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OKRs and Ally.io Help O.C. Tanner Create ‘Unity in Focus’

“We used to plan in half-year chunks. In software development, things change so much within that time. Now we’re planning more frequently, in less time and to better effect. We’re getting better results because we’re very focused on the key results within a quarter and ensuring that we’re creating value within that time.”

O.C. Tanner is a manufacturing company built on leadership and employee recognition. For almost a century, O.C. Tanner has helped enterprise clients, which include American Airlines, Bayer and even Taco Bell, develop workplace cultures that empower people to thrive in their work. 

But over the past two decades, the company has had to ramp up its competitive advantage by transforming from a manufacturing company into a technology company. With new tech-first companies entering the market at a rapid pace, O.C. Tanner has had to develop a clear and focused product strategy to exceed formidable competitors. The company’s VP of Product, Jason Andersen, and Director of Program Management, Julie Livsey, have both played a crucial role in this journey.

To keep pace with innovative players as well as the markets’ accelerated pace of change and innovation, O.C. Tanner had to transform the way it develops and improves products. “We have a very tenured organization with people who have been here for a long time and have a certain way of doing things,” Jason said. “These methods haven’t always been the easiest or most tech-savvy. That’s why in the product management and software engineering area specifically, we saw the need to elevate our game in terms of aligning the objectives we needed to accomplish and how to accomplish them.” 

OKRs have helped the company achieve greater alignment and encouraged the team to evolve to a more modern, outcomes-based product development model.

The most critical step to seeing success was undergoing a change management initiative that got everyone on the same page. About two years ago, John Doerr’s book, Measure What Matters, helped the product team understand the benefits of focusing on outcomes versus outputs. However, they weren’t sure how to make this shift a reality at a strategic or tactical level. OKRs helped fill that gap.

Although adopting OKRs was a “great step forward,” Jason noted that the product team initially used PowerPoint and disparate spreadsheets to track them, which unearthed a number of challenges. The most notable was that there was no centralized repository or source of truth for OKRs. The team developed their goals every six months, but “there wasn’t a lot of tie-back to individuals on the teams,” Julie notes. “There wasn’t a good way for us to create accountability by the teams for the goals we were setting. Our goal was to create alignment between team and department goals, and then tie them back to our corporate and strategic goals.”

Jason and Julie also realized that manual tools had many planning and alignment limitations. “We initially began looking for any Excel templates that people had created as a way to track OKRs, but quickly realized there were issues with that approach,” Jason says. “I toyed around with creating a tool within AirTable to track OKRs but also saw the limitations that came with custom building a tool. Even if it could handle the basic structure, there would still be limitations in reporting and accessibility for the team.”

That is when Julie began looking into commercially available tools. After aligning with the IT organizations and assessing internal needs and requirements, O.C. Tanner began using Ally.io. Although many companies fear that implementing more solutions will create “tool fatigue” that will ultimately hinder adoption, Jason notes that the team already felt pain from not having an effective tool to manage and administer OKRs. “People knew we were committed to OKRs, even without a tool, but because we felt the pain, the team was willing to embrace it,” he says. “The team knew that we would keep at this until we felt good about how we were managing OKRs and that they were delivering value.” 

Initially, the O.C. Tanner product team did a small pilot of 10 leaders, including Jason and the engineering leaders.

A few months later, it was rolled out to the entire software and IT organization, which consists of 188 users. Ally.io has made all of the administration aspects of OKRs “a breeze,” Jason explains. “It helps us keep OKRs established and aligned for the appropriate planning periods and creates visibility across the entire team.”

O.C. Tanner’s product team now incorporates OKRs into all planning and collaborative processes. Because the team uses Ally.io in semi-annual and quarterly planning and refers to the platform in bi-weekly status updates, everyone is able to align on their tasks and ensure that their work is laddering up to big-picture initiatives. The goal is to keep everyone on the same page, ensure all OKR status updates are accurate and empower everyone to ramp up internal and team productivity. 

Ally.io’s intuitive user interface made it easy for employees to explore, move, and delete OKRs. The platform has also helped users learn how to better structure OKRs, which has helped shorten the learning curve, accelerate adoption and even position the team to develop more aggressive, stretch objectives.

Ally.io has especially played a critical role during Covid-19, when teams had to adjust to working remotely. As of the creation of this piece, O.C. Tanner is still 100% remote, with plans to move to a hybrid model in August 2021.

“Ally.io has tied us together,” Jason says. “It’s one place to go for all the documentation and information we need. And even though we’ve been remote, our strategic planning is stronger than it’s ever been. Adopting OKRs and utilizing Ally.io have been key to that success.”

Ally.io has empowered O.C. Tanner’s product team to reduce planning cycle times and has helped team members better understand how their day-to-day tasks contribute to OKRs for a specific period. Their success has helped the broader organization see the power of a software solution in scaling OKRs. Julie explains that this sets a powerful foundation for the broader organization to implement Ally.io in the future. “Our ultimate goal is to have a tool that is being used company-wide that creates that broader visibility.”

The biggest benefit the product team has seen using Ally.io is that it has helped uncover dependencies, which will be tremendously beneficial as more departments use the solution moving forward. “It’s bringing a lot of unity in our focus,” Jason says. “In product, we’re dependent upon our connections to marketing, to sales, to customer success. There are so many stakeholders in what we do, so when we say we’re going after something, that requires a lot of work outside of our group. We need visibility into that from the top, down, and everyone needs to understand their part. That’s what we really want to get to.”

Although O.C. Tanner is still early in its journey with Ally.io, Jason notes the new features and capabilities that have been added show that Ally.io isn’t just a platform provider, it’s a partner. “Every planning cycle, we find more pros and fewer cons with Ally.io, which speaks volumes about the software and the company,” Jason says. “To our delight, some of the capabilities we wanted to see in Ally.io seemed to appear within weeks after we discovered a need for them, such as committed items, better dashboard for tracking progress, and tagging. Internally, it created greater confidence in Ally.io but also in our OKR process.”

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