Agile leadership - more agility with the OKR method

Table of Contents

Many of today's employees want their work to fulfill or serve a higher purpose: People are looking for meaning and effectiveness and want clear roles and responsibilities. At the same time, a new digital mindset expects transparency in decision making, engagement and collaboration. In addition, technological innovations and greater customer influence on products are creating ever greater pressure to innovate, which in turn puts pressure on companies to constantly create added value. As a result, traditional management methods are often too slow for today's fast-moving businesses.

What's behind the agile management approach?

Agile companies respond quickly to market and environmental changes and focus on customer needs. In our dynamic world, this can be a critical capability. Agile working encourages experimentation, continuous learning and transparent collaboration. If agile teams can make strategic decisions, the strategic focus and direction of the business must be clear to all. This is key for teams and individuals to effectively achieve performance and results.

What is agile leadership?

Agile leadership means creating change that supports building an agile organization.

Agile leaders have a passion for learning, open innovation, and employee development. They are able to (re)develop and communicate the company vision and business goals to their teams by being a coach to them: They set the direction and then empower the teams to best achieve the goals they set together.

In addition, an agile leader works continuously to enable the organization to adapt quickly to change.

people pointing at sticky notes

Leadership at eye level

An agile leader supports his or her employees by:

  • Creating an environment where people can feel safe, even if they fail
  • Providing all the necessary information to make appropriate decisions
  • Encouraging employees’ decisions

The manager is the point of contact for the entire team and inspires with agile leadership methods. At the same time, the management also takes care of the implementation of the employees' ideas with continuous commitment and according to the "bottom-up" principle, i.e. from the bottom up. It is about leadership at eye level.

Today's decentralized way of working and the need to work across teams also requires motivated team leadership that focuses on priorities and goals and can adapt to changing situations and different scenarios. In the search for answers in agile organizations on how to achieve this, OKRs could be one answer:

Objectives and Key Results

Objectives and Key Results

OKR (Objectives Key Results): OKR is a helpful method for goal management. It can be an important foundation especially for agile transformation projects. Objectives and Key Results are used to define how goals ("Objectives") are to be achieved through concrete, specific and quantifiable measures, the Key Results. Key Results are time-bound and measurable milestones among the objectives for an organization or team.

The OKR framework is particularly suitable for companies that want to make their management method more agile. The iterative nature of OKR leads to focus, better alignment, and commitment as key benefits of leading in an agile context. OKRs are used to create qualitative, measurable, and inspiring goal statements that align daily work with business strategy and goal setting. Then, corporate OKRs systematically track goal achievement. Ultimately, agile leadership is also about developing goals for the company that can be achieved effectively, as well as holding oneself accountable.

Why agile leadership?

To build and lead an agile business, managers need to develop new mindsets and capabilities to transform themselves, their teams, and the company.

The goal of agile transformation requires a fundamentally new way of managing people. Companies should therefore expand the competencies that have made their leaders successful, but also overcome them. 

Leaders need three new types of skills for agile transformations:

  • First, they need to change themselves to further develop individual ways of thinking and behaving. 
  • Second, they need to transform their teams to work in new ways. Teams should be empowered to think and work strategically and make strategic decisions. 
  • Third, they need to develop the ability to transform the business by building agility into the culture of the entire organization.

Is agile leadership a good fit for my company?

Agile companies, regardless of size or industry, have four frameworks in common:

  1. A rapidly evolving environment: customers and partners have high expectations of agile companies, investors demand growth, and competitors and employees demand action to meet rapidly changing priorities.
  2. Continued adoption of forward-looking technologies: Agile companies and industries are in a constant state of flux due to digitization, advances in life science, and innovative use of new technologies.
  3. Accelerating digitization and democratization of information: The increasing volume, transparency, and dissemination of information requires agile enterprises to rapidly engage in multidirectional communication and complex collaboration with customers, partners, and colleagues.
  4. New methods of headhunting: As creative, knowledge- and learning-based roles become increasingly important, companies need a distinctive value proposition to attract the best talents. These employees often have diverse backgrounds, mindsets, and experiences.

