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3 Steps for OKR Success: Set, Align, Achieve

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A Guest Commentary of OKR-Expert Felipe Castro – About the 3 steps for OKR success.

I help companies adopt OKR to transform how they use goals. I have seen it’s power over and over again. Functional silos were replaced by aligned teams, static annual plans replaced by responsive rhythms. Also, OKRs enable increasingly engaged and motivated employees and engineers that have learned the business metrics working side by side with marketing.

But after training and coaching thousands of individuals, I can quickly list OKR’s anti-patterns. The repeated practices that appear to be beneficial, but result in adverse consequences.

OKR anti-patterns fall into three categories:

  • Setting bad OKRs: Examples include treating OKR as a to-do list, creating too many OKRs, and creating Key Results that are not actionable – the team doesn’t know what to do to improve them.
  • Creating OKRs in silos:  Teams that set their OKRs without talking to each other end up with conflicting OKRs and poor results.
  • “Set it and Forget it”:  Treating OKRs as New Year’s resolutions will get you the same results: a list of neglected and non-achieved goals.

The romantic view of OKR

There is a lot of bad OKR-advice floating around. In fact, there is a widespread romantic view of OKR where things magically happen. And where the primary goal of OKR is not to add value but to be more Googley, regardless of the impact we are making.

This view is misleading and is reinforced by software vendors, consultants, publications and even by Google itself.

In Romantic OKR, the quality of the OKRs does not matter. Just write anything you want, even “eat 5 pies“. Yes, that is an actual example from Google’s re:Work website.

Alignment is an afterthought in Romantic OKR. Why bother?

A leading OKR software vendor recommends that you should not align the OKRs during the first two quarters because “it’s already too much work.” By not correctly aligning the OKRs, they are setting their clients up to fail. Companies will not get the essential benefit of OKR, and the non-resolved interdependencies will jeopardize the achievement of the OKRs.

In Romantic OKR there is also no need to track your OKRs. Just set them at the beginning of the quarter and “grade” them at the end, as if the Silicon Valley fairy dust would take care of your results for you. It’s the “Set it, Forget it, and Grade it” model.

Romantic OKRs do not have a lot in common with the realistic approach to set successful OKRs. Instead it is important to give constructive advice and raise awareness for experienced anti-patterns that do not need to be repeated.

The Set, Align, Achieve cycle

To fight Romantic OKR and to address the most common pitfalls in OKR adoption, I have created a straightforward method, the Set, Align, Achieve cycle:

The Set, Align, Achieve cycle

The cycle is based on two assumptions:

First, to use goals successfully, we can’t just “set” them. We also have to Align them with the rest of the organization and work systematically to Achieve them. Therefore, we have to change the language we use. People talk about goal setting as if setting goals was all we needed to be successful. Even the most respected researchers in the field, Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, called their work the Goal Setting Theory.2.

Second, a linear approach cannot handle uncertainty. We need to be able to adapt based on what we learn. That is why the cycle is an iterative approach to enable flexibility.

Now, let’s go through each step of the Set, Align, Achieve cycle:

Set

Creating high-quality OKRs is a crucial first step. They should be:

  • Valuable: OKRs should measure impact and not be merely a list of activities. Focus on Value-based Key Results.
  • Engaging: The OKR setting process should engage the creativity and the perspectives of the employees. The OKRs themselves should be inspiring instead of boring.
  • Actionable: The team has to understand the metrics and how they relate to each other. If the team does not know what it can do to improve a Key Result, it will never be successful.

Align

The traditional approach of cascading goals focuses on vertical alignment. Each individual has to align his/her goals with the boss, all the way up the hierarchy. This model tends to create silos, as teams often don’t talk to each other and horizontal alignment comes is not taken into account.

Cross-team alignment does not magically happen. We need a structured approach to ensure that each team aligns not only with the company strategy but also with their colleagues. That is the role of the second step: Align.

After drafting the OKRs, each team has to:

  • map interdependencies
  • create shared OKRs
  • ensure both vertical and horizontal (cross-functional) alignment

During the Align-step, each team will also discuss the proposed OKR with their manager. The role of the executives is to coach and to challenge the teams, helping to create better OKRs.

It is important to understand that you will probably need to review your OKRs after talking to the other teams. They will give you new ideas and will tell you what they can or cannot do. That is why there is an iteration between the first two steps in the Set, Align, Achieve cycle:

Achieve

Goals are often apart from the organizational rhythm. People see them as an obligation they have besides their real work.. But successful teams do it differently. Instead of keeping OKRs “apart from” their work, they make OKRs “a part of” their work. OKR becomes a critical component of the management model.

To do that, after setting and aligning the OKRs, the teams have to work to Achieve them. They have to track and act upon the OKRs to reach them.

At the heart of the Achieve step is the OKR Check-in, a weekly ceremony for measuring the OKRs and adjusting the corresponding initiatives. Adopting the Check-in is crucial to OKR success. The goal is not to add more meetings, but to make them more productive and focused on (customer and business) value instead of tasks.

Conclusion

OKR is not a silver bullet. Like any other tool, it can be misused. After applying it at dozens of clients, I believe the Set, Align, Achieve cycle is a powerful tool to drive a successful OKR adoption.

I hope it will help you avoid the most common OKR mistakes and escape the lure of Romantic OKR.

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