How we used OKRs to speed up product delivery
Startups are the new gold mine in the Information era. However, according to an article written by a Harvard Business School teacher, more than two thirds of startups fail.
The client this article is about is also a startup acting in the field of ScienceTech and it is in the race for survival. The CEO approached us with one problem to solve: ‘Why our product delivery is slow’. For privacy reasons we will call our client ScienceUp and its CEO Julie.
All other names in the article have also been changed.
Uncover the real problem to solve (diagnosis)
We first wanted to understand why the product delivery is slow, or exactly, why it was perceived as slow. We interviewed people from different departments and with different role functions, we inspected the tools that track the work in progress and we read retrospectives. We eventually came down to the following conclusion: the product team was drowning under work and was not focused on the same priorities as the sales team. We then thought that the use of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) (1) might help.
Find your sponsor
The first time we pitched the OKRs framework usage to the CEO, we were received with high scepticism: OKRs framework is quite known in the startup world thanks to Google, therefore the ScienceUp leadership team tried to apply it but to no avail. The CEO especially warned us that the co-founder and COO was not a big fan of the framework: he never knew how to apply the OKRs framework to his department and used to attend OKRs planning sessions with a big frustration and a feeling of wasting his precious time.
We asked for permission to talk to the COO.
Empathise with your critics
In retrospect, the most difficult task we had at hand was to get, if not the support, at least a green light from Steven, the COO, to rethink the company’s OKRs.
We had to understand his perspective: from his point of view, OKRs were a waste of time.
His work was to manage operations, so to speak. He would not understand what OKRs could bring him. Prior to meeting him, we had done some homework. And in the meeting, we came up with concrete examples on how OKRs had helped us improve operations in previous working experience.
After a long discussion, the meeting ended up with the COO asking warmly “what can I do to help you succeed with the OKRs implementation?”
Build a network of champions to co-lead the change
As Jon Smart reminds us in his seminal book Sooner Safer Happier, organisations are complex adaptive systems, One Size Does Not Fit All. We had to design a change process that is unique to ScienceUp.
Given the entrepreneurial culture of the company, we wanted to involve a network of champions to co-lead the change with us. We had to follow two rules:
Invite over Inflict (still from the same book): champions had to be chosen only on the basis of their motivation to join
Have at least one champion from each department
This is how we created a network of 7 champions that represents the 7 departments: Technology, Design, Data, Sales, Growth and Customer Success.
Empower the champions and provide the sponsors’ support
To help champions thrive in their roles, we had to clearly articulate their role and the set of behaviours they should show, as follows:
Co-facilitate OKRs setting or review workshops
Act as a trusted mentor for teams or individuals
Challenge others to think about old problems in new ways
Act as a thinking partner for leaders to drive the company towards aspirational Goals.
Be a self-learner, networker, and influencer
Ask open-ended questions and empower others to come up with a solution
Seek to develop oneself and others by constantly asking for and giving constructive feedback.
The champions were meant to work hand in hand with 3 sponsors: Julie (the CEO), Steven (the COO) and Anthony, the Head of Technology Department.
As for the sponsors’ role, it was defined as follows:
The sponsor has a clear understanding of where the organisation is going and where it should be in three years. She/He supports the champions network for a successful OKR implementation.
The sponsor constantly communicates about the company’s North Star and tells inspirational stories about its vision.
She/He leads the way by publishing the company’s OKRs and continuously communicating about the progress achieved.
She/He supports experimentation, innovation, alongside both top-down/bottom-up and sideways OKRs creation.
Start with a team chartering
Tuckman, an American Psychological Researcher specialised in group dynamics, defined 4 stages of group development: forming, storming, norming and performing. In our experience, teams that take the time to align on not only their mission but also on their values, what success looks like and how they will work together are most likely to arrive faster at the performing stage.
Although they knew each other as individuals, our team of 7 champions and 3 sponsors have never worked together as a team before. Thus we ran a team-chartering workshop to create the alignment we discussed above. The workshop created the energy and the sense of purpose needed to tackle the next phase, which is to communicate the change vision to the whole organisation.
Communicate the change vision
Some people might think the work done by John Kotter that describes the steps needed for leading change outdated. I do not.
In my opinion all the 8 steps (2) are still relevant.
In this section I will talk about the 4th step which is referred to as “Communicating the Change and Mobilising Commitment”.
