Making OKRs work – Lessons from OKR successes and failures

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Natalija is a trainer and coach focusing on OKR, Leadership & Responsibility and Remote Collaboration. She supports companies wanting to increase focus, autonomy and value-creation to prioritize their challenges, get started and continuously improve. Sonja is a consultant and trainer for agile strategy concepts and OKRs. She has over fifteen years of traditional management experiences in the digital industry. They both work with organizations at different stages of their OKR journey - from first "Know-how" workshops to OKR Practitioner coaching and organizational development. Natalija and Sonja recently published their book OKRs AT THE CENTER: How to use goals to drive ongoing change and create the organization you want.In an interview with the Workpath Magazine Sonja and Natalija give insights into their book and what lessons they have learned from many years of supporting companies with their OKR implementation and scaling efforts. Moreover, they provided the Workpath Comment with free access to the OKR Workshop Guide from “OKRs at the Center".

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

Hi Natalija, hi Sonja. You are both very active in the OKR community. Now there is a book published by the two of you. What made this happen?

Sonja: A lot of practical experience and good timing! We have both been working with OKRs as employees and consultants for quite a while and over time observed different patterns of how companies actually work with OKRs, what they want to achieve and what the outcome is.

Natalija: Given the individual nature of these journeys, we started to create an approach on how to - instead of teaching OKRs and guiding the whole implementation - support companies in finding their individual starting point, clarify their desired benefits and navigate their OKR System and their whole organization through the different patterns during their individual OKR learning journey.

Sonja: And finally last year,  we discussed our approach with Joshua Seiden from Sense & Respond Press, who agreed that this is a story worth telling the world. So we collected and structured our material and experience and with their great support wrote our short, practical book. Luckily, we did it fully remote from the beginning, so it could be finalized and published in April 2020 as planned.

You have guided many OKR implementations. You mentioned that there was also a lot of frustration, why was that?

Natalija: Many companies start to implement OKRs and then fall short of their (probably exaggerated) expectations. They want to become more agile, more outcome-driven, more autonomous, more focused and so on - all at the same time  and at best overnight with OKRs as the silver bullet to make it happen.

Sonja:  Without clarity about why OKRs are used in a company, there is a lot of room for misinterpretation. Maybe the management mainly wants to achieve higher focus, but the teams are longing for the promised autonomy they heard from other companies using OKRs. If OKR processes are not explicitly set up for autonomy, they may never deliver that promise and many people will get frustrated.

A lot of companies also strive to improve value-creation with OKRs, so more focus on the changes in human behavior (=outcome)  instead of only producing something (=output) without a connection to meaningful impact.Sonja: At the beginning of our OKR-consulting and training journey, we have been deeply connected with that desired benefit and tried to support managers and teams to define outcome-driven OKRs and got frustrated as well because they were often not ready.

OKR Rollout Guide

Many companies want to create outcome-based OKR Sets.  Could you tell us about a case/example and how the missing outcome-readiness has been visible in the OKR process?

Natalija: One client team we worked with wanted to move away from their rather output-driven team OKR Set more towards value-based ones. When we met them, their OKR Sets looked something like a summary of tasks and features they wanted to get done:

Objective: Our new platform is live (-> already describes a fixed solution)

Key Result 1: Feature 1,2,3 and 4 are live

Key Result 2: Define concept, present to management and prototype feature 5

Key Result 3: 10 user tests carried out on the prototype

Sonja: In the next OKR Definition workshop, we pushed the team to find Objectives that described an “inspiring ambitious why” and left open “how” to exactly achieve the goal instead of already pre-defining the solution ahead. The set looked something like this:

Objective: We are a mature partner for long term collaboration (-> describes why you want to do something)

Key Result 1: From 30% to 75% enterprise client satisfaction rate

Key Result 2: No sales pitch lost through perceived immaturity of services

Key Result 3: 100% of interviews associate new features as “enterprise”, “trustworthy” or “capable”(-> describes how you would know that the “why” comes to live)The real frustration for the team followed, when they realized that they themselves and their management did not feel comfortable working with these goals, because they fostered a lot of insecurity and misunderstanding in their company. Questions like “So what do we actually do now?” in the team and insecurities in the management whether the team would “deliver the right things” created a lot of tension and they went back to business as usual very soon.  For us, this workshop was a major turning point.

