June 3, 2020

Q&A: Developing your OKR program

Marilyn Napier
Marilyn Napier
Content Marketing Manager at

Taking your OKR program to the next level

In the second webinar of our three-part OKR Maturity Model series, OKR experts and Intel alumni Howard Jacob and James Cape, along with Ally’s Product Marketing Director Jes Baum, discussed the five stages of OKR maturity and how to get from OKR curious to OKR master. Here are the answers to the questions you asked.

1. If you have MVV (mission, vision and values) does that tend to lend itself to a company being at a later stage?

Having well-defined and articulated MVVs will certainly provide a great foundation for developing OKRs and will make it easier to do so since you’ve established where your organization is going and how you’re going to get there. OKRs are a methodology to articulate exactly what you need to do, and by when, in order to operationalize your strategy in order to fulfill your MVV. If the organization has been using a different formal methodology for running their business, or had simply been informally “winging it” on how they were going to move their mission forward, then they would still be at an earlier stage of OKR maturity. – Howard 

2. Based on your experience and implementation, how long does it take for an org to move up the ladder from a champion stage to the master stage? 

Based on my experience, the timeframe for successful OKR implementation is greatly predicated on how strong the existing organization culture is — the stronger the faster.  But for most organizations, two to three quarters is not an unusual time frame. It is also important to adhere to the OKR process and actively “refresh” through employee training as the organization grows. – James 

3. We are a company that has been stuck in between stage 3 and stage 4 for the last three years.  Our engineering org and sales org push back. Engineering feels OKRs are redundant to their agile structure using Jira as a tool.  Sales says it is redundant to the QBRs forecasting and weekly pipeline reviews.

It’s all about making it easy for them. Jira and SFDC integrations! That’s certainly a great benefit of the tool, and could help close the deal in terms of reducing perceived redundancy.  I would first approach it from the perspective of my answer to question 5 below. From there, it’s a matter of having each stakeholder understand that while there are a variety of KPIs and metrics that each organization must use to accomplish their work, having their teams and individuals understand exactly how their work contributes to the overall organization’s success provides focus and enhances their engagement.

While many, if not all, of their individual KPIs may be important to advancing the work, picking the smaller subset that represent the major milestones/deliverables that directly contribute to the achievement of the corporate objectives and using them as the metrics for one or more key results enables everyone to measure what matters, and provide the cross organizational alignment and transparency for major initiatives. – Howard 

4. Would someone explain the planning and roll out schedule of bilateral OKRs?

This depends in large part on how mature strategic planning processes are within an organization. The more mature, the more likely that the senior team can develop and prioritize top-level objectives. It is important to note that while the senior team is responsible for the top-level objectives, it is critical that front line employees are deeply involved in creating the strategic assessment.  With top-level objectives completed, each senior team member cascades OKRs down organization with employees responding with their own OKRs.  Then the senior team member will “roll up” and refine their organizational OKRs.  – James 

Related: Getting started with OKRs

5. How many good examples of stage 5 implementations have you seen? It seems to me that stage 5 is a nirvana stage that isn’t realistic in the average, messy and real world. How sustainable is stage 5?

As with all things, you need to answer the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) question for each part of the organization.  If people see value in using a tool or methodology, they will embrace it. I would refer them to John Doerr’s book, Measure What Matters, where he provides numerous examples of companies who embraced OKRs, saw the benefits, and committed to using them.  At the start of my OKR workshops, I spend time asking the leadership team about what is going well with their organization, and where they face challenges. This inevitably shows that others in the organization are facing similar challenges, which often involves alignment and transparency with respect to a major deliverable, which is dependent upon the successful and timely delivery of elements from multiple teams. That’s the very problem that OKRs are intended to solve, and the conversation then becomes very productive. – Howard 

6. Apart from managing organizational goals, assigning and executing tasks, maintaining transparency etc., are there options of sharing employee feedback and peer recognition that do all the motivation whilst fueling the original intent of accomplishing goals?

Celebrating employee contribution and success as the organization works to execute and accomplish OKRs is simply good, basic management practice. Also, depending on the size of the organization, sharing/presenting graded OKRs in public forums is an outstanding way of recognizing successes while focusing on areas of improvement.  – James 

7. I understand the business operations argument. And there is engineering and sales org department participation, but what is the motivation for individuals to update their OKRs and Jira or OKRS and SFDC?

Top level buy-in for the OKR process is key. Founders/CEOs need to be fully bought in by making the successful implementation of OKRs a priority.  In larger organizations, large groups or divisions can act as “seed” organizations for implementing OKRs.  -James 

If I’m looking at shifting from a traditional KPI and metric-based system to an OKR at-scale model, what is a good place to start? Also traditionally a lot of reward elements are linked to work/goal management, how do you transition away?

OKRs don’t replace KPIs, they complement and utilize them. KPIs correspond to the detailed work within an organization that facilitates the delivery of their projects. OKRs are the major elements of the corporate strategy that need to be accomplished to deliver the mission and vision consistent with the values. For example, there are numerous KPIs that track the development team’s progress toward a specific product release. While all of them are important to deliver the product, what is important to the corporate strategy is the actual product delivery milestone. That milestone would roll up to a specific key result for the objective of a product launch. This is what matters to the success of the company, and is the event with which marketing, sales, and support need to align their deliverables. At the same time, the sales and customer success teams want to achieve a particular objective of 98% customer satisfaction or 1% turnover. They may have as one of their KPIs to do QBRs and/or customer surveys.   Planning and executing those may entail multiple intermediate KPIs, but the actual completion milestone would roll up to a key result that supports the corporate customer satisfaction objective. The goal is to enable executive management to efficiently manage, and clearly understand the progress towards, achieving their key objectives by viewing a concise set of information (OKRs), rather than a large, complex stream of data (KPIs).

Individuals and teams need the detailed data to do their jobs, but understanding the most significant elements of that data provides focus and a clear understanding how their work contributes to overall success of the company. Regarding compensation, OKRs can provide a data-based summary of the most meaningful work that people have achieved, which can be one useful element of performance reviews. And if OKRs are directly tied to compensation, then there is too great a tendency to sandbag, which destroys the stretch element of OKRs to drive excellence. At Google (from Measure What Matters), OKR performance is a third or less of performance reviews, and takes a back seat to cross functional team feedback and context (it’s always possible to get the goals wrong, even with a great system). And then there are unanticipated market or external disruptions (think COVID) that require major adjustments. In fact, Google wipes the OKR scores from their system after each cycle! – Howard 

8. Annual vs quarterly vs company vs department. What is best practice? Is it better to deploy annual OKRs at company and department and individual level, and then again, all three at quarterly level; or annual and quarterly OKRs at company level and then the rest of the organization aligning at quarterly?

For the overall company or organization, start with the annual and then develop the quarterly OKRs. Group/team OKRs derive from these quarterly OKRs, and most of the individual OKRs derive from the group/team OKRs. Individuals may also create career/personal development OKRs for the year, which then get implemented quarterly. For example, completing external training or education goals to prepare them for their next promotion or project, or becoming an internal trainer/mentor/coach to help develop both their skills and those of their peers could be appropriate individual OKRs. – Howard

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