Case Study – OKRs at Digital Media Women e.V.

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The OKR framework can be used to define goals at all levels of the organization and record the steps required to achieve them. Ideally, teams can thus enhance their strategic thinking and contribute to the corporate mission with their work. The framework is therefore not only interesting for for-profit organizations. In this interview, Maren Martschenko of Digital Media Women e.V. gives valuable insights into how OKRs can facilitate and advance volunteer work.

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

Hello Maren. You are one of the chairperson of Digital Media Women e.V. – why don't you tell us what you do and who you are?

We, the Digital Media Women, are a community founded in 2010 with the aim of achieving equal opportunities for women and men in the digital economy. Since 2012, we have been a non-profit organization with currently over 100 volunteer women in nine cities and regions in Germany. Our vision is to live in a world where diversity prevails. To work in a world in which women participate equally and have a visible influence. We see digital change as the greatest opportunity to realize this vision. To achieve this, we increase the visibility of women on all stages, support and network women who drive digital change, and translate our vision into our own formats and concrete proposals for politics, business, media, and society. With almost 20,000 men and women, we are Germany's largest online community in this area.

You have introduced OKRs to your community. How did this come about?

Especially in voluntary work, it can happen very quickly that you are torn between your own demands, the many ideas and the busy everyday life. At #DMW we also pursue great ideals and an ambitious goal: Nothing less than equal opportunities for women in business, politics, and society. Unfortunately, progress is often not immediately apparent or even measurable. A feeling of not doing enough quickly arises. Or it feels like you're not pulling in the same direction because different working groups at different locations work on different topics. Because we work remotely on different topics, the necessary information does not always flow as desired. Then frustration understandably arises. After all, our more than 100 volunteers spend their free time on this issue. We don't want to waste time, we want to be effective.

What did you want to change by introducing OKRs?

The introduction of OKRs is an important milestone for us on the way to the agilization of the association as a whole. A project of the magnitude and complexity of our vision – "We want to live in a world of diversity. We want to work in a world where women have equal participation and visible influence". – can, in our opinion, only be realized with an agile approach.

In order to create an effect or impact in the here and now, silos have to be broken down and organizations have to keep reuniting across networks and integrate digital communities well.

It is also important to bundle the respective resources optimally in order to pull together at the right time and multiply the impact. But this requires a completely new form of organization. With as few hierarchies as possible and all the more agile mindset and good structures. To meet these requirements, we first tried classical strategic planning tools. However, these already require a high degree of strategic thinking, which realistically is not (and does not have to be) provided by everyone. What we derived from this, however, were four strategic fields of action for our rapidly growing association, which are still relevant today:

  • the strategic positioning
  • external communication
  • the political mandate
  • the internal organization

Over the past four years, we have worked a lot on communication in virtual, decentralized teams, including the GfK method. We have implemented Google Drive as a collaborative platform. What was still missing was a framework that helps women to align their actions strategically and regularly achieve success in terms of progress and impact. Finally, a small task force worked its way into the impact logic of Phineo. This was developed specifically for non-profit organizations to illustrate the impact of their work. The impact logic of Phineo is very well thought out. However, it proved to be unsuitable for a broad-based organization like #DMW with a complex topic like ours. Familiarization with this method was too time-consuming for the teams. Working with it, however, helped us to understand what the biggest levers are for creating equal opportunities. From this, among other things, our idea for the #30mit30 campaign was born.

What we were still missing, however, was a method to pull together more strongly on a cross-regional level and at the same time close the gap between aspiration – what we want to achieve – and reality – what we can actually achieve with the available resources.

Why did you choose OKRs? Which factors were the deciding factors?

From the various "failed attempts" we learned: The framework has to be easy to understand and must last for a long time. It needs a strategic orientation and at the same time it should increase motivation. It must be something that strengthens the self-management qualities of each individual. And since we are a grassroots movement, the bottom-up character was important to us. The method had to be agile. What does that mean? The co-author of "Agiles Manifest", Robert Martin, puts it this way:

"In some ways agile is a way of destroying hope as early as possible. Get hope out of the project, get the project down to reality."

"Crashing hopes" may sound destructive, but especially in voluntary work it is important to align great expectations with reality as early as possible in the process. In discussions with organizational consultant Sabine Kahlenberg and Agile Coach Fran Fischer about how we can better align our organization in this regard, it became clear that the OKR method is ideal for this.

The decision is always only the first step. How did you manage to get into "Doing"? What were the first steps?

The first step towards OKRs, which had already proven its worth in the impact logic and the introduction of the collaboration platform, was to start with a small group. And as high up as possible.

As a committee we have role model character.

