8 min read
Rethink OKRs: Improve Cultural Engagement with Your Own System
Here we'll explore the backstory of OKRs, what's changing in the markets, and why it's important to stay ahead of the...
PART 2: KJ McGowan is joined again with Safaa Khairalla Yegenoglu, strategy & operations executive, where they discuss the importance of creating and maintaining a strong operating rhythm and what tools can be used to get you there.
You have a general high level board meeting, which the executives would typically attend and they'd have to, you know demonstrate how they're executing their strategy and the performance of it. And then there's sort of a level underneath more internally in the company where functional leaders, the head of marketing, the head of sales, head of product, are meeting with their teams on a different cadence.
And typically, I see it a lot with product and engineering teams. The product team has a key result or an initiative that's dependent on the performance of the engineering team and sometimes even vice versa. So there's this, well, are they going work on it? And if they don't, you know, finish it on time, then we can't finish our key results on time and so, so forth.
So I'm wondering how you've managed more internally with, with that dynamic and different functions in, in a business.
Yeah, yeah. Um, it's, it was down to the company operating rhythm and operating rhythm doesn't just stop at the company level. In the, in the simplest terms on operating rhythm looks like a calendar of events on a, in a, that happen on a quarterly basis or a month to month basis.
And the way I go about creating and implementing an operating rhythm is that I, I start with looking at the company level and what are the critical activities and forums that happen at that level. These could be board meetings, it could be financial planning cycles, it could be strategic planning cycle.
Or it could be council meetings that happen on a specific cadence and I lay out in a quarter how often those forums and activities happen. Some of them could probably happen once a quarter, um, others would be monthly and some will be bi-weekly. Some are even biannual. So after laying out all of these critical activities and seeing what the interdependencies are across these activities, so let's say we have a financial planning cycle, and as a result of it, we need to report to the board on what the financial plan is.
So that has to come before a board report, a board meeting happening. So by looking at the interdependencies at the company level, you are able to set up and lay out all those activities that are necessary to happen at are prerequisites to one. Once you establish that complic cadence at that level, then you start going into the functional areas.
I would consider there is an operating rhythm in product and engineering, and then there is an operating rhythm in go-to market, and both of them within the functional areas have to work and across go-to market marketer. Product engineering also have to work and both have to dive back to the. So then I start working in product and engineering and figuring out, again, what's the cadence of product?
Um, strategizing, what's the cadence for product development and what's the cadence for delivery? And again, building that agile product development and delivery cycle within product and engineering that takes into account the prerequisites so that engineering is waiting for product for let's say user stories or Epic. And then engineering needs to break them down and start working on them. And then there's the delivery. And at that point, that's where go-to-market gets involved because then there's a go-to-market aspect for the deliberate product. So the cadence within product and engineering is quite important. An output of that cadence could be that the product strategy happens on a quarterly basis.
That we look at it, the outcome of it is going to have to tie back to a company level form, such as a board review or a company level strategy review. And so everything has to tie back there. Similarly, in go to market, there are the sales cycle, the, the monthly, uh, QBR that happen, or customer success reviews.
All of these also have to tie together. In a, in a logical way, in, in a cadence within the function, but also ties back to company level. So it's a system that you end up developing and implementing that is all interconnected. Yeah. And then OKR sits in the center of that system where every form that happens on that functional level is driven by running OKRs and then the outcomes of those OKRs obviously are tied to a specific outcome that the company wants to achieve. So it all works together in that rhythm, um, of getting from an objective all the way to the key result or the outcome that we're expecting. Yeah.
The OKR is the connective tissue between them all.
Yes. You know. Exactly. But what I love, I absolutely love the way you've described operating rhythm and the importance of it and how you create it, how you maintain it. I, um, it's something that I just feel doesn't go. Uh, again, it's like the, the inefficiencies with reporting to a board and that messiness, it's the same with operating rhythm.
