity metrics is recommended. Finding the perfect metrics truly is an art and developing them requires patience and often the assistance of a certified OKR trainer to help get the ball rolling in the right direction.

 

boring

Power of OKR Check-Ins

I have seen teams do OKRs check-ins in the past years and the results are remarkable:

  • Reduction in uncertainty
  • Increase in accountability
  • Highly engaged workforce
  • Clarity on goals and strategic direction
  • Fast feedback and learning (as compared to grading OKRs)
  • Seeing meaningful progress for managers and employees alike

Recap

Uncertainty is the source of deep discomfort
Progression makes us happy
Consistent progress enhances inner work life
Inner work life drives performance
OKR Check-ins track weekly or daily progress

Could You Use Some Help?

Schedule a free 30-minute chat with me to explore how OKR check-ins can help you achieve remarkable results.