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OKR Frameworks what you need to know and how to increase your OKR success.

OKR Framework Summary

You may be a leader looking to adopt the OKR methodology in your organisation or someone who offers expertise in the OKR method, but either way, you will find a lack of well-defined approaches for OKR implementation. The importance of an OKR framework has been neglected and it is starting to show. The OKR approach is growing in popularity, but we are starting to see unnecessary problems in OKR implementation, and it is important to 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, do not provide enough substance as to what an OKR framework really involves. They also lack the breadth and depth to cover what is required to understand and succeed with OKRs and strategy execution. They just do not adequately describe the depth and impact OKRs can have on an organisation and company goals.

To support our OKRs training and implementation services we have 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. This sounds formal and complicated, but what it really says is quite simple. We expect it to:

  • Facilitate the creation of 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.
  • Allow that plan to be clearly communicated using a common structure and language. This includes the measures by which it can be established unambiguously whether each objective within the plan has been achieved. In short, what is every other team in the organisation trying to achieve and how will they measure themselves?
  • Allow the work being done to achieve our strategy 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?
  • Provide a clear process, OKR tracking, through which we adapt constantly to the feedback we get from the measurable result and modify our strategy (plans and objectives, OKR Goal) accordingly. We do 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 processes.

Infographic displaying what the OKR covers

What do we see in the wild?

It is clear that an OKR framework is generally not mature or well understood.  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 seems that there has somehow been a belief created that by structuring and communicating your strategy into a particular format (OKRs) your organisation is going to magically take on a new culture. It is obvious when you put it in these terms that this just is not going to be true.

Let me put this another way if you work in a large organisation, is it likely that just writing OKRs will demolish silos and enable frontline autonomy? Christina Wodtke, author of Radical Focus, says “Only use OKRs if you want to direct your people toward desired outcomes and trust them enough to figure out how. OKRs only work for empowered teams, otherwise, they are a travesty (a travesty reminiscent of how Agile is implemented in most companies, so not that shocking. But still upsetting.)”. The thought here being that you already need autonomy for them to work effectively.

The mention of Agile makes for an interesting comparison. In the recent 2019 State of Agile report the highest-ranking challenge 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.

Despite the maturity of Agile, it is clear the battle rages on for organisations to embed the behaviours that lead to the cultural change through which the benefits of Agile are realised.

The level of investment still being made by organisations in Agile transformations, training and coaching, and a thriving accreditations industry show this process is ongoing. Agile frameworks abound. More so, it is recognised that considerable funding is needed to adopt them and that it is a cultural change process.

Unfortunately, it appears 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 out there telling people how simple OKRs are to implement and use.

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 while measuring and demonstrating its success and failure. How you want to do this is 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 or ease?

In one very large, well known UK institution prior to our arrival, we heard stories of teams being shown a couple of 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.

This is not the only example we have heard where OKRs are not treated as a strategy management framework, but instead a side of desk activity that is not genuinely expected to have an impact on the organisation. These types of leadership vanity exercises using the latest fad reduce the organisation’s effectiveness and damages the reputation of OKRs as a successful strategy management framework.

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 that had extremely poor engagement from front-line team members and operational management. The framework effectively squeezed all creativity out of the OKR setting process while simultaneously creating a huge quarterly burden to simply communicate 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.

The commonality in these issues is a 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 cultural outcomes you desire. This is what an OKR framework should provide and what is necessary if OKRs are to become more than a fad.

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.

Only use OKRs if you want to direct your people toward desired outcomes and trust them enough to figure out how. OKRs only work for empowered teams, otherwise, they are a travesty (a travesty reminiscent of how Agile is implemented in most companies, so not that shocking. But still upsetting.)
Christina Wodtke
Author: Radical Focus

Is an OKR framework being sold?

We are seeing OKRs sold as semi-magical solutions, as we have highlighted 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.

Many organisations are looking to Agile coaches to fill the void, and some, perhaps armed with John Doerr’s book, are attempting to fill the space where OKR expertise is missing. Most Agile coaches are open about the distance they need to travel to be ready to fill that gap, but without the sort of frameworks you find in Agile, it is hard for them to step-up 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.

Our experiences appear to be backed up by other’s 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 showing 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.

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 to be successful OKRs needs to be implemented as part of an OKRs framework that can cope with the reality of the organisation into which it is deployed.

Image representing the 57% of low ability with OKRs

Where does this leave us with OKRs?

There is real evidence that organisations are not understanding the investment required to implement OKRs, or the ongoing time-cost to operate them. There is also a lack of awareness that they will need to transform how their business operates and the mindset and culture of its people to be successful. We have written about this extensively here

This is where frameworks create huge value. They provide clear understanding of the rules of the game, 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 artifacts

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 and incorrect hopes, dodgy sales promises and disappointment which could be the death of a system which 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 advise that you reach out for experienced help.

You should choose one of the organisations or individuals that can show you a solid but simple framework that handles how to implement and then manage-ongoing the use of OKRs within an organisation, preferably those with experience implementing it in an organisation that faced similar challenges to your own.

Note that a framework is not the tool or 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 needs. Be sure you are receiving the support that you really need to make a success of adopting an OKR framework.