I feel like it's not spoken about enough. And I love how you've described it as being a calendar of events, um, that then you look at what are the critical events happening at the, at the top level first, so, This is probably then a bit more, there's so many questions I have about, but probably a bit more of a controversial, maybe question is, do you then, it sounds like in the companies you've worked at, at least it's very top, maybe top down and bottom up a little bit. It's sort of both. It's this top level. You have to have the critical events at the top. Um, they determine, you know, if there's prerequisites there, they need to be facilitated.
And then you look at the functional levels and try to, and the tying them together almost happens. Uh, is it, is it, you know, tell me about that a bit more.
Yeah, and I mean, not at all. Actually, you, in a lot of the times where I implemented an operating rhythm, I actually started from the functional areas up.
Ah, okay. And so there were instances where the operating rhythm first got implemented in product and engineering. It was a product led company. Um, product was everything. So we started with product engineering, making sure that we actually have a rhythm and a cadence for software development and delivery. Once that cadence is implemented, it becomes a no-brainer to look at go to market.
Mm-hmm. , how can we bring them into that cadence so that we are able to create, go-to-market plans that go hand in hand with when we are expecting to get product in the hands of a customer, right? And so automatically you start building and go to market cadence where you want us, you know, you want to give a heads up to marketing, you wanna be able to enable sales, you wanna be able to train and you wanna get your collaterals in shape so that you can start you know, selling product and marketing product to customers. So that automatically builds that go-to market rhythm. And from there it's necessary to report back on what products engineering go-to-market is doing. And so naturally you're gonna end up in company level figuring out where do I give my input to and who do I give my input to?
Um, and that's where the company operating, living comes in. And so it doesn't, there's. There's no one size fits all or one way that works for every company. Every company is different. It depends on where they are in their growth cycle, um, how mature they are in terms of their processes, um, and systems.
And so you're, we, I work with where companies are at. Um, if they're ready. Within the functional areas. That's where we start from in, in terms of creating a, a cadence. If they're ready at the company level, that's where we start from and push downwards and so on. But there isn't a one size fits all when it comes to where do you start from when it comes to creating an operating rhythm in a company.
Yeah. That, that's really helpful I think for listeners because, uh, as you say, there's a lot of variables like growth cycle, maturity of processes, and it's, it's not one size fits all you and I like how you've, you know, it's a skill that is very difficult for people to, to, um, work as a identify the area in the business that could be most. Um, you know, adaptive of something new like this and the create the operating rhythm there first and emerge it naturally, as you said, it emerges to go to market because if product and engineering have a rhythm, go to market needs to be incorporated and integrated with that. And then naturally the executive team need to be incorporated into that. So it's sort of all ties together naturally from this exactly. Starting point. And you just need to, you need to know where, where to start. Is there any tips on, um, you know, operational leaders who struggle with operating rhythm, who are maybe, maybe entering a new company and they don't know where to begin, what, you know, what would you give, what insight would you give?
I highly recommend that you start with understanding some of the challenges that the company is going through. What are people complaining about? What is bothering them the most? Why is that something that's bothering them? Why is that something that's important to solve? And as you ask those questions, you are gonna be able to get to where you can start from in terms of implementing an operating rhythm.
Another piece of advice is think about it as an iterative process. You're not going to implement the whole system from day one. You are going to implement it over time and you're going to iterate on it as things change and evolve and maybe things aren't working the way they're intended. So you have to think about different ways of implementing it and so on.
So it's an interior process. Start with asking where are the biggest pain points, and once you identify the biggest pain points, that's where you can start. Also, it's a very collaborative process. You cannot implement an operating rhythm in a vacuum. You really have to be working collaboratively across the business on figuring out what's the best way for us to go about developing an update for the board. Is it through series of meetings? Is it that the preferences for us to utilize technology and do things offline and then meet once to kind of go through it? What? When you're asking those questions, that's informs you into what kind of operating rhythm does that company mean?
