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...
KJ McGowan chats with Ian Harvey, Outcomes Coach at Outcomes Thinking, about OKRs' role in connecting the gap between strategy & execution.
I think it was just going to kick it off by, welcoming you to the Krezzo Podcast, first timer. We're very delighted to have you here and maybe and you could tell us a little bit about yourself to kick it off.
Sure. Yeah. Thanks for having me on kj. Um, I don't do many of these to be honest. Um, particularly with all vendors. Um, and it's just what I like about Krezzo to start off is, I like the way you guys are kind of thinking about the customer success with your tool, and I can see that in your marketing and your posts.
Um, so yeah, it's a pleasure to be on here and, um, you talk about hopefully some of the practical elements of OKRs.
That's what we wanna do. Practical, you know, guide here to how to start 2023 with a bang. With a boom. Yeah. With a bing boom bang. Yeah.
Great. And, and hopefully a big boom not coming from from Russia. That would be, that would be good.
That would be good. Yeah. That's not the kind of boom we're looking to, Not a literal boom, just more of a metaphorical okays are great. Boom. Yeah. So that's, that's, that's what we wanna do. Yeah. I think you and what I thank you for just, you know, recognizing that, um, and acknowledging, uh, Creo in that way.
I have. Give equal thanks and gratitude to you and, and I I recognize in you from different folks who do similar things to yourself, like you have this Confidence is the best way to put it towards, um, and directness with your you know, coaching towards OKRs. There's no bullshit or, you know I'm gonna seek consensus from the customer because they're the paying customer.
I feel like you're very honest with your feedback and, um, calling things out and giving practical advice, because a lot of, and even we'll put our hands up, sometimes you have to do things that are explaining, you know, what OKRs are, what is this, what is that? But really people want to know how the hell do I do it?
Like I get it, it's an acronym, it's popular, but how do I do this correctly? Because implementing it is really hard. So let's focus today on how do we do this, You know, 2023, how am I gonna do it correctly this time?
Yeah, absolutely. I think, um, it's interesting, you, you talk about the kind of confidence and if anyone's seen my LinkedIn profile, they probably realize I'm quite a long way into my career. Yeah. Um, and you think, you know, you feel wise by now, but honestly I'm learning more at this point in my career than any other Yeah. Frankly.
But with, with clients, I think what they need is. They need. I generally work with leadership teams and I think what they're looking for is that kind of external expertise that sometimes even speaking truth to power, because sometimes CEOs and leadership teams don't always get that from their own organization.
So as a culture, as a consultant, you come in and they're trusting your experience and they want you to be direct. So I kind of share in the same way on social media. And that's not to say I have all the answers. As I said, I'm learning all the time, but when I feel confident about something and I've seen how it works in practice, then yeah, I'm pretty straight with, with the advice I give.
That's the best way to do it. And you also on your LinkedIn, describe yourself as an outcomes coach. Mm-hmm. . And maybe you could, you know, expand on what an outcomes coach is or what outcomes mean to you.
Yeah. So if we start with OKRs, and that's the framework to help connect strategy to execution, that still doesn't get you to an outcome. And what I like to see is actually organizations delivering the outcomes they're trying to achieve. And when I look back on my career, I think my very first role was at Kline and involved asking a lot of questions, developing and testing hypotheses. I worked for engineers, I designed solutions. And we built something that under a patent, made the company a lot of money.
But it was about 15 years later and I realized that I was actually a product manager. And as a product manager, you are there to deliver outcomes, not implement frameworks. You're not there to kind of, um, get buy in from people. The thing that you are measured on is outcomes and throughout my career, I guess there's two questions that have really always been there with me, and it's, why are we doing this?