To ensure that this did not mutate into a top-down event, however, we brought in an advisory committee member and two members of a regional group or the newly formed task force on politics. They were highly motivated to get to know the approach. The rollout itself is iterative, because we learn step by step how we as an association can work with the method. Guided by Agile Coach Fran Fischer we worked out our Midterm Goals (MOALs). This took us longer than expected. Here, we fell at our feet, which many grassroots movements know:

We had too many equal priorities. We found the formulation of the goals and the respective WHY very challenging.

Nevertheless, within one weekend, we as a team managed to put the MOALs and GOALs into a table as a board for the first quarter of 2019. From then on, we worked consistently with the OKRs within the committee. We became increasingly better at formulating them. The regular Reviews and Retrospectives of the OKRs help us to constantly focus and prioritize, and to match big ideas with real resources and to formulate them in a more radical way.

Have you noticed any initial successes in the time since the introduction?

The OKRs are the ideal basis for discussions in order to decide objectively what is top priority and what is not.

That's very important, because if you put your heart and soul into it, emotions can run high at such points. With a view to the table, we can still come to a decision within the team. The OKRs have helped us on the committee a lot to focus our activities better and to understand their effectiveness more easily. We have achieved important milestones, for example with our #30mit30 campaign and our committee member Maren Heltsche as special representative of the Committee for Digitalization in the German Women's Council.

We are experiencing that the method really does relieve exactly where our greatest pain lies and that we can finally close the gap between what we set out to do and what we actually do. This is extremely relaxing.

Since the initial rollout with the committee, have you carried OKRs even further into the club?

After half a year, two teams could apply to implement the method with Agile Coach Fran Fischer as well. It was important to us that the motivation is high. In this constellation, we then developed the MOALs for 2020 and the GOALs for the first quarter of 2020 within a weekend. As committee members, we also slipped into the role of coaches during the weekend to help the newcomers with the formulation. To push the rollout of the OKR method to all #DMW quarters, 23 active Digital Media Women met for a weekend at the end of January for the annual #DMW Leadership Camp. The goal of this Leadership Camp was to learn to understand the implementation of OKRs – i.e. the formulation of Objectives (direction), Key Results (measurable results) and Initiatives (measures) – and to try them out together with the others. Representatives from eight of the nine districts were highly motivated to participate.  Our first learning, which we were able to pass on directly to the teams:

  • Quality before quantity
  • Logic before completeness
  • Progress before accuracy
  • In case of doubt: Backlog
  • Work forward, understand backward

What has changed for OKRs since its introduction? What have you learned?

OKRs are an agile strategy method for actually achieving the goals you set yourself for the year and bridging the gap between ambition and reality.

At first glance, the approach sounds logical and banal, but in practice it requires training. After all, you can get tangled up in the sense of wanting too much at once or thinking too small. Nevertheless, the framework works particularly well because:

  • the method includes a strong disciplining
  • the focus is on the challenges
  • you learn not to do too much at once
  • the question of the next step always resonates
  • the responsibilities are clearly defined
  • the key results are independent and not interdependent, so that they do not block each other
  • progress can be well monitored and measured
  • learning can be addressed

Above all, working with the OKR method makes it clear how quickly we all think in terms of solutions when it actually comes to getting there. But by doing so, we slow ourselves down and overtax ourselves. And we don't want that with the #DMW. We want to achieve our goal of equal opportunities. And the clearer our focus is on the way and on our voluntary resources, the better we can contribute to solving problems. Success is the sum of many small steps. Every success is always a team success, too. This also and especially applies to achieving equality and diversity in companies.

This is exactly where the OKR method comes in: Many small, measurable steps, developed bottom-up in the team, with continuous improvement through Reviews and Retrospectives.

How does it go for you now? What are the remaining challenges?

In order to consolidate the method within the entire association, we will regularly have an OKR consultation hour in the form of a virtual Retrospective. The reflection in dealing with the method and the mutual exchange to learn is very valuable. The more successful this is, the more likely it is that the framework will actually work. What we noticed: For non-profit organizations, some aspects of the method work differently, e.g. everyone volunteers to work for the association within a self-determined time frame. This slows down a lot. Our goal is it to achieve impact, not profit. This is not so easy to measure. OKR coaches, who otherwise only work for profit organizations, lack experience. That is why we will train women internally to become OKR Masters. These will then support the districts and task forces with workshops in the development of their OKRs. If this works out well, we will have our OKR planning camp in autumn with all the districts and task forces. The aim is to use the method throughout the entire association in 2021. As things are at present, we are very confident that this will succeed. So far, to our knowledge, we are the first and only non-profit organization working with OKRs. However, the framework is predestined especially for organizations that work a lot with volunteers, in order to achieve more impact together with more motivation. And that is what it's all about at the end of the day.

Thanks a lot Maren for the insights. We wish you continued success and are sure you will inspire some non-profit as well as for-profit companies.

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