Call to action image for the OKR Framewokr

Summary

You may be a leader looking to adopt OKRs in your organisation or one of those who offer expertise in the field, but either way you will find a lack of well-defined approaches to implement OKRs. The importance of OKR frameworks has been neglected and it is starting to show. OKR popularity is growing, but we are starting to see unnecessary problems in OKR implementations, and it is important to 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 it as “a goal-setting protocol for companies, teams and individuals”.

These, like many of the common definitions you will find, do not provide enough substance as to what an OKR framework really involves. They also lack the breadth and depth to cover what is required to understand and succeed with OKRs. They just do not adequately describe the depth and impact OKRs can have on an organisation.

To support our OKRs training and implementation services we have had to delve into what really defines an OKRs framework. For 1ovmany, OKRs are a framework for creating, communicating, constantly validating (and adapting) corporate strategy.[PS1]   This sounds formal and complicated, but what it really says is quite simple. We expect our OKRs framework to:

  • Facilitate the creation of 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.
  • Allow that plan to be clearly communicated using a common structure and language. This includes the measures by which it can be established unambiguously whether each objective within the plan has been achieved. In short, what is every other team in the organisation trying to achieve and how will they measure themselves?
  • Allow the work being done to achieve our strategy to be constantly validated with fast feedback loops. This is seen in the key results and answers the question are we achieving our strategy?
  • Provide a clear process through which we adapt constantly to the feedback we get from our key results and modify our strategy (plans and objectives) accordingly. We do this by reviewing and setting OKRs regularly (each quarter, half year, or whatever the length of your OKR cycle).

Unfortunately, in most implementations we come across, we do not see these features well-defined and laid out in easy to follow processes.

What do we see in the wild?

It is clear that OKR frameworks are generally not mature or well understood.  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 seems that there has somehow been a belief created that by structuring and communicating your strategy into a particular format (OKRs) your organisation is going to magically take on a new culture. It is obvious when you put it in these terms that this just is not going to be true.

Let me put this another way if you work in a large organisation, is it likely that just writing OKRs will demolish silos and enable frontline autonomy? Christina Wodtke, author of Radical Focus, says “Only use OKRs if you want to direct your people toward desired outcomes and trust them enough to figure out how. OKRs only work for empowered teams, otherwise, they are a travesty (a travesty reminiscent of how Agile is implemented in most companies, so not that shocking. But still upsetting.)”. The thought here being that you already need autonomy for them to work effectively.

The mention of Agile makes for an interesting comparison. In the recent 2019 State of Agile report the highest-ranking challenge 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.

Despite the maturity of Agile, it is clear the battle rages on for organisations to embed the behaviours that lead to the cultural change through which the benefits of Agile are realised. The level of investment still being made by organisations in Agile transformations, training and coaching, and a thriving accreditations industry show this process is ongoing. Agile frameworks abound. More so, it is recognised that considerable funding is needed to adopt them and that it is a cultural change process.

Unfortunately, it appears 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 out there telling people how simple OKRs are to implement and use. 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 while measuring and demonstrating its success and failure. How you want to do this is 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 or ease?

In one very large, well known UK institution prior to our arrival, we heard stories of teams being shown a couple of 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. This is not the only example we have heard where OKRs are not treated as a strategy management framework, but instead a side of desk activity that is not genuinely expected to have an impact on the organisation. These types of leadership vanity exercises using the latest fad reduce the organisation’s effectiveness and damages the reputation of OKRs as a successful strategy management framework.

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 that had extremely poor engagement from front-line team members and operational management. The framework effectively squeezed all creativity out of the OKR setting process while simultaneously creating a huge quarterly burden to simply communicate 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.

The commonality in these issues is a 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 cultural outcomes you desire. This is what an OKRs framework should provide and what is necessary if OKRs are to become more than a fad.

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.

How are OKR frameworks being sold?

We are seeing OKRs sold as semi-magical solutions, as we have highlighted above. Without experience and a solid framework, it is very unlikely an OKR implementation is going to land effectively.

Many organisations are looking to Agile coaches to fill the void, and some, perhaps armed with John Doerr’s book, are attempting to fill the space where OKR expertise is missing. Most Agile coaches are open about the distance they need to travel to be ready to fill that gap, but without the sort of frameworks you find in Agile, it is hard for them to step-up effectively. (If you are an agile coach looking to explore moving into this space get in touch, we can train and support this ambition).

Our experiences appear to be backed up by other’s 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 showing 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.

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 to be successful OKRs needs to be implemented as part of an OKRs framework that can cope with the reality of the organisation into which it is deployed.

Where does this leave us with OKRs?

There is real evidence that organisations are not understanding the investment required to implement OKRs, or the ongoing time-cost to operate them. There is also a lack of awareness that they will need to transform how their business operates and the mindset and culture of its people to be successful.

This is where frameworks create huge value. They provide clear understanding of the rules of the game, 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 artifacts

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 and incorrect hopes, dodgy sales promises and disappointment which could be the death of a system which 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 advise that you reach out for experienced help.

You should choose one of the organisations or individuals that can show you a solid but simple framework that handles how to implement and then manage-ongoing the use of OKRs within an organisation, preferably those with experience implementing it in an organisation that faced similar challenges to your own.

Note that a framework is not the tool or 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 needs. Be sure you are receiving the support that you really need to make a success of adopting an OKR framework.

OKR ImplementationOKRs

Mike Horwath

Mike is a co-founder of 1ovmany where he leads the company in the area of business strategy and transformation, notably in the realms of OKRs, product, and organisational purpose and design as well as agile software delivery.

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