And so often you get projects handed down by senior people, we're gonna build this, we're gonna build that. And I always asked, you know, why are we doing this and how do we know if we've succeeded? Yeah. Um, and that kind of led into OKRs in a way because you think about, you know, outcomes, they're embodied in OKRs
The objective is, you know, the qualitative part, and then you've got the key results as a quantitative and that's an outcome. So yeah, as an outcomes coach, you're not just there to put in a framework. You're there to identify the kind of 360 environment in which you're working in. And that could mean helping an organization articulate their strategy a bit better.
It could be saying to them, Well, you want to experiment in learning quick feedback loops, but you don't have civc you know, work to improve that, for example, work to improve your flow or in it can be helping product teams with discovery. So as a, as an outcomes coach, I think you have a, kind of, just a broader perspective, the OKR framework at the center, because it kind of triggers lots of great. Lots of great conversations I find as a friend.
Yeah. Uh, you're dead. Right. It, it triggers the right conversations, you know, as you say, starting with the natural curiosity of why are we doing this and how do we measure it, and how do we measure our success toward it? You know, that I took a, I had the same level of curiosity I feel, but I took, I took a long time discovering what an outcome really meant.
And, uh, I think I notice it when we work with customers that the, the penny finally drops. When you talk about the difference between, Okay. Uh, Mr. Engineer, you could write, you know, a thousand lines of code and publish and push it to production, and you feel accomplished, you feel mm-hmm. , the goal has been, you know, um, set and performed and executed and, and achieved will actually, Will any customer even use that code?
Same with the blog post. You write 10 blog posts or you mm-hmm. , you record all these podcasts and push them, and you think that's, that's it achieved. Well, actually, that's not an outcome really. That's just an output. You're doing it. But is it having a, is it driving any behavior change in the customer that you're seeking?
So I think, um, separating the activity output from, well, are we trying to influence someone's behavior? Are we doing it effectively? Is the, is the difference?
Yeah, absolutely. And I think, you know, we talk about the tasker level output, and when you do a task and it has no connection, okay, no big deal.
But when you, when you run an 18 month project, You don't deliver an outcome that's a massive cost to a business. And I've, you know, been there and seen it with a, with a client recently. They actually had a celebration of a launch, um, to produce something. And then they came back a week later and they realized that there had been no customer engagement whatsoever.
Right. Um, and that was a tough, huge watershed moment. Moment for them. Yeah. And that having stories like that really helps, you know, OKRs because you can say, Well, yeah, you've produced all this, what was the outcome? And they're scratching their heads. So yeah, I think it's, it's a journey for lots of people.
I think I, I went there too. And, um, I think the behavior definition is a good one. And I, I got into OKRs with a guy called Filipe Castro who. I would still say is one of the thought leaders in the, in a, in the domain. And I hired him to work with me at Eler and then went and worked with him post ER because he likes OKRs and flu pay so much.
And we kind of use definition of a measurable beneficial effect, which is a little bit broader than behavior, but it allows you to bring in things like, um, you know, if we're looking to make site run more efficiently or reduce, let's say hosting costs, not necessarily behavior change just broadens out a little bit.
But I, I think the OKRs that reflect behavior are the best because, you know, they, they tend to be customer centric. Yeah. But it's, yeah, that's, yeah. I'm just, just, just recording a video now for a client and so much of that is about explaining difference between outcomes and outputs with examples.
Look, that's, we're trying to talk here about how to, you know, a journey with OKRs because people are listening and some may be under.
Second, third iteration of mm-hmm. , uh, doing it. Uh, some people are just thinking about doing it for 2023 and aren't using it at all, and there's others in between. So we're trying to get hit as many, um, points here as to how to, you know, refresh this go at 2023 cuz it's a new opportunity. Everyone feels that sense of, you know, first thing could be as simple as understanding the outcomes versus, you know, output.
But then what we talked about was, okay, let's take a starting point, which is a company thinking about doing in 23, 2023. Their, their strategy is a word that is probably way too overused in corporate lingo, but it is an important one that can be grounded in definition and, and, uh, value. So tell us, Strategy OKRs, What am I doing? Where's the starting point here?
