At OKRAdvisory we believe that OKRs are a powerful tool to drive improvement and growth. But don’t just take our word for it. Here’s a case study involving a recent client from the finance sector.
We were approached by a client for whom we’d been providing strategic consultancy for some time, and had in fact built their most recent strategy delivery framework a number of years earlier. Their belief was that although the framework they had in place was a good fit for their existing culture and the organisation in general, they needed to introduce a greater degree of agility into everything they were doing, strategy included. The aim was to drive cultural change through a new, more dynamic framework.
We considered a number of options but the standout contender was OKRs, the recent success of which has been largely driven by the thirst amongst businesses large and small, new and established, for a more agile approach to strategy in these VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) times.
Laying the groundwork
In a previous post I have commented on the importance of clear leadership when implementing any new strategic direction or delivery framework, and in the case of this particular client we were fortunate to have that in abundance. Having worked closely for many years there was a high degree of mutual trust and confidence, so the CEO came onboard immediately with the idea of OKRs. Next steps were to assign key roles, and then bring the executive leadership team into the discussions.
Every successful OKR implementation must have an OKR Champion, supported by OKR Ambassadors. The Champion is the subject matter expert and reports directly to the senior executive sponsor (in this case the CEO) on the progress and success of the implementation. In this case it was agreed that OKRAdvisory would take on the Champion role while helping to develop the client’s skills to enable full handover of the process ideally within three OKR cycles (nine months). The Ambassadors are those resources that are critical to the implementation of the framework at an operational level, developing expertise and driving the business forward in its use of OKRs. The individual Team Leads were the obvious candidates for this role.
Defining the vision
The first step in engaging the executive team was helping the CEO to draft a clear statement about why he believed now was the right time to introduce a new framework, and specifically OKRs, and what he believed would be the benefits. In addition a clear indication of the ‘pain’ the CEO felt the business was currently grappling with was communicated.
We put together a short presentation reviewing the previous year’s strategic goals, and where and how the business had fallen short in delivering these. Some common themes were in evidence here - silo working, inability to operate in a more agile way and roll with the punches being delivered on a regular basis by the external business environment, and the spectre of every day ‘business as usual’ simply creating blockers on capacity. How OKRs were going to alleviate these widespread issues was demonstrated - showing cross functional focus, shorter delivery cycles and greater engagement resulting from an understanding of everyone’s role in delivering the organisational strategy.
At that point the necessary buy-in was received. In conjunction with this an orientation session was delivered, ensuring that the senior leadership team understood the framework in detail, how it would apply within the organisation, and what would be required of them and their teams for the implementation to succeed.
Preparation makes perfect
Then it was time to start adding meat to the bones of the framework, identifying the core pillars of the strategy around which to develop the corporate level OKRs. As mentioned elsewhere this is a critical element of the process undertaken by OKRAdvisory that not all OKR consultants consider. Without a robust strategy, development of OKRs is a pointless exercise. A clear strategy provides the foundation from which successful OKRs are built, and if this is flawed everything that follows will likely amplify those flaws.
Delivering on a poor strategy can be more damaging than not delivering on strategy at all. This is one of the reasons that when we agree to work with a client on OKR implementations, reviewing the top level strategy is a key part of our initial discussions and discovery process. Where it is felt to be underdeveloped or significantly flawed we will suggest time is taken to properly focus on the strategy and elaborate it in accordance with best practice methodologies. It’s an additional step with associated time and expense, but a critical one nonetheless.
Workshopping and crafting
Having assured a robust strategy, we set about running an initial workshop with the senior executive to identify what the strategic focus should be for the upcoming 12 months, ensuring at all times this was clearly aligned with the longer term strategic goals. Selecting three main themes, or pillars, we set about developing high level Objectives using purely qualitative statements, such as ‘Creating Value for Customers’ and then beneath these, three or four qualitative Key Results that clearly indicate whether the Objectives have been achieved.
Alongside these we set out a number of KPIs to monitor the outcomes of the activity undertaken in pursuit of these OKRs, and which answer the question of whether the effort is making a difference. In this particular example Net Promoter Score was an obvious candidate, being a measure of customer service.
Widening the audience
The next stage having identified the top level, corporate OKRs was to shift focus to the wider organisation, and in particular the OKR Ambassador Team Leads previously identified as the critical connectors between the strategic goals and operational activity. As with the executive team, the first step was to run a number of workshops introducing the framework and identifying its role within the organisation, whilst also providing clear guidance about how to develop quarterly Team OKRs and the governance required to ensure their successful uptake.
We identified weekly check-in meetings as being critical for embedding the necessary thought processes and focus on outcomes required by OKRs. Mid quarter reviews were established to assess progress and discuss remediation activity to keep things on track where necessary. End of quarter round table discussions were also set up, where progress of existing OKRs would be finalised along with the outcomes of the activity carried out, and suggested OKRs for the new quarter reviewed.
On your marks, get set
Having created the necessary culture and environment for the implementation, we then spent time with each Team Lead separately, reviewing the Corporate level OKRs and identifying which of the 10 or so Key Results they and their teams could most influence within the first quarterly cycle.
It had been agreed that ambition would be held in check for the first quarter with the focus placed firmly on embedding the framework rather than trying to achieve great things from the outset. Better to go slowly and build confidence, than rush ahead, erode confidence and lose all the buy-in we’d worked so hard to develop. A single Objective per team was worked on, with only one or two supporting Key Results, so that the Team Leads could develop a feel for how the process would work going forwards.
In the early days of this implementation it was decided that a commonly used work management solution could be adapted as an OKR tracker rather than investing from the outset in a custom OKR solution. This is a common approach and one that has both pros and cons - the pros being that a clear focus on the framework is maintained rather than having to compete with the distraction of the solution facilitating it. Another advantage is it gives time to learn how the organisation will use OKRs in depth before committing to a particular solution. The cons are around the potential for a perceived lack of commitment to the framework where no investment is being made in a tailor made solution, and the potential for bad habits to develop trying to use non specific technology.
With each Team’s quarterly OKRs loaded up into the tracker an initial round table workshop was held to sign off the progress to date, and to ensure transparency access to all OKRs was provided to the entire organisation. The implementation was then underway.
Each subsequent quarters a similar process was followed to ensure existing OKR progress and scoring remained up-to-date and new OKRs were introduced. We introduced greater ambition and stretch into the OKR setting process, along with extending the involvement of wider team members to ensure ongoing engagement, and greater cross-functional OKRs to break down silos and develop a more holistic approach to activity within the organisation.
While ramping up these aspects we also ensured that an effective knowledge transfer was taking place. That meant that after the third quarterly cycle, a new in-house OKR Champion was appointed and OKRAdvisory stepped back from the day-to-day management of the implementation into a more coaching based role.
Feedback from the client has been very positive, with powerful results attributed to the new OKR framework. The company had been at risk of stagnating but introducing OKRs has created a strong performance culture and it is thriving. Staff are reporting that they feel much more engaged, silos have broken down and people are talking more. The transparency around OKRs installed clarity and drive, which paved the way for growth.
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