From the first day I joined the assignment, Julie sent a company-wide email explaining who I was and what my mission would be. She set the tone from Day One.
However, effective communication never relies solely on emails. The startup had company-wide biweekly 30-minute meetings to share major updates and to get everyone synchronised. We used that channel to communicate the change that was about to happen, both explaining what problem we were trying to solve, how we will implement it, how we will measure the success and presenting the champions’ role with regard to the change.
This was quite effective, but people who were too shy to ask questions in front of the entire company were encouraged to speak to their respective champions. As a consequence, the latter were constantly reporting back some communication gaps we might have. Being based on the feedback reported by the champions, we took to improving the communication.
Execute the change
There are several ways to execute an OKRs cycle. For companies which are already implementing OKRs, it is mandatory to properly close the ongoing cycle, to take the time to reflect on the learning in order to improve the next cycle.
Here is an overview of the enrolment timeline:
As you can see OKRs education and coaching constitute a pillar of a successful implementation.
OKRs education or training
In his book The OKRs Field Book, a step-by-step Guide for Objectives and Key Results Coaches, Ben Lamorte talks about an OKRs coaching mantra that external coaches should internalise: ‘The best way to learn about OKRs is to get started on your actual OKRs’.
In our case, we have run several trainings and made sure all the employees attended at least the fundamentals training, in these trainings we have always made sure to keep the theory to a minimum and that people get started by applying the theory to their context.
Coaching was offered in several manners:
One-on-one coaching: for the CEO and the heads to make sure they set up their OKRs right.
Team OKRs setting workshops: to guide teams throughout the creation process.
Daily office hours: make myself available 1h every day during which everyone in the company can join and ask questions.
Step by step, during the timeline I described above, the CEO and the high executives, then the departments, slowly started to publish their OKRs and make them visible to everyone in the company, allowing all teams to comment on them, to give feedback on them and to adjust accordingly.
Magic started to happen as at the end of week 4, all the company’s OKRs were published and the teams could start the execution.
Sustaining the program
Having the company OKRs published and agreed upon is already a big success. But this is not enough. Monitoring them during the cycle is very important, too, to make the change sustainable. Slowly, the CEO and the high executives put OKRs at the heart of their weekly meetings, using the following canvas to drive the conversation:
These discussions are meant to reinforce the importance of OKRs and to allow teams to raise and resolve impediments in order to achieve the company’s objectives early enough.
In order to prepare the company to execute the coming cycle without relying on an external OKRs coach, I helped two OKRs champions who had shown interest in running the upcoming OKRs cycle to grow in their role which consisted in providing both more tailored training and coaching together with recommending some reading as well. I left the gig with the confidence that the two champions were ready to take over.
Reflecting on organisational learning
As consultants, we are always put under pressure to make the change process successful. We have a set of tools and techniques that we mastered in previous working experiences and that we think could benefit the client. We also come up with a fresh vision that allows us to see things that the client might not be able to see. But we do not have a magic stick. We co-create the change with the client. And unless the latter rolls out their sleeves, change will by no means take place.
Reflecting back on the consulting engagement in question, it was a success thanks to a supportive and dedicated leadership, a clear communication and the creation of a fast feedback loop. The engagement was also successful because we were able to measure success in terms of outcomes in such a way that by the end of the new OKRs cycle, the startup was ultimately able to achieve its objective and to secure one new major deal. Hourra!
(1) OKRs stands for “Objectives and Key Results.” It is a collaborative goal-setting methodology used by teams and individuals to set challenging, ambitious goals with measurable results.
The methodology became very popular when in 2013 Google Ventures partner Rick Klau shared a video on how Google was using OKRs and when in 2018 John Doerr published Measure What Matters, sharing stories on how companies are successfully using OKRs.
(2) The Eight-Stage Process to lead a change by John P. Kotter are:
Establishing a Sense of Urgency
Creating the Guiding Coalition
Developing a Vision and Strategy
Communicating the Change Vision
Empowering Employees for Broad-Based Action
Generating Short-Term Wins
Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change
Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture
Jon Smart’s approach to change has evolved and is expressed as follows:
Start with Why
Focus on Outcomes
Leaders Go First
Create a Ways of Working Center of Enablement
Start Small and Create an S-Curve Change
Invite over Inflict
Involve Everyone from Top to Bottom
Bias to Action
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