Agile leadership is often a challenge for very large organizations. The requirements for flexibility, experimentation, and the ability to change quickly in a dynamic environment often seem incompatible with the more rigid structure of a larger company.
However, with the right framework and culture, agility can be achieved at all levels in the organization. 

These 5 innovative companies are proof of this and show how other companies can reap the benefits of agility and OKR methodology:

  1. LEGO
  2. Cisco
  3. Barclays
  4. Zalando
  5. Google 
  6. Atlassian
OKR software
Trade-off between Business, Processes, and IT

Agile leaders as enablers of agile transformation

Leaders and the way they shape corporate culture can be the biggest obstacles to successful agile transformations - but also the biggest enablers.

So as you move toward a new corporate vision or goals, you need to start by both augmenting and replacing the competencies that have made you successful in the past.

How does agile leadership work?

True Agile Leaders are inclusive, democratic leaders who demonstrate a great openness to ideas and innovation. With their passion for learning, their focus on developing people, and their ability to define and communicate a desired vision and goals, they have all the tools necessary to successfully inspire others and effect change in their organization.

Agile leaders focus on the needs of others. They acknowledge the perspectives of others, give them the attention they need to achieve their professional and personal goals, include them in decisions when appropriate, and create a shared vision and common direction within their teams. This leads to higher engagement, greater trust, and stronger relationships with team members:

  • They have a clear vision together with their team.
  • They believe in their mission and follow it daily.
  • They build a culture of self-organization and self-management of their team.
  • They focus on what really matters - creating value for the customer.

Agile leadership in practice - the key principles

Agile leadership impacts at two levels - the structural level and the behavioral level:

At the structural level, it is about processes, roles, responsibilities and key performance indicators (KPIs).
At the behavioral level, it is about specific actions by leaders in specific situations, underpinned by specific mindsets and capabilities.

Taken together, the structural and behavioral components reinforce each other, creating a leadership tool that extends its influence and commitment throughout the organization.

An Agile Leader:

  • Conducts regular planning sessions to determine strategies and goals, and keeps alternative scenarios for achieving goals in mind.
  • Directs focus on data and KPIs.
  • Empowers and inspires employees to make decisions based on data and their own knowledge.
  • Provides opportunities for employees to network and share information and uses these opportunities himself/herself.
  • Pulls back and works on the system, not just in it.
  • Develops an organizational vision and refers to it regularly.
  • Strikes a balance between structure and chaos in favor of a balance of effectiveness and efficiency.
Workpath Masterclass

Actions and methods for more agile leadership

How can managers lead in an even more agile way? And what measures, methods, and behaviors should managers use to lead by example and build a dynamic culture?

Don't panic when problems arise: A strong infrastructure with sound business practices and processes gives the leader the ability to focus on innovation and risk mitigation. The ability to think clearly and quickly is an important attribute of an agile leader, as well as processing different points of view and data.

Set the focus clearly: Leaders should focus on outcomes rather than resources. This is the only way companies can be and remain relevant in a dynamic world.

Exercise emotional intelligence: This includes connecting with others and collaborating effectively. In addition, people and interactions should take precedence over processes and tools, and collaboration with customers should take precedence over rational agreements. Emotional intelligence enhances a leader's agility by enabling him or her to forge strong relationships that help him or her anticipate and navigate the twists and turns of leading a team, business or organization.

Flexibility as a priority: Adaptability, important in any environment, is almost essential in leaders. The key to success is to become familiar with leadership styles and techniques, whether through reading and observing, sharing with peers, or getting honest feedback from those you lead. Leaders should also always remain flexible when dealing with complex problems and be open to unusual, new ideas. 

Be a master decision maker: Great leaders make quick, important, and far-reaching decisions all the time. Quick decision making is what organizations expect from an agile management team.

