How we coach OKRs

After 100s of OKR coach sessions with our client's leaders, we've developed a special system on how to coach OKRs using strategic thinking with 4 gears to make sure our clients get going with OKRs in the right way. Read on to learn how we do it.
Introducing Cat the coach and shooting-for-the-moon awesome Client of It's in the Node.
Introducing Cat the coach and shooting-for-the-moon awesome Client of It's in the Node.

the #1 reason people don't arrive at a good enough OKR from the start is that they avoid doing the correct analysis of their Current State

 

It might seem strange coming from a company selling an OKR tool – but in most cases, just getting the OKR tool and then rolling out OKRs can get you in trouble. Kind of like getting a pottery machine without training won’t produce you a nice vase, rolling out OKRs solely on 2nd hand information from how other companies are doing it will most certainly create a bad take off for you and your colleagues – which may lead to that the whole concept of OKRs gets a bad rep.

When you work with one of our OKR coaches, you aren’t working with only one of our OKR coaches. Our process is structured so that regardless of who is coaching, the aggregated knowledge of our entire team of OKR coaches is utilised and delivered to each person that is part of the OKR program you enrol your leaders into. By the start of each week, we go through the challenges of the past week and work as an internal team to give you suggestions on improvements that the coach then forwards to each of their respective coachees.

This creates an amazing crowdsourced coach setup, but at the same time, it demands a lot from the process so that we are totally clear on where each client stands in maturity and what kind of feedback is relevant for the time being.  We need a solid but flexible system to work with you at a speed that is on par with your growth. For this to work, we’ve developed 4 gears of getting up to speed with OKRs, where each gear adds speed and knowledge to a person’s development journey as well as open up more readiness for OKR rollout for the organisation as a whole.

Just as driving a car, if you start with the fourth gear, the car will be too heavy for the motor to get moving and the engine will just give up. On the other hand, if you don’t switch the 1st gear once you’ve gotten up rolling, all the energy and power of the engine will be wasted and you won’t go anywhere with speed nor distance. So you need a set of gears in order to get going, accelerate and then move long distances without running out of gas. You need to use the gears in a certain order and you need to be able to switch down a gear every now and then if the situation demands it.

OK, enough with this semantic, let’s go through the gears one by one:

 

The 1st gear – the strategic thought system

We’ve come to believe that the #1 reason people don’t arrive at a good enough OKR from the start is that they avoid doing the correct analysis of their Current State. To what is the OKR supposed to create a difference, and why is that important? The analysis should be specifically designed to help create a meaningful change and it should also be within the scope of what is possible for the individual to achieve given his or her role, competence and resources.

Further, the analysis should be easily understood by others so that discussions of alignment can take place cross-functionally. Finally. the analysis should still be lightweight and only answer the critical questions needed to arrive at an OKR that is clear and powerful, nothing more, nothing less.

Taking these things into account, and making that a shared process across various teams you end up with something we call the strategic thought system, and to use it at scale, we’ve developed our very own OKR Canvas. The OKR Canvas by It’s in the Node contains various fields where teams and individuals list ideas and then discuss and prioritize. You can start at either end, but all fields should be filled in and the end result should be a coherent picture of the whole canvas.

Develop OKRs the right way with the OKR Canvas from Its in the Node
Develop OKRs the right way with the OKR Canvas from Its in the Node

The left half of the Canvas is about analysis and asking the right questions – prep work for the OKR. The other half to the right is to help write the OKRs and clear actions connected to that OKR. When we take our clients through the 1st gear, we spend most of the time making sure they are asking the right questions and arriving at a formulated Current State (the left half). We learnt that if you do, coming up with a clear OKR is much easier. Once we have done this, we move over to the other part of the OKR Canvas, where the OKR and Actions are introduced.

 

2nd gear – how to write a great OKR

Once you have filled out all the fields in the OKR Canvas, it’s time to double-check that the OKR you have in front of you is within your power and ability to achieve within the time period. In the 2nd gear, we test your assumptions on whether or not you’ve arrived at a Current State that has key values and problems to solve and whether the OKR you’ve created is designed to solve that specific Current State.

For example, we often try to make sure that at least one of the Key Results you’ve listed is solving one of the problems you’ve listed. If the listed Key Results does not – you should change either the key results so they do, or pick a problem closer to the key results so there is coherence between them. What we are looking for is a coherent picture between the fields of the canvas before we dive deeper into the actual OKR.

The next step is to look at the OKR in itself. Is what we wrote in the Future State creating a clear Objective? Does it include a sense of purpose that can be derived from the analysis in the Current State? Is the Objective creating excitement for the person holding the OKR? For the colleagues? A one-sentence rule is often used to help you keep it simple and powerful.

Moving over to the Key Results. Are they the set that is the essence of what needs to be achieved for the meaningful change to happen? So if the key results are achieved – the meaningful change is also achieved? If there is something missing, we add a key result, still trying to add no more than 3 key results, 4 as an absolute max. Often times when we see too many key results, we are able to group some of them together and look at the outcome of those to create just one key result.

The last but most important thing we look at in the 2nd gear is whether or not your Key Results are check-in friendly. You could have come up with the best analysis and described a coherent picture between the analysis and the OKR, but if you can’t check in on your key results, there is no point going for it. OKRs is not a set it and forget it type of goal setting – you need to check in continuously as you progress your OKR during the period.