What did you take away from this example and what did you change as a result?

Natalija: What we took from this and many other experiences is: It is important to have a clear vision what you want to achieve with OKRs - but it is just as important to have an honest look around: what is your culture like, what is your structure like, how does leadership work in your organization and so on - and then find a balanced first step. If companies are not ready for an outcome-driven way of working - including the necessary changes in leadership, strategy or task planning processes, they will not be able to work with outcome-driven goals right away and frustration is inevitable. Therefore, we always start with the OKR vision and an assessment of the status quo, then design their (first) OKR System - so the way they work with OKRs - based on the conclusions and then iterate from there. As OKRs develop over time so does the organization, because all organizational elements and their transformation are connected to the way you set goals.

What are typical obstacles you see in the organizations wanting to work with OKRs or improving their current OKR setup?

Sonja: What many companies identify  along the way are obstacles in their organizational system - for example incentive systems, that do not appreciate generating value and fast learning over the amount of working hours or revenue. Typically, this is already visible in the company manifest and the way how purpose, mission, vision and strategy are formulated. It is hard to come up with value-driven OKRs, if your strategy only tells you to “double growth”.

Natalija: Also functional team structures and silo thinking make it a lot harder to think and act with a single goal in mind. Internally conflicting goals and very high alignment efforts are often the consequence. I would not say you need a certain structure to work with OKRs, but to fully leverage their potential and reach the desired benefits, cross-functional teams and a clear focus on the customer journey for all activities and decisions for example make a huge difference. And that’s what companies discover on their OKR journey: To actually work differently with goals, you need to make other changes along the way.

In your book "OKRs at the Center" you describe that the introduction of OKRs often triggers these further change processes. Where do you see the connection?

Sonja: Goals represent what both the organization and all its parts are trying to achieve. When you change the way you work with goals, it changes the way you work together across the whole organizational system, because they influence each other.  So implementing OKRs has the potential to deliver tremendous benefits and develop your organization.

Natalija: But only if you dare to make courageous decisions along the way. Introducing OKRs in an organization makes the status quo visible, because it serves like a mirror to the organizational culture, structure and leadership mindset. That is not always a comfortable experience. To really create momentum for ongoing change, you need to proactively reflect and act on what you see in the mirror to develop your organization and achieve the desired benefits.

Many companies see a lot of additional effort when starting to work with OKRs. Do you have a tip on how to deal with that?

Sonja: OKRs should not be done for the sake of doing OKRs, but to actually use them to gain more focus, better alignment and more value-creation and to help prioritize your projects and tasks.  And organizations will only continue to work with them, if they see the value OKRs bring in - shortterm and longterm.

Natalija: That can only happen if the OKR Sets themselves and the OKR process steps (like the Check-ins) are integrated into the existing business routines for task planning and execution. And  if the long-term goals, values and strategy of the organization build the foundation for the OKR Definition. Don’t build a parallel universe with OKR Definition, OKR Check-in and OKR Reflections on top, but add the OKR perspective wherever possible to align long term, midterm and short term goals. Sonja: Maybe you will find out that your strategy process needs some tweaking as a result or you need different team routines - then you can act on that to create more efficient and value-creating processes and structures overall - not just for OKRs.

OKRs do not work as a plug-and-play solution, but must be rather understood as an individually designed process. What does it look like when everything is running smoothly? So if everything is working as it should?

Natalija: There is not just one way or a right way to work with OKRs, so the “working as it should” will be different for every single company. The common themes would be that the organization and all employees know why they are working with OKRs and which benefits they are expecting. And iterating their OKR processes according to where they stand today and what they want to achieve in the next iteration. They would reflect on their OKR results and ways of working regularly, learn from impediments and AHA moments and directly act on those learnings in the next OKR cycle. And by continuous learning with goals they would create a momentum for ongoing change towards the organization they want to become - because goals they live at the center of everything you do.

Get free access to the OKR Workshop Guide from “OKRs at the Center". Moreover, you can find additional OKR Ressources in our Workpath Library.