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OKRs in Action: Having the Right Conversation!

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

This is our first article in a new series we are starting called OKRs in Action. We want to share stories about our experiences while helping companies adopt the OKR framework. Since this is the first article in the series, we thought we would share one of the first things we observe when supporting organizations with OKRs. It's a magical moment when working with our clients and someone makes the observation that the substance and quality of their conversations are changing and changing considerably. This article is going to describe 5 new conversations that emerge once an organization is doing OKRs correctly.

Strategy is not only relevant - it's fundamental

When we help an organization implement OKRs, we teach them that strategy is an input to OKRs and OKRs are an input to our decisions on what work to do and what work not to do. If an organization gets that sequence wrong, then OKRs won't be influencing their decision-making the way they could. If they get the sequence right, they quickly find themselves in conversations about the strategic significance of work, not just the priority of work, percent complete, or red/yellow/green status. When they talk about ending projects or initiatives because it doesn't align with strategy, they realize the conversation just got powerful!

The idea of "Measuring what Matters" is real

When we take a team of leaders through our strategy workshops, they come away with a strategy map that they developed (we facilitated), which establishes their strategic themes across the four dimensions of Finance, Customer, Operational Excellence, and Learning & Growth. Once they have clarity on their strategic themes, they then translate those into a set of annual strategic OKRs. It's during the OKR creation portion that they realize how little they measure, relative to what they should be measuring. Just going through the process of creating OKRs, they begin to improve the quality of their conversation by identifying practical measures that ultimately help them lead better and help their organizations perform better. That's before they even begin "using" OKRs.

Probing for purpose

Another practice that we teach our clients comes from our collaboration with Ben Lamorte, author of The OKRs Field Book. In that book, Ben offers a simple and powerful set of questions that are game-changing for organizations. The questions are "Why?" and "Why now?". When we kick-off an OKR workshop we establish that one of our tasks in the workshop is to challenge the merits of objectives and the merits of ideas. We can achieve that very quickly by simply asking why something is important. It's a legitimate question that is making an effort to probe more deeply for the true purpose of an objective. Once the reason why is established, we have to go further - the question "why now?" becomes the next best question to ask. Often people feel it can be threatening to ask why. But with OKRs, we need to establish clarity around why and why now, so we can establish clarity of purpose!

Done right, OKRs inherit natural MVP-style thinking

Without even teaching the concept of a Minimum Viable Product or MVP, we observe our clients intuitively de-scope their own ideas in order to create work items that can be consumed and delivered (possibly measured) in the same quarter. If the right people are creating the OKRs, then they are often the same people that influence what work gets done, usually based on priority. When we insert OKRs and quarterly outcomes into the conversation, those same people that decide what work to do, will naturally (it's true!) move into a discussion of how much of the work to do. At that point, they are faced with the practical reality that they themselves need to make decisions to shape work in such a way that it can lend itself to a quarterly cadence of learning. That is why I say OKRs are Agile for executives. A conversation based on priority alone doesn't drive the same thinking or the same decisions, as it does when you include the notion of "what are we actually trying to achieve" into the conversation.

Anchoring in strategy leads to more strategic conversations

The final observation for this article is a general one that we make regarding how much more comfortable people get discussing strategy overall. When a leadership team takes the time and the steps necessary to offer strategic clarity to their organization, and they put the tools and practices in place to sustain strategic focus, the organization responds in kind. In other words, when the conditions to achieve and maintain strategic alignment and a focus on outcomes are put in place, the result is that the workforce will begin to naturally make efforts to optimize those conditions. The ultimate side effect is that a lot more conversations are happening about strategy, and they are happening throughout the organization, at all levels.

Change really begins when we can change the conversation

You've probably heard the saying "what got you here, won't get you there". It's actually a quote and title of a book, written by Marshall Goldsmith. What's implied by the statement is that if we don't think differently about ourselves and our conditions, nothing will change. If the goal is to start working differently, we need to start thinking differently. We'll know we're starting to think differently when our conversation is increasingly aligned with the new way of working. And we'll know we're getting that part right when we can say - "it feels like we're having the right conversation".

If you would like to learn more about OKRs and how they can help your organization change the game, by changing the conversation, please give us a call!

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