Three Ways to Build Your Business’ OKR Muscles

As a business-performance consultant, I’ve seen the full range of how companies manage talent. Whether they are well-run organizations looking for a few process enhancements or companies in need of major transformation, most share the common challenge of aligning employees around the top priorities the business is trying to achieve.

As traditional hierarchical departments being replaced by more agile, cross-functional teams that can meet the demands of today’s fast-paced business environment, keeping everyone engaged, informed and aligned is harder. A proven solution for ensuring agile teams can constantly align and re-align to rapidly evolving requirements is using Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). Popularized by John Doerr, who used them to grow Google, YouTube, Intuit, and others into the successes we know today, an OKR template keeps people focused because it requires teams and individuals to not only set clear objectives but also specify the success metrics. 

3 Keys To Developing Your Organization’s OKR Muscles.

As with any new process, you can’t simply introduce OKRs and hope for the best. They are not one-size-fits-all, and every one of my clients has needed to adapt to the system’s key concepts to suit their business, while also developing new processes and skillsets among their teams. And just as you shouldn’t try lifting the heaviest weights on your first day at the gym, so your business has to build the OKR muscles that will give it the strength and agility to succeed. Here are my three keys to developing your organization’s OKR muscles.

  1.   Introduce OKRs Gradually and Leave Room for Refinement

A frequent challenge I’ve run into is how to most effectively introduce OKRs to a large, complex enterprise. To address this, I start with the people who can affect the most change in the organization: management.

For one of my clients, we introduced corporate OKRs and implemented them with help from the company’s executive team. Each quarter saw tweaks to the process until we reached a point where everyone was happy. Next, we rolled out OKRs to teams and repeated the process of refinement for each manager. This ensured quick time to value and allowed us to generate feedback and incorporate refinements to the process early on. 

The key thing to remember with OKRs is that there is no right way to do them. In fact, this adaptability to the unique needs of any business is one of the strengths of the process. John Doerr said in his bestseller: “There is no dogma, no one right way to use them; it’s up to you to find your points of emphasis and make the tool your own.”

This lack of dogma even applies to individual managers. Once you’ve ensured they understand how your business is deploying OKRs, give them the freedom to run their teams in their own way and a way to voice their ideas and feedback on how the process is working for them. 

  1.   Have More Frequent, Lightweight Conversations

Many organizations are still stuck in the annual performance review cycle – that once-a-year conversation about what someone achieved (or didn’t) over the past 12 months. Preparing for annual reviews is a major chore for managers, while employees often find the feedback too late to be useful. No wonder so many managers and employees find them “outdated, time-consuming and stressful.”

One of the first things I encourage my clients to do is introduce what I call “lowercase” conversations where managers and employees have regular, lightweight goal-related discussions. It’s lowercase because nobody needs to invest a lot of time preparing a report or presentation. It’s just a simple check-in on what’s going well, where they need help and how their objectives are contributing to the wider business priorities.

Additionally, I strongly recommend that managers arrange quarterly goal-related conversations. That ensures progress around OKRs is tracked at least four times a year instead of just once at the end. These conversations are also an opportunity for managers to check in with their employees about their growth and development. OKRs shouldn’t only be about business results; employees should also have defined goals around their career development, and managers should evaluate those and understand opportunities to help facilitate them. 

It will take time for managers and employees to get used to this new style of conversation. But like anything — practice makes perfect. And the more these conversations happen the more aligned everyone will be about what they are doing and its value to the business.

  1.   Anticipate how Changes Affect Other Teams

When I talk about teams, I often don’t mean a group of people who work together in the same business function, like engineering or marketing. Increasingly, businesses are viewing teams as simply whoever needs to work together to solve specific business problems. A recent Deloitte survey found that the majority of today’s employees do at least some of their work as part of cross-functional teams

The new kind of team structure makes transparency and communication doubly important. A change to one team’s OKRs based on changing business needs is highly likely to impact other teams. I’ve seen instances where a team changed the timing of a product launch, which affected other goals that were dependent on the original date. That’s why cross-organization transparency around every objective and its progress is critical.

If everyone can see that one team’s progress on a specific goal has slowed, stakeholders with related OKRs can come together to discuss how they can help or if they need to realign their own objectives. Transparency also ensures that leadership is always aware of any issues and can make quick decisions about what should happen next.

The right technology can help with a successful implementation of all aspects of OKRs and is especially useful when it comes to transparency. PA performance tools, like Betterworks, is are a great way to connect the OKRs of different teams with each other and with the wider company mission and strategy, while keeping everyone up to date on progress towards these shared objectives.

The Transformational Impact of an OKR Mindset

I once spent a lot of time and effort persuading the managers at one of my clients to spend 30 minutes together discussing shared goals and strategies. It simply wasn’t part of their company culture. After a successful implementation and evolution of OKRs, the company now dedicates an entire day every quarter to strategic conversations.

At their most fundamental level, OKRs are a simple tool for getting the best of your teams. But in my experience, a successful OKR implementation does not just involve a new process, it creates a new mindset where cross-functional communication and alignment happens naturally, and teams are more engaged and focused on achieving objectives.

Of course, it takes time, effort, training and technology to implement successfully. But like working out at the gym, the more your business builds its OKR muscles and evolves them to suit your unique needs, the more transformational their impact.  

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Pedro Signorelli

Founder, Pragmatic Management Consulting


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