40% of global CEOs cite failure to align as the single greatest challenge to executing strategy. However, over 90% of employees don’t understand their company’s goals or the part that they play in order to achieve them ~ Harvard Business Review, 2015
Alignment on strategy, goals and execution are three elements that are intrinsic to a company’s success.
The question is - how can we expect employees to execute strategy, without understanding how their work impacts the goals? They can take a stab in the dark, hope for the best, but without clear direction, they cannot confidently contribute. More often than not, it’s the blind, leading the blind.
The OKR framework is a tool that has been proven to translate company strategy into prioritized actions, when used correctly. By breaking down strategy into company OKRs, and allowing teams to align their goals with the company’s, alignment becomes the cornerstone of their work. Individual’s will find it far easier to understand how to shape their actions in line with the overall objective of the company.
While OKRs are not the silver bullet solution to all alignment issues, they do help teams focus on what truly matters.
In this article, is a summary of tips from leading OKR experts to assist you what to think through as you implement OKRs.
#1 Get clear on your Why
Ben Hogan, founder of Freshwater Academy explains that your first step needs to be to clearly understand why you are implementing OKRs for your context.
“Ask yourself - what challenges are you hoping to address by using OKRs AND what would success look like?"
He’s seen a range of answers to this question, including:
- Improve Focus - 'We’re pulling in too many directions at once and would like to use OKRs to help us agree on and achieve our highest priority goals.'
- Improve Alignment - ‘Our functions are operating in silos and often at cross-purposes, we’d like to align around common goals across our functions and departments.’
- Improve Achievement - 'We have not been achieving our strategic goals and we’d like a system of accountability to help us measure and achieve our objectives.
Get clear on your why, then move to identifying, and training your OKR Champions who will support the adoption.
#2 Take It From the Top
Tim Whitmire, founder of CXN Advisory, emphasizes the importance of a united leadership and their backing of the common mission, before rolling out OKRs.
"Successful goal setting and execution are rooted in alignment. When we start from scratch at a new organization, 2-3 quarters are spent working solely with company leadership. We get smart, headstrong leaders aligned around a common mission and to create a shared language for OKRs - that way we know that impact can be cascaded through the rest of the organization.”
Too often, Tim sees leaders hoping that OKRs will be the "magic bullet" solution for to their team's execution failures - leaping headfirst into OKRs, rolling it down the ranks, and without top leader buy-in. This is an invitation for failure.
“Without clarity around an organization's strategic objectives, it's impossible for team members to sync to the overall effort" Whitmire says, which leads me to the next point.
#3 Strategize first, then communicate it
Joe Ottinger, co-founder of OKR Advisors, emphasizes the importance of a solid strategy with clear strategic drivers, before getting into the crux of OKR planning.
‘The effectiveness of your OKRs are only as good as the critical thinking that precede them.'
- Be purposeful with your strategy
- Translate into company OKRs
- Communicate them well to your teams
It is essential for OKRs to align with overall strategy, that way you know the company is heading in the right direction. Conveying this to teams, is the next step.
Team goals fit within the goals of the organization and department. As a result, it is imperative to have critical conversations with employees to translate strategy into employee priorities. The quality of these conversations, are directly related to team effectiveness.
#4 Promote process discipline
To reap the benefits of OKRs, discipline is essential. Once an operational OKR process is set in place, commitment to the practice and continual learning, is what will activate the benefits.
Nikhil Maini, founder of OKR International, trains company leaders to be the role models to their rituals, and encourages you to be the same. Show up 100% of the time, whether it is weekly OKR reviews or coaching conversations, if it is part of your set OKR ritual, you need to be there.
‘OKRs create agility for your organization, but agility only comes with frequent progress reviews, sharing what you learn and where you need to pivot.'
#5 Focus on focus
The core thing that an OKR system must provide is focus. Amit Khanna, Founder of 7 startup Advisory, recommends keeping the number of objectives small, as each commitment is a forfeiture of another.
‘When we focus on everything, we focus on nothing.’
Ensure your top-line objectives are significant. OKRs shouldn’t be a catchall or a simple task list. They need to be explicitly curated goals linked to the larger purpose, that you and your team are expected to deliver results around.
- Don’t: Set too many objectives - when there’s simply too much to do, employees lose focus.
- Do: setting no more than 5 objectives. Make them more challenging by aiming for higher results.
#6 Evaluate actions
Carsten Ley, founder of OKR Asia & Asia PMO, highlights that actions are building blocks of success to achieve your key results and focus here is crucial.
The importance of evaluating actions regularly is demonstrated in his training, adding a third decisive element to OKRs: Objectives + Key Results + Actions = OKRA.
- Don't: Confuse Actions with Results. Just by doing something regularly, you are not automatically achieving the desired outcome.
- Do: Set-up smart, measurable Key Results and evaluate your actions or deliverables on a weekly basis against them.
‘The trick is to set up clear & measurable Key Results, AND evaluate the actions on a weekly basis - if they do not achieve the goals, learn from failures and change the actions.’
Plan, implement, iterate. Cultivating a culture of alignment using OKRs and employees truly understanding how they contribute, takes time. Stay open to feedback, continue to learn, and you’ll soon reap the benefits.