If your teams are focused on work rather than value, alignment won’t happen. OKRs represent a key framework that helps teams focus on value. Read on to get some practical insights into the power of OKRs, and view some templates and examples to see how they work.
Introduction: On Teams, Alignment, and Spaghetti
When teams are aligned around work, something invariably happens. Teams kick off an initiative, and all systems are go. During this early, euphoric stage, everyone starts heading in the same direction, like a pound of uncooked spaghetti.
However, when that spaghetti gets dropped into boiling water, that is, the heat of daily realities, soon, there are no straight, parallel lines to be found. Directions, progress, and priorities invariably shift and morph. What you end up with is like a bowl of cooked pasta: individuals pointing everywhere, leading nowhere. If value is achieved, it’s more by accident than anything else.
The Problem: Why is Alignment Such a Challenge?
It seems like people have been writing and talking about the disconnect between business and IT for… well, as long as we’ve had business and IT. Sadly, however, while it’s a problem that’s well understood, its one for which solutions are elusive. Just last month, Dimensional Research published a study that offers a telling illustration of this fact. Their survey reveals that respondents from a whopping 68% of organizations cited misalignment between the two groups. More than ever, leaders need the superpower of fostering strategic alignment and ensuring execution is aligned with value.
The Game Changer: OKRs
I’m a veteran business and digital transformation advisor. Until a few years ago, I thought I was doing a great job aligning my team’s execution with my strategy. We did what we’d always done: Measure ourselves against a set of tasks and activities. I felt that we were making progress and achieving results, but I had no data to back that up. Had we, in fact, identified value or just a list of things that we wanted to do?
When I discovered the OKR framework, the answer was obvious: We were measuring tasks. (For those new to the concept, OKR stands for “objectives and key results.”) We hadn’t done the hard work required to identify outcomes and value. Early on, I also discovered that OKRs provide a goal setting framework that helps make explicit what is often implicit or assumed—and therefore fraught with misunderstandings. Defining and then measuring outcomes rather than activity was a game changer for me. I finally had what I needed: A goal setting framework that is based on hard facts, not feelings and assumptions.
The OKR framework also allows us to keep strategic and tactical teams aligned. This framework provides a vocabulary in which we can articulate business (not technology) measures and value outcomes. OKRs also provide end-to-end insight on the value our team delivers. Everyone on the team knows what to work on and why they’re working on it.
Just as importantly, in order to deliver on the OKRs established, our team had to make some critical decisions about which work we would no longer pursue. This is one of the hardest lessons I learned: How to let go of the work and activities that were no longer serving our interests, as articulated in our OKRs.
Our Three-Lens OKR Template
We articulate and measure our business outcomes through our OKR template. Our three-lens OKR template looks like this:
We are working on [Name / Initiative / Strategy]
Because we believe [Objective / Outcome / Why]
As measured by: [Key Results]
- Action (e.g. “Increase”)
We are working on improving the collaboration between our business and product teams.
Because we believe we will hit our MVP the first time, decrease time to market, and reduce defects.
As measured by:
- Key result 1: Usability testing results are 8.7
- Key result 2: 2% or lower defect rate
- Key result 3: Customer Delighter Score of 8
Following are two key takeaways I’ve gained through my experience in working with OKRs over the years:
- Be honest with yourself. Take a clear look at your current approach. Are you really measuring value or just activity? Run an experiment by building your own OKR and determine what you’re really measuring.
- Be persistent. In my experience working with teams new to OKRs, I’ve often seen that people struggle the first couple of times they go through this exercise. However, by the third time, teams are usually fine. I’ve coached two dozen teams on this technique, and it’s just about always the third try that I’ve seen the light bulbs turn on.