OKR Framework; What you need to know and how to increase your OKR success

Team leader presents his strategic approach

OKR Framework Summary

You may be a leader looking to adopt the OKR methodology in your organisation or even someone who offers expertise in the OKR method, but in either circumstance, there is a lack of well-defined approaches for OKR implementation.

The importance of an OKR framework, in the setting of and meeting strategic OKR, has been noticeably neglected across the organisational landscape, and the cracks are starting to show. 

Although the OKR approach has grown in popularity, we are still seeing unnecessary problems in OKR implementation, and it is important we understand why.

What is an OKR Framework?

If you search on Wikipedia, you will find OKRs defined as a ‘goal-setting framework for defining and tracking objectives and their outcomes’. 

John Doerr (who could be said to have made OKRs famous in his book Measure What Matters), defined an OKR Framework as “a goal-setting protocol for companies, teams and individuals”.

These, like many of the common definitions you will find, simply do not provide enough substance as to what an OKR framework really consists of. 

They lack the breadth and depth to cover what is required to truly understand and succeed with OKRs and strategy execution

Furthermore, the basic definitions do not adequately demonstrate the impact OKRs can have on an organisation and company goals.

In order to support our OKRs training and implementation services, we’ve had to delve into what really defines an OKR framework.

For 1ovmany, OKRs are a framework for creating, communicating, constantly validating and adapting corporate strategy. 

Admittedly, this does sound formal and overly complicated, so we’ve laid out the following bullet-points for what we feel an OKR framework should help to accomplish:

Facilitate the creation of a good corporate strategy

The creation of plans to achieve our purpose using clearly defined objectives to outline that plan. 

Not just at the C-suite level, but at every level within the organisation, all aligned and engaged. 

In short, clearly define what we are trying to achieve.

Clearly communicated using a common structure & language

This includes the measures by which it can be established unambiguously whether each objective within the plan has been achieved. 

To summarise, what is every other team in the organisation trying to achieve and how will they measure themselves?

Constantly validated with fast feedback loops

Allow the work being done to achieve our strategy or objective, to be constantly validated with fast feedback loops.

This is seen in the key result, and answers the question: are we achieving our strategic goal or OKR objective?

Clear process through which we adapt constantly to the feedback

This stage is about nurturing a process through which we can constantly adapt to the feedback we get from the measurable result and modify our strategy (plans and objectives, OKR Goal) accordingly.

We carry out this goal-setting through OKR planning, OKR review and OKR retrospective, each quarter, half-year, or whatever the length of your OKR cycle.

Unfortunately, in most implementations of the OKR goal-setting framework I have encountered as an OKR coach, we do not see these features or OKR process well-defined and laid out in easy to follow steps.

1ovmany OKR Framework
OKR Framework | 1ovmany

What do we see in the wild?

It is abundantly clear that the concept of an OKR framework is generally not well understood or applied throughout the organisational landscape.

In Measure What Matters, Doerr alludes to the adaptability of OKRs, talking of them as potentially both a survival kit in a start-up through to being able to demolish silos and enable frontline autonomy in large enterprises. Unfortunately, this is just not what is being seen on the ground.

It would seem there’s somehow been a belief established that by structuring and communicating your strategy into a particular format (OKRs), your organisation is going to magically adopt a new culture. It is obvious when you put it in these terms that this just is not going to be true.

Adopting OKR methodology is often talked about in the same conversation as that of Agile transformations, which makes for an interesting comparison in this case.

According to a recent report, the highest-ranking challenges to adopting and scaling Agile frameworks continues to be related to organisational culture, resistance to change, inadequate management support and having organisational culture at odds with Agile principles. 

Most organisations that have adopted Agile software delivery have seen benefits, but it isn’t always an easy path.

It would appear though, that OKRs are at the opposite end of the funding spectrum and very much lack the maturity of Agile.

The true challenge for organisations adopting or implementing OKRs is the recognition of this reality and sometimes a lack of willingness to invest in success. 

This is not helped by the numerous organisations telling people how simple OKRs are to implement and use, typically through the means of an OKR software platform.

Benefits of a well-thought-out OKR framework

As I will discuss further, OKRs do work and they do deliver, but they need to be treated for what they are – something designed to guide and control the work of your whole organisation whilst also measuring and demonstrating its success and failure.

How you want to do this is ultimately decided by the framework you implement, which in turn guides the type of results your organisation will experience. 

With a scope and impact like that, would you want to short-change the implementation or underplay its importance and complexity?

Don’t short-change it!

We’ve heard first-hand experiences of teams being shown a few slides on OKRs, told to google it and then present their OKRs later that week. 

At another well-known organisation, we heard three completely different OKRs experiences from within a small single unit, from the apathetic to the blatant ignoring of them altogether.

These are not the only example we’ve heard where OKRs are not treated as a strategic management framework, but instead a side-of-desk activity that is not genuinely expected to have an impact on the organisation. 

Types of leadership vanity exercises such as these, reduce the organisation’s effectiveness and damage the reputation of OKRs as a successful strategy management framework.

Don’t overcomplicate it!

Of course, things can also go terribly off course at the opposite end of the spectrum. 

In one organisation we saw a huge investment in creating an overly complex and fundamentally flawed OKR framework, which exhibited poor engagement from front-line team members and operational management. 