This is one of the main characteristics of the OKR method and it helps you to make sure progress happens, but also feedback, insights and learning what you need to develop for the next OKR period. OKR is a very iterative process, and that is fueled by how you check in – which is the subject of the 3rd gear. It’s time to get to work with the OKR.

 

3rd gear – work with OKRs

There is an 80/20 rule in the world of goal setting that says that you should spend only 20% of your time planning your goals, and then 80% of your time on follow up. Most goals become only intellectual exercises in meetings rather than create real change in behaviour. The goals have 80% planning at best, and 0% follow-up at worst. In order to work with the OKR, we need a simple and continuous way to follow up on them continuously, preferably every week.

In OKR language we call these follow-ups check-ins. Without consistent check-ins, OKRs will never happen. One reason why is that we humans tend to overestimate the available time we have ahead of us, and underestimate the time it takes to change our behaviours into a certain focus. To help mitigate this we talk about 3 things in the 3rd gear – Schedule, OKR tool & Check-in taxonomy.

 

Schedule

Although famous for his role in the 2nd world and later becoming the president of the USA, Dwight D. Eisenhower is among the goal-setting nerds most attributed for his prioritization matrix, often referred to as the Urgent Important matrix. The main idea behind the matrix is to classify your tasks into whether they are urgent and/or important.

How OKRs are born and risk to die in the Urgent Important Matrix
How OKRs are born and risk to die in the Urgent Important Matrix

As the matrix suggests it is pretty obvious what you should DO right now, this is seldom hard to come up with. The issue is, however, that the top right corner – SCHEDULE –  is as important as the urgent one, it is probably even so that, if you look at it long-term, it is THE most important. The schedule category is where OKRs are born, and it is where they will die if you don’t take action.

This is the hard part with all goal setting really. Not complex, but hard – since we always have stuff that is important AND urgent that comes in the way – and to mitigate this issue, we need to allocate enough time to make sure we do what is important in the long term as well. We need to schedule the OKRs in a way so we create a sense of weekly urgency around them.

 

OKR tool

In order to move from “setting up OKR” to “work with OKRs” we need to have them somewhere where they can come alive, and to do so in a cross-team environment. Simply setting up your OKRs in a PowerPoint or spreadsheet will just keep them documented, and many of the things you hoped to do will become dead and buried in the mystical land of tomorrow.

If you are to make OKRs come alive, you need a tool that holds at least the following features (and is kept at a minimum of features for the rest):

  • Set and Edit the OKRs in a simple way
  • A changelog/diary down on key result level.
  • Transparency to make it possible for OKR holders to see each others OKRs cross teams.
  • Give and receive feedback and get notified when this happens
  • Quick confidence levels reports of groups of OKR that can be aggregated in custom views and reports.

This is what we’ve paid close attention to when we built our own OKR tool, and it is of course a critical ingredient when we coach our gears.

 

Check-in Taxonomy

The last thing we address in the 3rd gear is how to do good check-ins. The tool is just an enabler of making it a possibility to check in on your OKR. The question of how to check-in, and what to check in still remains. We found out that it helps a lot if you get some examples of types of check-ins you can use. Here are the most common types we suggest:

  • Context – a great brain exercise! When you add the key result in the beginning of the quarter (or change it later), write why it is important and what your overall tactic of achieving it will look like.
  • Progress – obvious type, but good to state, since it reminds us that progress is just one of the things we check in when working with OKRs.
  • Confidence – how confident are you that you will reach your key result? What are things that can hold you back from reaching it (Blockers discovered) and what action do you need to take to increase the likelihood of achieving it (Next Up)?
  • Next Up – Not your standard ToDo list. By all means, do make sure you write what you will do next and set yourself a deadline for it – but not only that – also describe the tactic you intend to employ (try something new maybe?). Pre-estimate the intended outcome you think you will reach by doing this, so even if you fail to accomplish it, you will have served yourself some good feedback on the deadline day (Insight & Blockers).
  • Insight & Blockers Discovered – our tool comes with two out of the box icons when doing checkins, and these can be considered as the highest value types of check-ins – the blockers you discover as you try to push the envelope and the insights you draw during the quarter.

 

4th gear – connect & align

In isolation, each participant now knows how to work with their OKRs by themselves, but OKRs is an alignment tool, created to give a mandate to various teams in complex organisations and enable them to create meaningful change from different positions and with different focuses. And for this, participants must also learn to work with each others OKRs from an alignment perspective. I can be about giving feedback to each other that is actionable or extend learnings from themselves and from interactions with others into a broader setting where learning is shared.

By the time we reach 4th gear, our clients have gotten an introduction to how to strategize and come up with an OKR and work with it in their daily business. The 4th gear is here to start the work on how their OKR aligns with the rest. We will discuss and explore how they will help their colleagues stay on top of their OKRs and create a continuous learning loop with real-time feedback between colleagues and teams.

Feedback is a well-discussed subject, but just to “give feedback” isn’t good enough. The feedback must be structured in some sort of method. When General Electric abandoned their 40-year-old performance review practice, they opted in for a new way to drive personal development reviews, using only two main themes for feedback – behaviours that the person should continue doing and things to consider changing, something that we also have as a backbone in our tool when giving feedback.

Apart from connecting with each other’s OKRs the 4th gear is also about summarizing learnings and adding them to the Retro & Reset workshop that we hold at the end of the quarter. In this last gear, we make sure that input to that workshop is structured and well-thought through.

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