You failed in OKR land! Well done.


This article was originally published by Tina Dreimann on the Kartenmacherei blog.

You failed in OKR land! Well done.

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are a management tool praised by Google and LinkedIn. Anybody can profit from it, and take it to the next level. I am in the game since 2012 and here are five tips I want to share and discuss with you. Because once hooked on this simple system, it sparks our inner instincts. We want to get better, we want to reach the next level.

Do you really aim for results?

Yes, key results (KRs) should always be measurable. Make sure to measure results though. I have seen it several times that KRs state process steps. Then, we start lying to ourselves.

We lie to ourselves, whenever we count steps that we take to reach a desired outcome. “Published 4 articles”? That is not a business result. It is output, not outcome. “Created 10.000 page views on Medium” is. Using the first example, I could write 4 articles and win no traction at all. But hey, I achieved 100% on my KR.

You also lose flexibility, if you write down process steps that you can tick off. Particularly but not only startups need this flexibility during a OKR period. “Increased traffic by 150%” helps a team to find more creative solutions. “Launched 4 new Adwords campaigns” puts on blinds from the beginning.

Are your OKRs ambitious enough?

We only jump as high as the bar. Based on this statement, I recommend to go with Google: “70% completion are a fantastic result”. This is why we at kartenmacherei do not tie our compensation model to the OKR system. If our income relies on reaching OKRs, we start to negotiate. We will negotiate to lower the bar, not to raise it. And there are two great examples which stress the importance of a high bar.

The first is a management example from Liz Wiseman’s The Multiplier. Matt McCauley was a manager that reached for the stars. He did the numbers and announced to the board to be able to almost double net income per share. The board was not convinced at the time. But explaining his rationale to the team, they all agreed on this mission impossible. Then, they split it into several smaller impossible missions. With this vision and clarity, they outperformed their goal. Exactly what OKRs are for…

The second example is from high jumping: the Fosbury Flop. Records had stalled until Dick Fosbury won Olympic Gold in 1968 with 2.16 m. His secret was to aim higher, to rethink the previous approach and turn it upside down. Learning? Let’s use our OKRs to think out of the box.

Are your teams committed?

At kartenmacherei, we work in self-governing teams. Each team is in the driver’s seat to set and execute quarterly goals. They can and do seek support from coaches and stakeholders. This is why OKRs do need a clear process. The process does and may vary from team to team. But successful teams manage to include all members and their expertise. This approach not only ensures buy-in, but also sensible OKRs.

Only great teams can master their OKRs. Let me recommend Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team. His pyramid depicts four barriers why teams do not focus on results. They lack trust, fear conflict, lack commitment, and avoid accountability. The conflict is crucial for sensible OKRs in autonomous teams. Only with conflict in the OKR definition, will the team commit to achieving them.

There are teams that do not reflect minority interests in quarterly goals — not just personal interests, interests that can drive our business success. The idea of self-governing teams is to decentralize decision making. That means that each team needs to fight their own battles. In a hierarchical organization, these discussions are reserved to leadership level.

In the end, there is only one way to resolve mismatching interests within a team. All members are brave enough to speak up. We will take an opinion into account, underlined by facts and ideally figures. Do not get me wrong, I am not talking about consensus. I am a fan of “agree to disagree”. The experts should decide. And the bigger the decision, the more sparring partners should be involved.

Do the OKRs provide you with focus?

Our cross-functional team setup has several advantages. One is that each team has a clear customer focus and thus growth purpose. So OKRs are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. In 2016, we still worked in thirteen functional silos led by Head Ofs. We managed a shop relaunch in that setup. But that was only possible after deciding top-down to align all teams on one goal.

If you discover that several teams are working on the same goal at the same time, you might not have found a true agile team setup yet. Agile teams are self-governing. Every team needs to have its own purpose and the ability to serve it. The key to avoid overlapping goals is to find the right dimension for setting up teams together with them. Such dimensions can be products, customer groups or customer needs.

There is no right answer on how many Os (Objectives) and KRs (Key results) a team should have. It depends on the setup and size of your teams. In one of his SVPG blog articles, Marty Cagan names an example with one goal per team. This is how I used to work in an agile team combining Product Manager, Developers and QA. For larger cross-functional teams that own the full value chain, one is not enough for one quarter. We currently work with a rule of three: three objectives, three key results per objective per team. Thus, priorities need to be absolutely clear.

Do you have the right culture in place?

“The goals have to be achievable!” “My OKRs are so frustrating!”

We live in a society where we pat our backs for achievements. We are ashamed of failure. Our generation lives with the core belief that mistakes are bad, flaws are evil.

Yet the older I get, the more I realize that the learnings I made from mistakes are the ones I cannot get out of my head. Zero defect, the idea that one must not make any mistakes at all, is a great vision to drive quality. At the same time, zero defect is a myth. We are all human, we do make mistakes. The art is to make small mistakes quickly–and to learn as an individual, team, and organization.

So why do we still feel bad if we reach 0%? Even if we realize, we need to change priorities during the OKR period? We should not. At kartenmacherei, we want to deliver value to the customer. This is what we need to judge our progress by. That is also the first of twelve principles from the Agile Manifesto.

Get into the game!

It is critical for our business to combine long-term vision with short-term goals. No matter which age, size or setup, your organization can also find ways to profit from the OKR system.

At kartenmacherei, we work with a simple Google Drive document and regular update meetings. It is easy to get started with that. But there are also companies offering tools and support like Workpath and Perdoo. Both companies organize regular Meetups in bigger German cities for interested practitioners.

There are many companies out there that can offer their inspiration. Let’s get a discussion going! What works for you, what doesn’t? What are your game tips?

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