There’s the age-old adage that it’s about the journey, not the destination. When it comes to strategy execution, we often know the destination or strategic goals we are pursuing, but getting there – the actual journey – might be unclear and uncertain.
This is part of the reason why strategy implementation isn’t easy and why 87% of all companies with a strategic plan fail in executing it.
However, in other cases, we know which steps to take, but the exact outcome we’re aiming for isn’t clear. Whatever the unknowns are, applying OKRs in the right way will help navigate them.
How OKRs can help us navigate the unknowns
Just like a hike in the mountains, when implementing one’s strategy there is almost always some level of uncertainty. Either in not knowing the exact terrain of the route. Or perhaps the trepidation of unforeseen weather conditions or obstacles in the form of rocks or fallen trees strewn in our path.
OKRs will help to provide direction and, most importantly, the mindset for teams to navigate the uncertain and pioneer new routes to effectively execute their strategy and achieve their most ambitious goals.
Through OKRs, teams can start to gain traction, sometimes simply by determining the best next steps. Momentum builds momentum, and through the ongoing discipline of OKRs, habits will form, resulting in a higher probability of teams achieving their most ambitious goals.
When do teams need OKRs?
Not all teams need OKRs. Understanding the why behind the adoption of OKRs as a goal-management methodology is essential for buy-in and engagement to enable effective strategy execution. One component of this is understanding that some challenges are better solved with OKRs than others.
Organisational theorist, educator and author, Eddie Obeng in his book All change – the project leaders secret handbook, suggests that there are four different types of problems based on a team’s level of understanding of their goals and the ways in which to achieve them. This matrix can help us to understand what types of problems or situations are best suited for OKRs:
Teams that have well-understood enablers need to ‘just do it’:
Making a Movie: Where the approach is known, but the final outcome is unclear and unfolds (much like a movie) with time, OKRs might be less beneficial. These types of problems could be addressed through project management methodologies, plotting each step and task, to drive traction.
Paint by Numbers: These are teams who know exactly what their goal is and the steps needed to get there. Because the steps are known, a similar project management approach could be followed. The benefits of OKRs in this case will be to decentralise control and drive innovation – just because we did it in a way in the past, doesn’t mean we need to do the same in the future.
Teams with more unknowns will find more benefit in OKRs as a strategic GPS to drive strategy execution
Going on a Quest: Where a goal is known, but the approach isn’t, OKRs are an excellent strategic GPS. It provides direction to a team through ambitious Objectives and quantifiable Key Results. It’s then up to the team to figure out how to get there.
Finding our way through the Fog: Teams that do not have a clear vision of their goals or how to get there, can use OKRs as a way to test their hypotheses. A key element of the OKR journey is Reflecting and Resetting OKRs which is done at the end of every cycle. Through reflecting, teams learn from their experience and figure out the best approach to achieve their goals.
Further, for these types of “foggy” or VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) challenges, OKRs can help to:
- Provide a clear direction and consistency through the discipline of habits to effectively navigate turbulent or volatile business environments
- Enable teams to experiment, fail fast and test their hypotheses to understand what works best in ambiguous or uncertain situations
- Invest energy into understanding and measuring the most important success metrics to drive tangible business impact
More of “foggy” problems: How OKRs go beyond strategy execution and help to test our strategy
Where goals are known and enablers aren’t, OKRs enable teams to chart their own course.
However, where goals aren’t 100% clear, as teams progress on their OKR journey, they might find the direction they are travelling is not as originally intended.
And that’s ok. These are the “foggy” problems. Setting a strategy that will differentiate you from competitors often requires teams to venture into unknown, unchartered waters. In this case, we encourage teams to use OKRs as a strategy effectiveness tool.
Through the process of OKRs, our strategic direction can be refined and we can pioneer new paths to follow. These paths, although unintended, may lead to better outcomes than could ever be imagined by steadfastly pursuing the “wrong” strategy.
Further, through OKRs we can test our theories and collect data that will help us iterate on the approach. This refinement of our ‘map’ better informs our strategic direction, ultimately enabling us to progress the pursuit of our most important strategic priorities.
Applying the learnings unearthed during an OKR cycle is perhaps one of the most valuable elements of OKRs. As Ben Lamorte, founder of okrs.com, said in a recent podcast:
“[…] that’s the big win to me with OKRs, it’s that adjustment from quarter to quarter or every cycle to cycle that you get. And then it’s the way that we talk within our team, but also outside our team about goals, using a common language of “Here’s what we really think we can achieve. Here’s why it’s important. Here’s how we’re going to make measurable progress. Here’s where we need your help”. So that, that common language allows us to talk and ultimately execute. And that’s the discipline we want.”
Adopting OKRs is a learning journey, one that helps teams navigate the uncertain with confidence, taking one step at a time in the right direction to execute on our strategy, and reach the desired destination.
- Dan Prosser, 2015, ZenBusiness Available at: https://www.zenbusiness.com/blog/thirteener (Accessed: 26 August 2022).