Some companies need heavy processes, others need very light weight, light touch type of processes. So these would be my three sort of guiding principles. Ask where the pain points are. Make sure that you are, working collaboratively across the business because it's not you who's just utilizing that system.
It's everybody in the company that's utilizing it has to work with everyone. And make sure that it's iterative. It's not implementing everything from the get-go. It's really build building blocks to get there. Start with a few activities, see how it goes, iterate on it, and then layer on more and more and continue building that system.
Yeah, excellent advice. I'm sure it's, it's come from a lot of, um, a lot of experience as well doing it, and I, I sense that. You know, one area that you find throughout your career to give you, um, energy from. Would I be right in thinking that, like, what really makes you excited about, um, entering a company or with an existing company and, and trying to you know, establish operating rhythm. Like tell me about why it's, why that's so important to you and what you get from it, you know.
Well, It is exciting. First of all, I enjoy and I really love helping companies grow, um, and, and continue to be efficient. That's, that's like something that's really inspiring for me when I talk to founders and CEOs and CEOs and companies and they say, just we, we really want to accelerate growth, but we feel like there's a lot that's getting in the way. Mm-hmm. , um, whether it's the way we are going about doing work that's very manual inefficient, or people are just not really focused on the things that matter the most.
So these types of words really get me energized to start working on figuring out how to help that company achieve what they need to achieve, which is continuing to accelerate growth and be successful. Another thing that really gets me excited is systems thinking. I'm a big systems thinker. I love putting pieces of the puzzle together. Mm-hmm. . And in working with a lot of startups and tech companies, um, I noticed that the systems thinking piece is what's critical to making sure that everything works together, uh, really well. Um, and seeing that big picture is quite important because a lot of people are in the weeds of their day-to-day, they're in the weeds of their functional areas and aren't necessarily taking a step back every now and then to really see the big picture and how the system works together.
Um, and so how a company operates is something that I'm always excited to work on and how to build a system that makes that growth, um, cycle more efficient, and accelerates it is another area that I love helping companies achieve. Yeah,
Me too too. Me too. That's exactly the type of, um, work that I just love, I'm really passionate about and, um, it's nice to speak with someone who shares that, you know, and it was funny when you said about systems thinking and looking at things and having the pieces of the puzzle, it just triggered a very, I thought insightful. Message I heard recently, which was, uh, that problem solving is when you have all of the pieces to the puzzle that you need to, to make an informed decision and ruminating on something is different than problem solving. Ruminating and reflecting on something is when you don't actually have all the pieces to the puzzle.
There's a lot of "ifs", "if this happens." "If that happens, and if that happens, we might achieve that". You know, um, doesn't allow you the permission to really solve the problem just yet. It allows you to think and ruminate, but not really solve the problem. Brainstorm. Yeah, brainstorm. I know it's slightly a little bit off topic, but I just really enjoyed, I imagine you apply that.
Have you applied that thinking in, in both problem solving and switching to gears, to ruminating when you're in systems mode and operating mode and sort of trying
There's, there's always that part of the process where there is a brainstorm illumination that needs to happen. Um, when there are really difficult and complex problems tsolve and you don't really know what direction you need to go or should go, that's where spending time really understanding and brainstorming on you know, possible problems, why is it happening? Maybe ask the five why's to get to the bottom of the root cause, do some root cause analysis, maybe even design thinking where you're testing with ideas and figuring out what is going to work before fully investing in solving the problem. So, uh, so there's always. There oftentimes when there are complex problems that require some of that design thinking, rumination, brainstorming, whatever we wanna call them to happen upfront and testing with those ideas before you can fully invest in a, as in a solution. Um, and then go into problem solving mode where you're going to say, okay, well this is the problem.
Now we fully understand it. Here's the possible solution path. Um, let's create an initiative around it. Let's make sure that we have well-defined outcomes with specific KPIs that we can measure success with, and then have a cross-functional teamwork on delivering on that problem. So, absolutely rum, um, word phase.