Learning from mistakes: Everyone inevitably makes mistakes. The key to being a dynamic leader is to address the "why" of his or her mistakes, learn from them, and share them with others. In this way, you can develop as a leader while allowing your employees to thrive and grow.

Never stop growing: Agile leaders must develop a growth mindset to perfect their craft and achieve goals and objectives.

OKR guide

Agile leadership with OKR

Future generations of managers will focus primarily on clarity in their vision, transparency about progress and strategic priorities, as well as rapid feedback cycles between strategy and execution and on key organizational processes. Now, results will be the focus of analysis. OKRs provide the ideal system not only for clear communication of goals, progress and results, but also of optimization potential and lessons learned.

With transparency about the organization's target system, every employee knows what he or she is working for and how he or she is contributing to the achievement of the target by reaching a specific and concrete goal. In this way, each employee always has an answer to the question of their personal "why?" and can therefore make better decisions. 

How do agility and OKR fit together?

The agile processes of project management represent the means and the applied working methods at team level. On the other hand, the OKR represents the intended results and provides the path for the company's direction. The coexistence of the two methods has the potential to continuously align work with the company's goals and strategy, increase employee engagement, and make work more purposeful.
The gap between strategy and execution is closed, allowing employees to focus more on ensuring that their daily actions pay off in terms of strategy.

Adopting the agile approach to project management is a great foundation for introducing meaningful processes, practices and principles to the team. OKRs are a unique way to communicate goals to individual team members, creating a comprehensive approach at every organizational level.

Agility at the project management level lends itself very well to speed and adaptability at the work level. To achieve the same at the organizational level ("business agility”), OKRs are needed in order to reach agility at the goal and strategy level as well.

So, applying the OKR method enables to achieve Business Agility by:

  • Empowering employees to self-organize within the team
  • Increased transparency through a common goal-setting process and mapping of the organization's goal system
  • Opportunities for rapid feedback and course correction through lead metrics
  • Clear alignment to goals through regular assessment of results and the corresponding flexible adjustment of objectives

3 OKRs for agile transformation in management

Leader Commitment: 

Objective: Leaders provide direction to employees during times of agile transformation with clear objectives and an understandable roadmap as they develop their agile leadership skills.

  1. Key Result: The number of employees who understand business goals increases 60-80%
  2. Key Result: 90% of employees report understanding the goal of the restructuring and the roadmap in the employee survey 
  3. Key Result: The number of employees who would describe their manager's style as agile increases from 60-80%
  4. Key Result: 75% of employees confirm that leaders have evolved in their leadership skills through training 

Team Capability:

Objective: our teams are constantly evolving, their work is transparent, and teams support each other in achieving their strategic goals 

  1. Key Result: The number of employees who have attended training in accordance with their Career Framework increases from 66% to 89
  2. Key Result: The number of teams that map their goals in Workpath increases from 78% to 88%.
  3. Key Result: The alignment rate of OKRs across the organization increases from 45% to 67%.

Trade-off between IT and business: Key individuals drive transformation through improved communication, more cross-functional collaboration, and continuous optimization leading to better predictability of strategy execution.
Number of business partners supporting post-transformation efforts increases by 19% (as measured by active membership in relevant working groups)

  • The speed of response in the internal feedback system reduces from 2.5 days to 0.5
  • The number of cross-functional teams, in areas defined as meaningful, increases from 30%-68%
  • The number of teams that support the company's goals with their strategic objectives increases by 16%.
  • The rate of optimization implemented in cross-functional teams in the Quaetal increases by 30% The cross-functional teams regularly review their progress and implement optimizations
  • The forecast moves 17% closer to the final goal achievement level Predictability of goal achievement improves

Agile Management FAQ

What is the agile management method?

The agile methods in management are used to move from strategies to results faster and more effectively.

What is the OKR framework?

OKR stands for "Objectives and Key Results", a popular framework for goal management that helps organizations achieve their goals. OKRs help organizations close the gap between strategy and execution and move from an output-oriented to a results-oriented approach to work.