OKR Top Tips from the Experts

Reflections on the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) Forum
World Trade Centre Amsterdam Zuid, 25.10.2018

We’ve all used the expression “lightbulb moment,” now perhaps something of an overused term, especially in business. But two weeks ago, during the OKR Forum held at the World Trade Centre Amsterdam Zuid I genuinely had one of those Aha insights; or maybe it was on the flight back to Newcastle as the intellectual overload of a full day’s worth of presentations slowly began to fall into place. Lots of very bright and enthusiastic people signed up to the fast-growing community of OKR practitioners had held their first pan European forum organised by the excellent livewire Allan Nunes Messias, senior consultant at co-sponsors and organisers IT recruitment specialists Computer Futures. I’d promised my colleagues at Auxin Services I’d make diligent notes for them as their own busy schedules meant I was the lucky one able to take the time out and make the trip.
In the same spirit of cooperation, I thought this blog might serve to summarise some of the insights I’d gained, and for the sake of symmetry and true to OKR’s own mantra of focus and simplicity I’d pick my personal favourite three insights and recollections from several presenters as a shorthand precis of what I’d learned to share more widely.

First up, and a disciple of Ben Lamorte (who spoke later) was OKR Master and Agile coach from Booking.com Melanie Wessels. Established in 1996 in Amsterdam, Booking.com has grown from a small Dutch start-up to one of the largest travel e-commerce companies in the world. With a mission of “empowering people to experience the world”, Melanie’s company now employs more than 17,000 in 198 offices in 70 countries. Three key learnings from Melanie included:

  • Focus: less is definitely more. Don’t make the introduction and running of OKRs overwhelming, stick to a simple model and keep working on the business as usual.
  • Ensure the Leadership Team are role models, fully bought in and working with OKRs themselves.
  • Have a nominated OKR Coach on board, or at least at hand during the peak time of OKR setting.

Next at the lectern was the great man himself, international OKR coach and founder of Lean Performance, Felipe Castro. Just like me, Felipe began his career as a product manager, one of the best ways to learn how to motivate cross-functional, outcome driven teams, (this was one of the reasons I guess I was on familiar ground having started out as in product management at consumer goods giant Unilever, without doubt, one of the best finishing schools of a once underrated profession).
Felipe’s considerable published content and experience cannot possibly be limited to just three points, but for me the takeaways were:

  • OKRs should not be a to-do list or New Year’s resolutions; OKRs are about keeping the score, and by the way, you don’t need to wait for the perfect metric.
  • The best companies hold a strategy session right before setting their OKRs.
  • A typically strong cross-functional OKR team from the tech world would include a product manager, an engineer and a UX designer.

Alla Alimova, Global Senior Product Manager and OKR evangelist at eBay was very clear with her insights; I really liked Alla’s example of how she motivated her new team with the objective of “reducing the cost of customer growth” since onboarding and managing every new customer came with a chunky financial impact on the business.
From Alla I learnt:

  • The FAST acronym: all the best OKRs are focussed, aligned, stretching and can be tracked.
  • DON’T wait for the silver bullet, get frustrated or stay in your own bubble of activity.
  • DO just get on with it, keep positive, fail fast and often and stay connected with your peers and leaders.

Next, we heard from Christoph van der Klaauw Chief Operating Offer at Travelbird.com and a former McKinsey consultant. In a textbook application of the methodology, Christoph implemented OKRs throughout fast-growing TravelBird in 2015. Over the years, OKRs in the online travel agency have evolved from a quarterly goalsetting method to company-wide alignment tool that helps make complex cross-team collaborations such a success.
Christoph covered a lot of ground but emphasised that there was a need to establish the “Why?” before OKRs could be introduced successfully. Early adoption had been difficult with effort rather than outcome being encouraged, counterproductive of course.
My three takeaways from Christoph were:

  • Managers are encouraged to pitch initiatives for consideration as OKRs properly implemented will consume company resource; they must have real merit and be well thought through before being adopted.
  • Never have more than three Key Results per initiative
  • OKRs should not be used as an HR tool for performance management, nor confused with sales targets which work well enough on their own.

The eagerly awaited session with Ben Lamorte via video link from the USA did not disappoint. Ben is an acclaimed OKR consultant and co-author of the book Objectives and Key Results: Driving Focus, Alignment, and Engagement with OKRs. Ben began by recounting a testy conversation with his business advisor, Oracle’s former SFO Jeff Walker who had stressed the importance of company leaders knowing exactly where they are going and being able to convey this direction clearly at all times; a spot of tough love which Ben took on board and was happy to share; he then took questions from the floor.
Three themes I particularly recall include:

  • The importance and effectiveness of team OKRs rather than individual OKRs, especially in the early days of introducing OKRs to a company.
  • The ease with which OKRs enable discussions between departments, and indeed when setting OKRs at departmental level that senior OKRs can be changed as a result of that important discourse. The quality of the outcome was more important than the need to have set in stone OKRs.
  • Finally, my own question from the floor when asking Ben where he felt OKRs now stood as a widely accepted management tool. Ben’s response:
    “The publication of John Doerr’s “Measure what Matters” and becoming a New York Times bestseller had pushed OKRs right into the mainstream”.

We then heard from lean practitioner Bart den Haak, IT Leadership Consultant & OKR Master at ING and founder of movingtheneedle.com and leanbart.com
Bart sees the massive potential for OKRs and is setting up his own consultancy to specialise in the method. He sets WIG objectives (wildly important goals) and uses these avidly both in business and in his personal life as a triathlete. Bart spoke about:

  • The importance of a high-frequency tracking cadence, weekly as a minimum.
  • Calling initiatives “bets” that may or may not move the metric needle. Negative results he called impediments.
  • Ben also referred to leading and lagging metrics, stressing how leading metrics were better suited to OKRs as they were predictive measures.

Ewout Meijer, Director of Global Learning Partnerships at Springest is his company’s go-to man for OKR implementation. Springest’s platform and guidance enable people to reach the full potential of their professional careers through learning and vitality.

  • This Dutch learning platform seeks to lead by example and chose to be the first organisation in the Netherlands opting for Holocracy (decentralised flat management) as an operating system.
  • OKRs’ effectiveness as a unifying tool was critical to the success of Springest due to the fully decentralised model the company had adopted.
  • This was a vision of the future with remote but highly aligned and effective teams cooperating across the world and focussed through OKR.

Jan Paul van Vliet then offered his perspectives of OKR as a social psychologist. Jan Paul promoted the benefits of OKRs as a tool for creating a winning culture, and his keystone slide might have been written for sport by proposing that winners and losers may have the same OKRs but:

  • Winners know how to get better every day.
  • Winners live in highly transparent and trustful companies.
  • Winners focus on the pain rather than the gain.

Finally, and in a thought-provoking and forward-looking perspective from the innovative and well-established Munich based WORKPATH, CEO Johannes Mueller argued that the future world of work is changing from formal hierarchies to continuous learning through value creation networks. Like the decentralised holocratic business model described by Ewout Meijer at Springest, Workpath is at the forefront in enabling a new business world with:

  • A focus on customer value generation.
  • Cross-functional strategy planning and alignment.
  • Easy to use and engaging tools for lightweight company communication of OKRs.

POSTSCRIPT: I know I was extremely fortunate to have had the chance to hear so many inspiring stories in person (and indeed meet several of the presenters and delegates) at this fascinating event in Amsterdam. If this brief overview captures some of the spirit of the conference and energises you as much as it has me check out #auxinservices for more information on how Auxin can help your company implement OKRs.