And really the testing of whether or not, um, some solutions are gonna work is a really, a really critical part of the problem solving. Yeah. Process, especially when you're dealing with really complicated problems.
I agree. Yeah. Well, this has been a fantastic conversation. I've, uh, learned a lot, which I was really hoping, uh, would be the case.
I, I really enjoyed. Um, Everything you talk about specifically operating rhythm, you know, um, that is just a critical piece. Maybe you could leave us with your thoughts on summarizing, you know, perhaps the importance of the operating rhythm or, um, you know, what, how you define it, and maybe, you know, for people listening what they should really do when it comes to an operating rhythm in a business.
Yeah, I, of course, so I mean, I can't emphasize enough having a rhythm within the business, uh, whether it's a lightweight or a heavyweight. It, again, it depends on what the company needs, but having the rhythm and cadence is really going to go a long way in terms of establishing alignment across the business.
As you continue to grow, um, and as you continue to add more people into the company, that alignment becomes really, really important and making sure that everybody knows what to expect so that you can get to what you need in the fastest way possible. And that's where operating rhythms come, come into play.
They really get to the bottom of making sure companies continue to be aligned internally, making sure that data flow and reporting is happening in an effective way, and that people feel like they know what they, they know what to expect. Right. And that's the, that's the strength of having a rhythm in place, whether it's in product and engineering and go to market or at the company level, including the board as well. So, um, again, that's, that sort of summarizes how important it is, especially when you are a fast growing company that needs to continue to be fast and nimble. Having those things in place will go a long way.
I don't think anyone has. It's something that I talk a lot about with people and, and customers mention operating rhythm, but never do, does anyone describe it, you know, and I define it and I like that you started defining it and it's like, I should have actually maybe even asked you to define it even a bit more, you know?
Uh, because the definition seems quite vague to to, to some degree, you know? Uh, people just use it in different ways. You know.
Yeah. I mean, I think that it's a topic that isn't spoken about that often. No. Or even written about that often, to be honest. No, I haven't really read a book that focuses on operating rhythms and companies.
Yeah. Before or even a, a blog blogs or n n There isn't a lot out there No. To talk about it, but a company still ask for it. Yeah. Um, And, you know, it's in its simplest form. It's really the set of processes and activities that enable a company to streamline its business. Um, that's, that's in the, in, in its simplest forms.
Now, what these activities and processes are is dictated by what that operating rhythm is gonna look like. So, you know, and
Did communication come in there at all as well? Because that's another element, like the activities could be involve communication perhaps.
Yeah, for sure. I mean, operating rhythm includes company all hands.
Yeah. And it includes major employee meetings, so there's a lot of communication that happens. in those operating rhythms. And if I look at the product and engineering, it'll include product and engineering. All hands. It would include standups. Yeah. It would include, you know, retrospectives and, and product demos.
These are all communication mechanisms Yeah. That you would, you would implement as part of that operating rhythm. Yeah. Agile is a framework that can be applied as an operating. In product and engineering. Um, you could also apply it in the same way and go to market, agile go to market. So if you, if you embrace that framework, then you could also implement it at that company level.
And there are many ways to go about doing that. Right. But again, it's a topic that isn't written about or spoken about as much. Yeah. But companies. need it. You know, and I know that firsthand because in every startup that I've joined an operating rhythm was implement that I had to implement an operating rhythm for that company.
That whether it started from the top down or from the bottom up or somewhere in the middle, it, we still had to have some sort of, uh, processes and activities that aligned the company internally.
Yeah, yeah. And it's funny, it's one of those things where you're like, "Oh, we don't, we don't have an operating rhythm. I don't know what you mean", but every company has one, whether they know it or not. Yes. And it's almost like. I tried a lot when speaking with customers or potential customers to like get them, even if they don't know how to label operating rhythm, trying to uncover what it is without, you know, them having it.
Do you know what I mean? Mm-hmm. and uh, or let them, knowing that they have it, they subconsciously have it. Just gotta kind. Yeah.
