Going Beyond the OKR Methodology to Lead Transformational Change
Defining and implementing OKRs requires expertise. Leading teams to hold the right, generative conversations that lead to collective goal achievement requires mastery.
One definition of leadership is “coordinating action to produce results that create a future you care about that doesn’t exist yet.” As the leader of a team, department, or company, you have a vision of a possible future for the company you’re building, your customers, and yourself. Realizing that vision will require you to make and keep bigger promises than you can by acting on your own.
How does that happen? The simplest answer is through conversations. Skillful conversations that engage hearts and minds, listen for care and commitment, generate and sustain effective teamwork, and build lasting relationships.
One of the most essential conversations is about goals. Where are we going? What do we want to achieve together? What does success look like? What is satisfactory progress? In what timeframe? Who needs to contribute? How will we track progress? How will we navigate along the way, making appropriate adjustments based on learning, experience, and new information? How can we get better at setting ambitious goals and producing impactful results?
OKRs Are A Language
So what does this have to do with OKRs? Simply put, OKRs are a language for expressing goals and a framework for setting shared goals with a team and orchestrating action to produce results that fulfill these goals.
The OKR “language” explicitly emphasizes clarity of intention (the objective, what you want to accomplish), shared standards for objectively assessing progress, and ultimately success in fulfilling that intention (key results) with alignment and commitment within and across individuals and teams.
Applied within a disciplined cycle of setting OKRs, regularly assessing progress and making adjustments based on current state and reflection and retrospective on achievement of results, OKRs create a cycle of learning in action that, over time, can dramatically improve an organization's capacity to envision and deliver increasingly larger and more impactful results. Results that ultimately bring about the future the organization aspires to create.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? In theory it is. Just set the right goals, be clear with what achieving those goals look like and who will contribute, track progress periodically, and make any needed adjustments along the way. Viola! Instant accountability and empowerment. Everyone’s on the same page, clear and aligned on what the organization’s priorities are, their role in the coordination of actions that will deliver those results, and how and when progress will be assessed.
That promise is one reason why OKRs are exploding in popularity right now—the others being the increasingly distributed nature of work and greater uncertainty and pace of change in business.
So, what’s not to like? Or perhaps differently, what else might be important to understand and master in addition to learning the language and how to apply the framework of OKRs to realize their promise.
That’s where thinking about OKRs as a language, or better yet as a protocol or a framework for using that language for a particular purpose, is helpful.
Language is natural. Children learn the basics quickly, without being formally taught. Skillful use of language is acquired through practice in conversations. The conversation that OKRs are particularly well suited for is a “conversation for action.”
We want results, right? Outcomes that will contribute to achieving our objectives. Where will those results come from in the future? From action. Actions taken by the right people in a coordinated way, who are committed to taking those actions because they share a commitment to a future they care about and have explicitly had a conversation about the actions and results that will satisfactorily, as best can be assessed at the time, lead to that future. OKRs, used well, are a tool for having powerful and engaging “conversations for action.”
More broadly, thinking now about how we can effectively coordinate the actions of a team or large organization, it’s helpful to realize that, in one meaningful way, an organization is a network of commitments. OKRs simply make this network more explicitly visible and clear, and establish a process for holding the conversations that lead to clarity and alignment on:
The priorities of an organization for a given time period—what should we focus on now in the service of the future we aspire to?
The critical few objectives and handful of results that reflect those priorities—what concretely are we “promising” to achieve within this focus, and how will we assess our satisfaction fulfilling this promise?
How we will organize and orchestrate action—throughout the company, team, and teams of teams that will produce those results, and adapt our actions and plans based on what we learn along the way.
3 Conversations For Success
There are three conversations related to goal-related conversations you need to have and have well to create and sustain the network of commitments that will lead to the results you want. If you’re doing OKRs and still not getting the results you want, these conversations might be missing or weren’t held in a way that produced the necessary clarity, care, and commitment to produce the right actions and desired results.
1. The strategy conversation
Establishing priorities requires making tradeoffs. “This, not that. This is more important than that now. Yes, not now. Or no, not at all.”
Making tradeoffs is ultimately a strategy conversation. What is our ultimate aspiration? Who are we serving? With what? How? With what distinctive, uniquely valuable proposition? In what sequence? What is most critical now? What’s the right balance of strategic advancement, business performance, and organizational capability improvement in this cycle, given our resources?
Setting good OKRs flows naturally when you are clear on your strategy. If you’re having challenges, agreeing on a strategic focus, getting to clarity and alignment on the critical few OKRS for the cycle ahead, you may be missing a strategy conversation.
2. The leadership team conversation
Pursuing a big vision requires organizing and orchestrating action on an increasingly larger scale, both in scope and over multiple time horizons. Great individual contributors, functional excellence, ad hoc conversations, and just-in-time coordination is no longer enough. You need strategic thinking, execution planning, and coordinated action over longer periods by multiple teams and more people.
How you realize that is having a conversation about what leadership is, what teams are, and the conversations that are essential to generating and sustaining effective leadership and teamwork. If you’re clear on your critical few objectives and the key results that go with those, yet you struggle to consistently achieve full results, your teams end up spending most of their time on daily operations and firefighting, or you experience a lot of “friction” and drama in your execution, you may be missing a leadership team conversation.
3. The culture conversation
OKRs open the door to a different relationship with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—the “VUCA” you often see referred to in leadership and management literature. One that’s predicated on observing, learning and agilely adapting your actions in the service of a greater purpose, clarity, and alignment around shared purpose, value, and organizational objectives and shared agreement on standards for assessing performance, and structures and practices that deliberately support and foster engagement, growth, and development of everyone. How what we do and how we do it ultimately defines who we are and aspire to become in the future. That’s ultimately a conversation about culture.
OKRs are a powerful language and framework for setting and pursuing goals. Becoming proficient with the language, learning to write good OKRs, and use the methodology are important first steps to realizing that power.
Mastery is going beyond learning the grammar and process of applying OKRs in an organizational context to see how OKRs open the door to conversations about leadership, teamwork, strategy, and culture and developing the skill to hold them well.
This will absolutely transform your experience of leadership and dramatically improve your capacity and agency to create the future you care about with greater ease and ingenuity than you thought possible. Becoming a champion is your first step on that journey.
Rick Maguire is a co-founder of OKR Advisors, a training and management consulting firm helping companies achieve the promise of business agility now. Prior to OKR Advisors, he has had a successful 25 plus year career as an executive leader at Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, and Varian Associates. Rick has led teams to incubate and launch new businesses, products, information services, and manufacturing systems. He has also advised Fortune 500 companies on business strategies and architectural approaches to leverage digital technology for competitive advantage, resulting in a patent in this area. Rick is a former naval officer, with decorated service on a Trident missile submarine. He earned a Masters in Engineering Management at Stanford.