Interview with Elena Zhukova, Co-founder of OKR Poland

On May 9th 2022 we had the opportunity to speak to Elena Zhukova, who is the co-founder of OKR Poland and Senior Strategic Business Analyst at Lufthansa Systems. In the interview, Elena gave us many insights on her work as an OKR Coach, providing you with many hints and tricks on how to shift to outcome-centered work more smoothly and how to make your execution process a success.

Workpath:

Working with Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) means working in an outcome-centered way. How do you define outcomes together with your customers?

Elena: 

“Quite a lot of companies focus on solutions, features and actions. The transformation process is a journey from planning based on tasks to planning based on outcome goals. Usually we start by reviewing vision and strategy. 

The strategy needs to cover areas such as:

  • markets
  • customer segments
  • products
  • unique selling proposition (USP)
  • goals & metrics
  • politics to follow 

If the strategy is unclear and has gaps, those gaps need to be filled.

Right after filling these gaps, we are looking for hypotheses the customer wants to check during the year and the quarter, from where we derive outcome-based OKRs. If there is a problem with the hypothesis, we are looking for main challenges the company is facing. Questions like 'why, what value, which problem to solve' help us to find the right outcome.

Sometimes, it helps to start with metrics (Key Results) and then pull Objectives out of them.

In an ideal case, when a company:

  • has a high-quality strategy, 
  • defines product goals in an outcome way, 
  • measures things, bases its decisions on data & research results,

then it is just a matter of choosing the most crucial OKR, for the given period of time. But this ideal situation happens quite rarely. In the end, it is about business and delivering business results, so it’s all about naming it correctly.”

Workpath:

What advantages do you see by focusing on outcomes rather than only outputs? / What would you tell a customer that seems to be rather output-oriented?

Elena:

“First, if I feel that someone is not open to listening, I will not try to convince him/her. I believe that if there is no willingness to improve, there is no chance for change. I believe in data and the right time of self-evolution and reflection. 

In case my customer is willing to change, I try to make them reflect on how they are creating value for their customers.

For instance, if we talk about a specific feature, I would ask my client the following questions: 

  • What kind of problem do you want to solve by delivering this functionality?
  • How will you recognize that situation will improve after the user starts using a new option?
  • What kind of benefit does this change bring?

Such questions help shifting to Outcome Thinking.

Working with Outcomes helps an organization to prioritize, backlog cross-check, identify contradictory requirements, and avoid unnecessary waste.  If a company delivers features customers will never use, they generate outcome-waste.

Outcome Thinking is a tool that helps making the right decisions. If Value Thinking seems overwhelming to your company, focus on finding out what the actual problem (of the customer) is and start from there. Building valuable products is the key to success.

Value Thinking helps you to stay competitive. Be aware that if you are not considering the pain points of your customer, sooner or later, they will become a customer of the competition.”

OKR Guide

Workpath:

To align all teams around outcomes, communication is key. How do you communicate organizational outcomes, so everyone on all levels knows their goals and daily work contributes to the success of the company?

Elena:

“Communication depends a lot on the size of the company, and its OKR structure. There are a few areas that always need to be in place regarding communication.

  1. First, it is crucial to communicate as much as possible, not only once a year, on the C-level: Discuss the company vision (and strategy) in order to explain the “Why” and illustrate data of where we are now and where we want to go (future state). This information should be accessible to everyone, easy to understand, and possible to cross-check with the initiatives. Organize Q&A sessions for teams to answer concerns, ideally quarterly.
  2. Secondly, make sure to gather with leaders, change agents, scrum masters etc. and invite them to the process, negotiate, take feedback, and engage them.
  3. Third, involving in OKR creation team’s members, giving the space of asking questions, and create OKRs together.

For more transparency, I can recommend using a suitable OKR dashboard. This enables the sharing of data and metrics company-wide. 

Another area is sharing results and lessons learned from reviews, and check-ins between all levels of the organization.

Communication is a habit, part of the DNA, never a one-time event, and there can always be more communication. 

I was inspired by Patrick Lencioni's book The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive.”

Workpath:

While the OKR framework is a powerful tool to align teams around result-focused goals, the actual execution of OKRs can become challenging sometimes.

What challenges have you faced already when it comes to execution?

Elena: 

“There are a lot of challenges. I will mention only a few that came to my mind first.

Challenges depend on type, size, leadership style, maturity and level of agility in the organization.

  1. In many companies, I experienced situations where leaders are having certain dysfunctions. that if leaders have dysfunctions, these dysfunctions will be exactly mirrored in the teams. E.g. If leaders have issues with clear communication, communication will be a huge challenge while implementing OKRs. If leaders are in conflict, this conflict will be seen on each level of the company and goals itself. If leaders love control and fear delegation, it will be hard to implement OKRs and give decision points to teams. One of the starting points to solve those issues is to name things, e.g. doing Gallup strengths profile test could be helpful to start work with blind spots of leaders.
  2. The second biggest challenge is not having/using data in the company to make decisions, not measuring things, so it will be hard in the beginning to implement measurable OKRs.
  3. Another big challenge is to get out from silo goals definition to cross-teams OKRs.
  4. And the last one is the lack of patience. OKRs are new habits, and you cannot provide a new way of working without taking time. OKR implementation needs a few iterations.
  5. And the last is to have a good quality of retrospections. Having the right facilitator, leader who will make retrospective really deep and valuable will help to learn and improve.”

Workpath:

How do you ensure that teams can stay focused throughout the OKR cycle in order to achieve their goals/outcomes?

Elena: 

“Focus on what really matters. Sounds simple, but what I want to stress here is that you should try to reduce the amount of your goals and focus on the things that are truly important to the success of your company.

I know from experience that most bottlenecks occur due to the fact that employees have too many goals assigned. This happens when capacity planning is not done properly. Make sure to check on your team's capacities weekly or at least once a month. Plus you could divide business as usual from strategy work and agree in the beginning how much capacity teams will have on these 2 different types of tasks. For BAU tasks setting up health metrics helps a lot.

Less goals and careful planning helps a lot and regular review and addressing risks.

And again, deep retrospectives and derive conclusions by the teams itself.”

Workpath:

Giving others some inspiration from your learning so far: Do you have any advice for other companies who are struggling with the execution of their outcomes?

Elena: 

“Focus on measuring the right things. Be closer to the customer: Get an understanding of what their needs and problems are and which problems your product or service is able to solve.

Grow as leaders by yourself.

Internally, you should be clear of your processes. Find your root goals and also think about what your value proposition is. Experiment with that. It is a process and a journey, so be patient. Solve one problem at a time and do it with pleasure, break rules if needed. And, last but not least: Do not try to be perfect.

Do not blindly follow rules from others, use their experience but remember that each company context is different! There are no rules about OKRs! Just good practice!

Start small, do not wait until things are ideal.”