Empowering failure to succeed with OKR

Andreea Havrișciuc has been part of the METRO Group for more than six years, taking on various agile roles. She is now responsible as Agile Domain Manager & OKR Evangelist at METRO.digital, a product-driven organization that develops digital solutions for the METRO global wholesale business.

Hi Andreea, you have guided METRO.digital's OKR journey from the very beginning, back in 2017 when the framework was first introduced and later scaled across the company and its 300+ teams. Looking back to that time, why did you implement OKR and how prepared were the teams for the roll out?

Our agile transformation had already begun three years earlier when our former silos turned into cross-functional teams and we started working in Scrum and Kanban iterations. We felt agile and mature for the next level - the OKR implementation. We decided to use OKR to improve our alignment, prioritization, and focus - especially since we operate in 20+ countries and are a very diverse team.

We wanted to become more goal-oriented and broaden our perspective from operational bi-weekly Scrum and Kanban iterations to increased business focus through OKR.

We were also driven to create real value for our customers. It just happened too often that we developed something that ended up not being of use for the customers.

This decision hinged primarily on a major shift we had at the management level. Our executives realized that something had to change radically to maintain our competitive advantage. 

In other words, the OKR implementation was a top-down approach?

Indeed, it started with our leadership team. Once the management team made the decision to introduce OKR, they invited teams from METRO.digital to receive training. We look at OKR as a bottom-up approach with strategic guidance from leadership. Among the first pilot groups, OKR was promoted as something helpful and "nice to have." No team was forced to use it. As a result, OKR was introduced incrementally with buy-in from our teams. I believe this attitude has been fundamental to our success.

That sounds like a storybook implementation. Did you have to customize any of the OKR principles at all to make it work for METRO.digital?

Yes we did. At first we worked with the framework as it is, but quickly found that we are more cumbersome than a start-up. We have nearly thousands of employees and an OKR cycle length of three months was simply too short. For now, we are working with six-month cycles. We also wanted to better include our stakeholders and give them the opportunity to articulate priorities before we set our OKRs. That is what we call “POKR”: Prioritized OKR. Eventually, we developed our own ten POKR principles, which are lean and easy for everyone to understand.

However, we noticed that OKR still seemed like something additional that needed to be done on top of all the work we already have. To move away from the perception that it was harmful to our precious time but rather blends into everyday life, we integrated it into our company values, our Leadership Manifesto, and our daily coaching sessions, brown bag meetings, and panel discussions.

OKR became a mindset rather than something strict like a framework. 

Once formulated and discussed, OKR became a new way of thinking?

We place great emphasis on expressing our values to lay the foundation for a good company culture. However, there are certain virtues that are not lived because they are written down somewhere. For example, we wanted to become more ambitious and innovative, while the employees were still too shy to do so. They had to be encouraged to experiment and actually fail.

How do you empower people to fail?

It is hard to acknowledge that failure is part of any process. I realized that everyone wants to be led to failure. So again, we embedded it into our values. For example, our value of "pragmatism" includes the addition "done is better than perfect”, our value of “respect” includes “feeling safe to ask questions and raise concerns”. We then launched our “INIT()” program which provides a great setting to try, fail and learn from it. Anyone can propose, conduct and evaluate experiments. It especially motivates those employees to innovate (and fail) who are usually not used to trying it. The ones who are more vulnerable are encouraged by enablers, people who are more open to sharing failures. 

I am sure that people also fail outside the “INIT()” context. What does failing look like in everyday life?

Of course, it depends heavily on the people: the person who fails and their support system, usually their team and manager. One cycle ago, I failed to organize a big OKR event because I could not get enough people to participate. I did not cancel in time because I felt overly responsible and did not want to step on anyone’s toes. I discussed it with my team, shared my experience, and confessed it to my manager, Eugen Coandă. He said, “Andreea, I am proud that you share your first failure with me”. He asked how I felt, what I missed, how he could help me to move forward and what my learning was. I am now a leader myself and I follow the same approach. For me, failure triggers compassion. People need trust to speak up and safety to grow. Not every leader is naturally empathic, but can become so. Failure is personal but will be supported by an appropriate culture.

How has the OKR framework helped METRO.digital foster this culture of failing and learning?

Used correctly, OKR can bring about profound change. It empowers teams to pursue their own goals, make decisions, negotiate and create value. It fosters an eye-to-eye relationship between all levels and promotes a network organization instead of a pyramid organization based on tight hierarchies and command and control.

Our OKR transformation paved the way for our product management approach because it enables us to better explore our customer’s needs and to create real value.

This incremental change gradually creates an open culture where failure and learning are the path to continuous growth. With OKR, we can empower teams to own their mistakes and grow from them while creating value.

Thank you for sharing your insights with us, Andreea!