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Objectives and Key Results: Continuously improve on using the OKR method

OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are one of the most attractive and frequently used agile methods of our time. Originally initiated by Intel and successfully implemented at Google and LinkedIn, more and more companies recognize and take advantage of the benefits OKRs offer. OKRs are seen as one of the leading tools to boost self-managed, high-performing teams and support an organization's transformation to become (more) responsive. 

OKRs aim to align employee performance and efforts to business goals. This helps drive a shared responsibility of the (teams) results. OKRs help to explain the purpose of work and set everyone’s focus on delivering value. When successfully implemented they:
  • support employees creativity,
  • increase their motivation and commitment, 
  • enable self-management and improve willingness to take  ownership and 
  • foster innovation.

The OKR method provides a clear concept, various best practices and software supporting tools are available. But frequently, companies struggle to implement this agile method appropriately or even miss-use it actively as a top-down management to-do list tracking tool.

OKR feedback surveys we ran in our client projects showed that the top challenges the teams faced were:
  • a lack of trust and handover of responsibility from the management towards the teams,
  • transparency of OKR process (definition, monitoring and relation to the company’s goals),
  • a disconnect between the defined objectives and the actual work the team needs to do.

On the other hand, the teams confirmed that 
  • they were confident in understanding the OKR’s concept and procedure, 
  • and believed generally in the sense of purpose and chance of success (by correct process implementation).

These results led to the question: How to release the full potential of the OKR method? 

We believe the first step is to identify areas of improvement. For that, you must start talking to all the people involved.

Open communication

The concept of OKR, by definition, asks to actively involve a network of employees and managers who are bound by a common purpose. The lively exchange of knowledge, ideas, and observations by top-down AND bottom-up communication are essential to successfully align cross-organization and increase the feeling of shared identity and team spirit. Applying proper communication channels and feedback to support the OKR procedure is a natural, compelling consequence. A willingness to listen, learn and trust your employees is essential.

How OKRs work

The OKR procedure is done in cycles so that teams and their management can learn and respond to the achieved, or unachieved, results, learnings, and environmental changes. 

Usually, an OKR cycle starts with the OKR definition: Every team defines their OKRs for the next cycle which should be aligned with the company’s overarching goals. The team starts working on the OKRs in iterative cycles. So-called OKR-Check-Ins are held regularly at the end of each cycle encouraging the team to track the OKR achievement status, to discuss blockers and to define required actions. In an OKR showcase, the team summarizes their objective achievements and shares its results with the company. The next OKR cycle starts based upon the learnings and (if needed) adapted company goals. 

Establish a solid feedback culture from the first step on

Establish a solid feedback culture from the first step on

To utilize the greatest possible potential of OKRs in your organization, it’s absolutely essential to invest in a proper introduction to the OKR concept for all of your employees. 

Using OKR guides, training material or introduction videos like Google‘s OKR presentation can help to ensure that everyone understands HOW it works and - not to forget- WHY this method is used. 

Besides knowledge sharing and upskilling of employees, we believe it’s essential to create a solid feedback culture at this early stage of the OKR process. We believe that it’s important to pick up questions and concerns immediately and respond with great care to ensure that all employees are getting familiar with the new procedure. Constructive feedback (and even complaints) on past “goal-setting” processes within the company should be taken seriously and reflect on the new process. This and a clear, transparent communication increases the acceptance and sets the foundation for a successful OKR implementation. 

Introducing Feedback on the OKR procedure as a regular process step into the OKR cycle

Introducing Feedback on the OKR procedure as a regular process step into the OKR cycle

Whereas most of the clients we’ve worked with focussed exclusively on reaching and analyzing the objectives, they seldom investigated the status of the OKR method implementation or the quality of an objective and/or key result itself. Consequently, they weren’t able to improve on the procedure itself. From our point of view, it’s recommended to regularly collect feedback on the OKR execution to gather insights and learnings and to connect to the teams. 

Depending on the maturity of feedback culture of the company and the number of people to be involved (in best case everyone who is contributing to the OKRs), the most beneficial feedback method should be chosen and implemented as a regular, firmly established practice at least at every end of an OKR cycle. 

Possible feedback methods could be:
  • 1:1 Conversations
  • Company-wide feedback surveys
  • Team Retrospectives (find tips on how to run it here)
  • Company/ department-wide Retrospectives (find tips on how to run Retrospectives with large teams here)

Possible feedback methods
Transparent communication in an OKR Refresher Session

No matter what feedback method you choose, the feedback outcomes should be taken seriously, analyzed, and reflected in the next OKR cycle run. To increase transparency, create trust and increase the employees' buy-in and communicative culture, we recommend to share learnings and updates, frequently asked questions and their answers, as well as planned changes and status information with all people involved in an OKR Process Refresher session/ceremony. This OKR Process Refresher session can be the kick-off for every upcoming OKR cycle. 

Iterative feedback and learning is the primary tool for identifying opportunities and reducing risks. Retrospectives or feedback surveys, which are well-known in agile software delivery, can be applied to the OKR methodology and will help to create an open, communicative learning culture. It’s highly recommended to invest in a collaborative improvement procedure. This will not only increase the acceptance of the new procedure, but it will also unleash its full potential. 

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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