Some companies don't even realize that it's something that's real, that is needed. I mean, with startups that. 10, you know, between 10 and 30 people. An operating rhythm isn't really a concept that is visible or even thought about, or even maybe not even needed because they're still very small and they wear multiple hats and they do things off cadence because things come their way and they just have to.
Yeah. But once you hit that 60, 70 person mark and you're growing into a hundred, it becomes really hard to get work done through people. Yeah. Um, and it isn't because people. Can't do their jobs anymore. It's simply because communication breaks down at some point during that cycle. And so you're not getting information disseminated as quickly and as effectively as used to when you were 30 people.
And that's where an operating rhythm comes in play, where you start saying, okay, well let's have a team meeting. That's the, the simplest beginning of an operating meeting. Let's have a team meeting every two weeks. That's an operating rhythm. You're having a team meeting every two weeks. Yeah. Now what you do with that meeting is something that needs to be designed too.
What's the purpose of it? Yes. What's the expected outcome and so on. And then from team meeting every two weeks, maybe now you're 150. Or 200 people company now you can do a team meeting every two weeks. You're gonna need to make it on a monthly basis with a specific agenda and so on. And so your system starts growing and growing and growing without you realizing Yes.
But you get to a point where because you don't know much about operating systems, you don't really know where to go, you're stuck. Yeah. You feel like there's just a level of an alignment and you don't know why, and that's where implementing a proper, scalable operating system comes into play.
Yeah, and you're right. That's exactly. I feel like the reason why unnecessary meetings start to emerge is because people don't understand or have an operating system, um, They can understand and have designed well, that's, that's scalable, that's, you know, extendable. Mm-hmm. and they just sort of think, well, we'll just have more people, I guess we'll just have more meetings and more meetings.
Yes. any real, you know, uh, direction to it or intent to it, you know, it's just, I guess guess the, the solutions just add more meetings and, yeah. It's funny.
Then everybody starts complaining about having too many meetings on their calendars, that they're not having enough time to do their actual.
Yeah, so that's, you know, again, that's an outcome of not really being thoughtful about what is that operating rhythm that's going to streamline communication in a better way so that people aren't in meetings eight hours of the day and they're only tuning into one critical meeting a day, perhaps, to get the information they they need and then they go about doing their job.
Yeah. Yeah. And from our perspective, we actually really wanna pair the product that we've built and, and, and call it the operating system, you know, and pair it with the operating rhythm because it's, it's more, as we've just merged, it's more than just OKRs, you know? There's a whole rhythm to it. There's a collaborativeness to it. There's a much deeper thing. So I think the technology could be the operating system, you know, technology that enables the operating rhythm to scale. And I think those two concepts, Could actually fit well together and as I say, aren't talked a bit enough
I think so. I think that they go hand in hand because even if you, let's say you don't have an operating rhythm, but you start with OKRs, that sort of forces a rhythm of some sort of, because you need to review OKRs on a regular basis, see where things are at, right?
Um, resolve issues as they come and so on. So it's sort of start makes you start building that rhythm. And even if you start the other way around where you have a rhythm, then pulling in OKRs into it, and perhaps that introduces a little tweak to your rhythm. Mm-hmm. . But it isn't a problem because again, you're scaling the business.
Yeah. So they do go hand in hand really. And one facilitates the other. They feed off one another.
Exactly. Exactly. I love that you're so on the same page with this stuff with us, you know?
Oh yeah, I love this stuff. This is like what I've, you know, when I, what I enjoy the most in companies that I work in is this stuff.
Yeah. Because I try to see the benefit. From it automatically, where people are like, oh, okay, I don't have 10 meetings on my calendar. I only have to attend this one thing. And then the other benefit, now I'm pretty clear what the objective is. I know that what I'm working on matters because it ties back to this uber objective.
Mm-hmm. At the company level. So those two outcomes in my mind are amazing when they happen and people realize the value from implementing those systems
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