OKR implementation at Detecon – an interview with Marc Wagner

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As Managing Partner and Leader, Marc Wagner contributed to the transfer of the Practice Company ReBuilding to an agile management model at Detecon. As a senior expert for transformation and restructuring projects, he focused in particular on the topics of finance and HR management, HR transformation, New Work and Company Rebuilding. He talked to Workpath about how Detecon managed a successful OKR implementation and mindset change.

If you want to know more about the OKR framework, take a look at our article "Objectives and Key Results (OKR) - A Definition"

Hello Marc, you have been working at Detecon for over 10 years and are, among others, responsible for the topics New Work and Company ReBuilding. Could you tell us a little bit about Detecon and what exactly your area of responsibility includes?

Detecon is a German, internationally active management and technology consulting firm with a focus on the field of digital transformation. By using modern communication and information technologies we help companies to adapt their business models and operational processes to the competitive conditions and customer requirements in the digital world. I have been a member of Detecon for more than 10 years now,  in very different roles from client manager to member of the international management board. As Managing Partner and leader of the Practice New Work & Company ReBuilding, I am responsible for topics such as New Work, the future of the HR function, and the culture of innovation. In particular, I support companies in the transformation of digital ecosystems, innovation and agile work organizations. In 2017, I was also responsible for the transformation of the Practice Company ReBuilding into an agile management model.

OKR Rollout Guide

Why did you decide to work with OKRs back then? What has changed with the introduction of OKRs?  

The OKR framework is an issue that's affecting more and more companies and being implemented in them. Especially as management consultants we see it as our responsibility to set an example for the products and approaches we recommend – we call this ‘eat your own dog food’. This was one of the reasons why we decided to work with OKRs – to become pioneers of a successful management approach. On the other hand, we are nowadays more often confronted with changes and new topics and have to react quickly to the current market requirements. The question of how to manage to transfer more responsibility and cooperation from hierarchical, classical structures to teams has moved us for a long time. With the goal in mind of creating decentralized structures that help us to bring our products to market effectively and efficiently, this was, in addition to our agile management model, a further incentive to implement OKRs.

Through the introduction, the Practice has built up a model that is understandable and tailored to the needs of all employees, with its own world of concepts that is far removed from theory. As a result, new roles such as Agile Agent or Product Owner have been defined and generated and various responsibilities, such as the optimal bundling of resources, have been assigned.  In addition, we moved into 3-month sprints in which our products and services were developed and we created a backlog for prioritizing our tasks. In doing so, all tasks that do not generate the maximum customer value are set to ‘stop doing’. The optimal and customer value related prioritization of scarce resources is clearly at the heart of our approach.

How was the change received internally?

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After the kick-off in 2018 – one of my best experiences at Detecon - all employees started the new phase with great willingness, full of zest for action and a lot of energy. However, the initial euphoria and enthusiasm turned into ignorance, frustration and excessive demands for some of them.  Reasons for this were, among others, the too fast introduction of too many changes, the not yet optimal dovetailing of OKRs and agile control at the beginning, as well as the lack of a suitable digital solution that creates transparency for all activities while reducing the complexity of the cooperation. However, we reacted quickly and took measures such as learning formats, training for product owners and regular meetings with the Practice Council, our leadership team, to increase employee motivation. As the OKR implementation only intervenes in the process organisation, we took advantage of working in 3-month sprints without the need for tough and lengthy discussions with management or social partners. We also conducted regular anonymous feedback loops and surveyed employee satisfaction with the implementation. This enabled us to continually optimize the approach and increase acceptance.

“I am particularly proud of the development of an open and merciless feedback culture, which always brings us suggestions for improvement.”

Do you map all your tasks on the basis of OKRs or only a certain part?

With the help of the OKRs we try to create a focus for our corporate tasks. This implies the mapping of the most important activities for us. Agile means to create maximum value for customers with an existing and limited set of resources.

Due to your strongly project-driven work OKRs can not always be mapped in a predictable way. What are the biggest challenges you face as a service provider?

First, we defined 3 Objectives for the entire Practice and then defined and adjusted Key Results for each iteration. The teams involved were then aligned in the backlog structures in such a way that these in turn contributed to the overall Objectives. At the beginning, however, we defined our OKRs too strategically, long-term and outcome related. Consequently, they did not correspond to the company's KPIs and our employees set their focus incorrectly. As a result, some KPIs were only met to a fraction of their original targets. This taught us to link the OKRs to the KPIs for our subsequent iterations and not to think in purely outcome-driven terms. Not because we didn’t know how to use the OKR approach correctly, but rather to keep an eye on the company KPIs. Therefore, we agreed on the compromise of using KPIs and OKRs together rather than differentiating between them.

Company Rebuilding at Detecon

How did you manage to reconcile your agile management model with OKRs? What exactly was or is the difficult part?

In 2017, it was not yet the standard to dovetail OKRs with ‘agile’ and the approach met with much resistance. “It doesn't work”, “It doesn’t fit”, “These are different cycles”, “We don't need OKRs”, were phrases that were heard over and over again. Hence, in the beginning, agile believers met OKR believers. But as time went on, they got closer and closer and compromises were made. Theoretical approaches were gradually ‘cleansed’ and adapted to our specific needs.  Good communication was particularly important for this, as there was a need for clarification on many points. The differentiation between outcome and output fitted perfectly into agile, but the terms were not used in the agile management model. The first thing to do was to clarify the terms and find a common language. The questions “What is relevant?”, “What does the customer want?”, “What generates benefit?” arised. Fortunately, this initial language barrier did not become a mindset barrier.

“In the beginning it was very difficult for us to make a merciless ‘stop doing’. ‘Kill your darlings’ was a challenge.”

Today, OKRs are sold by Agiles as a matter of course. But the whole process of acceptance has taken a good year, since it took time to get into a certain flow.

OKR at Detecon

Figure 2: The management model of Detecon

The complete interview with Marc Wagner with insights into the learnings and challenges of Detecon can be found in our Community.