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5 cultural norms that catalyse OKRs

There’s been a lot of iterations on what it takes to make OKRs work. One of the often-cited factors is organisational culture. So, what is it about organisational culture that makes it an OKR catalyst? 

To understand this, let’s be clear about what OKRs are meant to do, in the first place. I like to define Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) as a goal management and execution system with no more than one to five objectives and no more than one to five key results per objective. For every key result, there are initiatives drawn that are meant to be programs, projects, tasks or activities that help achieve these key results. These initiatives are almost like hypotheses or bets that you start with, believing that they will help in moving the needle of your key result. And when they don’t make a dent in your Key Result, you start looking as recalibrating your initiatives.

In the world of OKRs, initiatives are most changeable within the quarter and rightly so. They are what gives OKRs its agility. This is where true collaboration and interdependencies come alive. It’s in the discussion of these initiatives every week or fortnight that you find opportunities to be agile. All this happens in a transparent and cyclical manner, every quarter, in most cases. Every time a team meets to review how they are doing, the discussion is less about numbers and more about celebrating, learning, sharing and supporting.

With OKRs, you also have the opportunity to leverage one of the other super-powers and that is – multi-directional alignment. While members get to see the strategic direction the organisation is taking, they also have the opportunity to contribute what they believe they can – this is the bottom-up alignment that goes through its checks and balances. It brings in discretionary effort from teams when its time to execute. You also get the cross alignment between teams which gives you the much-needed collaboration during execution of goals.

In summary, OKRs are meant to…

  1. Be transparent, so it creates trust
  2. Convert goals into actionable priorities, so it creates focus on what matters most
  3. Be experimentative, so it brings agility and innovation
  4. Create outcome-focus, so it drives value creation
  5. Provide autonomy, so it drives ownership and engagement

Now, clearly this means the teams with its members and so-called leaders must clearly find a way to leverage these super-powers. The framework does nothing by itself neither does the OKR Body of Knowledge – its what you do with it that matters.

What is Organisational Culture & Why is it so important?

An organization's culture defines acceptable ways to behave within the organization. This culture consists of shared beliefs and values established by leaders and then communicated and reinforced through various practices, ultimately shaping behaviors. Organisational culture has a direct impact in the way they allow employees to show up at the workplace and contribute on a daily basis – it’s almost like the ecosystem that’s needed for any flora or fauna to grow and thrive.

Ergo, in principle, culture works as a binding glue in activating the systems, structures and processes within any organisation. To an extent, the efficacy of these very systems, structures and processes is a product of how the members of the organisation have come together to create it, in the first place.

You may have realised by now that OKRs require a special environment, to thrive and prosper. It’s a framework that is open-sourced, requires fluidity, transparency, trust and an equally open-source way of working. OKRs require an ecosystem (organisational culture) that ignites and fuels the power it is meant to deliver.

Over the last 18 years, I have worked with hundreds on organisations on culture transformation in big ways and small. Here are 5 cultural norms that I strongly believe, when practiced well, will give your OKRs the much needed boost.

5 Cultural Norms That Catalyse OKRs

#1 A culture of achievement orientation

This cultural norm characterizes organizations that do things well and value members who set and accomplish their own goals. Members of these organizations establish challenging and aspirational goals, develop plans to reach these goals, and pursue them with enthusiasm. 

The Antithesis: The opposite of this norm is when teams and employees avoid taking initiative and going the extra mile. Discretionary effort is missing.

How to build achievement orientation?

By encouraging your teams to do the following:

#2 A culture of encouragement

This cultural norm characterizes organizations that are managed in a participative and people-centred way. Members are expected to be supportive, constructive, and open to influence in their dealings with one another. An Encouraging culture leads to effective organizational performance by providing for the growth and active involvement of members who, in turn, report high satisfaction with and commitment to the organization. 

The Antithesis: The opposite of this cultural norm is when the organisation encourages oppositional and power-centric behaviors. Managers are supposed to know all answers and take all calls, with little delegation or empowerment for their people.

How to build a culture of encouragement?

By encouraging your teams to do the following:

#3 A culture of cooperation

This culture characterizes organizations that place a high priority on constructive interpersonal relationships. Members are expected to be friendly, open, and sensitive to the satisfaction of their work group. This culture can enhance organizational performance by promoting open communication, cooperation, and the effective coordination of activities. This cultural works on the premise that for the system to work optimally, the sub-systems must work sub-optimally (systemic approach).

The Antithesis: The opposite of this cultural norm is when internal competition is valued, and members are rewarded for outperforming each other with a win-lose framework. Such organisations are characterised by individual rewards rather than team rewards. 

How to build a culture of co-operation?

By encouraging your teams to do the following:

#4 A culture of psychological safety

A culture where people do not experience interpersonal fear. This culture is characterised by lack of fear of speaking up, especially within hierarchies and a lack for fear of failure. A psychologically safe culture allows for rapid experimentation, fail-fast mindsets, and openness to experiment. Cultures that experience psychological safety are adept at aspiring for moon-shot goals and constantly challenge status quo.

The Antithesis: The opposite of this cultural norm is when there is severe micro-management as decisions are hierarchically driven rather that based on the merit of ideas. Fear of the stick compels members to avoid all mistakes, and in doing so, take a beating on innovation.

How to build a culture of psychological safety?

By encouraging your teams to do the following:

#5 A culture of curiosity & creativity

This culture is characterized by organizations that value creativity, quality over quantity, and both task accomplishment and individual growth. Members of these organizations are encouraged to be scientists, not judges. Genuine curiosity in what’s happening inside and outside the organisation keeps teams relevant. Creative ideas emerge that help in experimentation and ultimately, innovation.

The Antithesis: The opposite of this cultural norm is when the culture is descriptive of organizations that are conservative, traditional, and bureaucratically controlled. Members are expected to conform, follow the rules, and make a good impression. This culture is hierarchically controlled and nonparticipative. Centralized decision making in such organizations leads members to do only what they're told but also clear all decisions with superiors.

How to build a culture of curiosity & creativity?

By encouraging your teams to do the following:


The culture of any organisation is the culmination of time and practices (conscious & unconscious). Culture is everyone’s prerogative within an organisation. Each member contributes to the overall culture in one way or the other. 

What makes it interesting is that the very definition of constructive cultures, no matter where you go, extrapolates quite well when juxtaposed with OKRs. They feed into each other – they enable each other. Its almost like a virtuous cycle – the better your culture, the better your OKRs and the better your OKRs, the better your culture.


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