The framework effectively drained all creativity out of the OKR setting process, while simultaneously creating a huge quarterly burden, the result of which was communicating the same directives, projects and initiatives that were in place previously. 

To improve engagement, you need to have a system that allows those involved to contribute without being overly onerous. Our 1ovmany OKR Canvas can be used as a tool to help facilitate this.  

A commonality in these issues is the lack of a simple effective structure to build the implementation, a lack of understanding of the inherent effort required to make them work, and a lack of a simple and straightforward way to implement and manage them on an ongoing basis. 

This ultimately means you don’t drive towards the desired cultural outcomes or formulate a workable OKR system

An OKR framework should help provide this, and outline what is necessary if OKRs are to be successful in an organisational context.

Part of the challenge facing OKRs, if they are to live up to the hyperbole and become the future language of strategy in organisations, is to mature in a similar way to Agile. 

The trend of treating OKRs as easy to adopt, simple to create and requiring only trivial investment to revolutionise your company culture must give way to defined, effective, tested and robust frameworks that deliver.

Is an OKR framework being sold?

We are seeing OKRs sold as semi-magical solutions, as eluded to above, simple and easy to do without the need for complexity like a framework

Without experience and a solid framework, it is very unlikely an OKR implementation is going to land effectively and lend progress towards the business goal.

Many organisations are looking to Agile coaches to fill the void, and some, perhaps armed with John Doerr‘s book, are all too happy to oblige, despite exhibiting a lack of OKR expertise. 

Many Agile coaches are open about the lengths they need to go in order to be ready to fill that gap, but without the sort of frameworks you commonly find in Agile, it’s difficult for them to step up and structure an OKR implementation effectively. 

If you are an agile coach looking to explore moving into this space get in touch, we can train and support this ambition) or have a look at our OKR Training.

Industry Insight

Our experiences appear to be reasserted by others’ industry insight. A recently published OKR report available on Mind the product, was aimed at understanding how companies are using OKRs in the wild. 

The results indicated that their use is still relatively undeveloped, coupled with many challenges in their implementation, demonstrating a lack of maturity. 

57% of participants considered their company’s OKR skill level to be relatively low; a serious issue when this is the system for managing and communicating your strategy organisation-wide.

These stats would suggest that a majority of organisations displaying an interest in or even investing in implementing OKRs, are in the juvenile stages of their OKR maturity. 

While they may demonstrate an awareness of how OKRs can help reach a business goal, they lack the experience or expertise to properly set and meet OKRs. 

Marty Cagan (Partner at Silicon Valley Partner Group, SVPG) recently highlighted on the SVPG blog :

“companies are not set up to effectively apply this technique [OKRs]”.

For this reason, Cagan has actually stopped recommending the use of OKRs for many companies. 

He goes on to say that “In so many companies, even though conceptually the technique is simple and sound, it ends up proving a waste of time and effort and yields little if any results”.

This further drives the point that in order to achieve success with OKRs, they need to be implemented as part of a structured OKR framework, which should be designed in alignment with the desired organisational outcomes, as well as considering culture and make-up within the business.

Graphic showing low OKR skill level in organisations
OKR skill level in organisations | Source: Mind the Product

Where does this leave us with OKRs?

There is real evidence mounting up to suggest that organisations aren’t demonstrating an appreciation for the investment required to implement OKRs, or the ongoing time-cost to operate them. 

We are also seeing a lack of awareness that organisations will need to transform how their business operates and the mindset and culture of its people to be successful with OKRs. We have documented this in our article; How to prepare your people for implementing OKRs successfully

This is where frameworks create huge value. They provide a clear understanding of the rules of the game, as well as the expectations and investment required. Scrum is a fantastic example of a lightweight framework used in software delivery.

For those not familiar with it, Scrum is one of several frameworks under the umbrella discipline of Agile software delivery. It sets out:

  • the theory;
  • the values;
  • the roles;
  • the events; and
  • the artefacts

needed to implement and run the framework to deliver software in an Agile fashion.

Scrum describes itself as a lightweight framework that helps people, teams and organisations generate value through adaptive solutions for complex problems. 

It includes all of the items above and is documented in a 14-page guide. It also has accreditation for each role and books galore.

Now with OKRs, we are not at that level of maturity, but as I stated earlier, it is the direction that the OKR ‘industry’, such as it is, needs to move in.

Without this maturity, we will continue to see misunderstandings, false hopes, dodgy sales promises and ultimately ineffectiveness, which could be the death of a system that is inherently quite brilliant in its conception.

What do you do if you want to adopt OKRs?

You need to be realistic about what you can do on your own and when it will become necessary to bring in support.

If you are not a very small organisation and/or you have no experience with OKRs, then we strongly recommend that you reach out for experienced assistance.

You should go with an organisation or individual that can develop a simple but solid framework, and that can handle how to implement OKRs and then manage-ongoing the use of OKRs within the organisation.

Ideally those with experience implementing an OKR framework in an organisational context, and has faced similar challenges to those that you are implementing OKRs to combat in your own company.

Note that a framework is not the tool, nor the people you use for your implementation. 

It is the formalised roles, processes, communication channels/forums, planning methods and methodologies that come together to create a system, following standardised principles, that can be correctly tailored to your company objective and organisational needs. 

Be sure you are receiving the support that you really need to make a success of adopting an OKR framework.

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