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Client case study: the importance of prep work

A client with many years of experience using OKRs came to us with the view that despite their best efforts they simply weren't seeing the benefits from the framework that they had believed they would. They wanted to give it one last push before writing off all their work, giving up, and looking for an alternative model to base their strategy around.

This is not uncommon - we find that our clients are evenly split between those that wish to learn about OKRs and undertake an implementation for the first time, and those that have tried to implement them but without success, almost always, I should add, without the assistance of an external specialist. This raises an interesting point and one which should be seriously considered before embarking upon an OKRs implementation - the chances of success are significantly higher when an external specialist is engaged to impart knowledge and experience and drive the rollout in the first few months.

Back to our client... the first step was to understand clearly what the fundamental aims of the original OKR implementation were and whether these were still valid. The second was to understand the reason behind the extended failure to date. Only once we had investigated these elements would we have a clear run at implementing them successfully on this occasion. And what became clear from the outset was that our client had attempted to establish OKRs without first identifying any of the fundamentals supporting the rollout – ‘doing OKRs’ is not in itself a recipe for success, and neither is simply creating some Objective and Key Result statements, no matter how good these might be.

Something we are always at pains to communicate with clients is that there are numerous steps to go through before we actually start developing OKRs, such as defining the need and the ambition, establishing who will fill the key roles of sponsor, champion and ambassadors, and what levels in the organisation they will be used. See it like changing a tyre on a car - you wouldn't start removing the damaged one before you had a jack, some tools and a spare wheel on hand to replace it with! Patience, at this stage, is a virtue.

What this had created in our client was a Frankenstein's version of OKR developed throughout the organisation over several years and at different levels, supported by different resources each with their own preferences and foibles, and with no clear success criteria around what using them effectively would actually achieve. Resetting these fundamentals was key to being able to make progress, but telling the client that going backwards to be able to go forwards is not a message most want to hear. However, taking this significant retrograde step had an immediate impact on the organisation. It reduced the number of live OKRs from the high hundreds to a handful of the most important priorities. This forced a review of alignment with strategy and took responsibility for success away from the many who didn't want the overhead. Instead, giving it to the few who did, and who could see the potential benefits if done ‘correctly’.

Then there was the issue of their ‘OKR Solution’ - a piece of software suitable for OKRs in name alone. Again this is something we often see - software originally developed with another purpose in mind, that is then pivoted to exploit the OKR bandwagon with the addition of a poorly thought through OKR module. These kinds of solutions cause clients, and ourselves, no end of issues as more often than not we see them driving antibehaviours that can jeopardise an entire implementation. Our advice - there are a lot of OKR solutions out there, and some of them are actually pretty good, so if you want to implement OKRs properly it's worth spending some time investigating options and choosing a purpose built piece of software. From our experience it will pay dividends over time, and will help embed the OKR structure, governance and culture successfully in the organisation.

In this particular case the software in question was essentially a performance management tool which led the organisation to focus on OKRs as a tool for measuring output and business as usual task lists. Anathema to any OKR purists out there!

Having resolved these substantial blockers, the task of developing high quality, top level OKRs from the client's core strategy took place. With this foundational piece of the jigsaw resolved we were able to build quality OKRs throughout the organisation, focusing on the key strategic priorities and based on measurable outcomes. Alongside this was a clearly defined transfer of OKR knowledge and expertise to the in-house champion, and what followed was an extended period of more hands off coaching and support.

I can't tell you how this story ends as it's still early days, but the initial signs are promising!


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