Sure. Yeah. And I, I describe if i've one line to describe OKRs. I call it a strategic execution framework. Yeah. And one of the most important things an organization does is connect those two things together. Um, and you, you mentioned there, KJ. It's one of the most overused terms, but it's one of the most underused practices.
So people talk a lot about strategy, um, but they don't produce a lot. I think it was Marty Gagan in inspired who said that most organizations don't have bad strategy, they have no strategy. Mm-hmm. , I, I totally agree with that. And I, and one of the people I'm about to mention is, um, Roger Martin, he's one of the great strategy practitioners, uh, just had a connection with him on Twitter this week, where, you know, we agreed that OKRs, they don't, they don't supplant strategy. They tend to come in where there's an a vacuum, you know, complete. Vacuum where strategy should be and they, they dunno where to hook, you know, strategic execution. You need that strategy to execute on. So that'd be good to kind of think about, you know, what, what strategy is. And there are a few, you know, practitioners, which I kind of usually refer back to probably three people I just mentioned.
Roger Martin and Roger has, I like to think of strategy as answering questions for your organization and Roger has two questions that really are at the heart of it, which is where will we play and how will we win? And, you know, they're very, they're very short questions, but they cover so much ground.
What is our market? What is our target customer? What problem are we trying to solve? They're all kind of wrapped up in there. And how do we do that better than their competitors? You know, what is our hypothesis, um, of how to achieve that? And do he, he, he, he has sort of five questions. So he also adds what's our winning aspiration, and he also talks about the capabilities you need.
So, I mean, having great strategy isn't just about kind of the ideas. It's about how, you know, you need to think about how the company develops to implement that strategy. And, you know, some of the things I talked about earlier, such as civc, that, you know, improving that capability can be part of your strategy. So, And also, yeah, go Well,
No, just, just to, That's, that's very fair. I'm just trying to, um, Listen here and, and take a step back. So, so what we're saying is that there are two components in strategy execution. You have a strategy mm-hmm. , and then you have a sort of execution where the strategy gets implemented by people.
And in between those two things, I'm trying to visualize it. Even for someone listening in a, in a blank piece of paper, in between you have this bridge called OKRs. Yep. And, and you're saying that the strategy is really, uh, should describe what Exactly. And then what should the OK ORs job be like? What are the two elements?
Yeah, so your strategy is your kind of set of hypotheses as to how you are going to win and. Bear in mind, that's an important word. Their hypothesis, your strategy is, is a set of ideas. It's not, it's not a concrete plan that you know is going to work. Yeah. So, Okay. I's kind of do two jobs in that respect.
They, they think about, okay, what are we going to do in the next period? And that could be a year, it could be a call for, it could be three month, uh, two months, four months, whatever, to prove out that strategy and execute that strategy,
Execute those hypothesis. Cause they're hypos. Absolutely. By definition. They're not proven. So we're going to try to prove them over the next three months using a framework that is very simple, that just outlines, you know, what we're gonna do and how we're gonna measure our Yeah,
You've got it. And that's, that's the critical thing. And I think when, when companies using OKRs as well, they also do that important step of picking the riskiest hypothesis, I think, um, this Simon Marty Gagan talks a lot about his four risk types. You know, test those riskiest assumptions first, and you should use your OKRs to do that. So OKRs are there to, they're, they're there to kind of test your strategy, but also to implement it as well. So, you know, it's not just about proving ideas, you have to execute to actually, you know, it's not just proving we can attract customers, it's proving we can do it in scale and execute to actually, you know, get the business return we want. So,
So the first starting point for someone is to say, Well, what's our company's strategy? I like to ask that to just random people and see what they say. Even just a product manager or something. What's your company's strategy? Geez. Hard to answer.
t's, it's really tough.
Most people don't have a clue.
It's really tough. Well, and, and as an OKR coach, I quite often find that one of the things I have to do is help the board or the leadership team get the strategy out of their heads because it exists there and it's not necessarily consistent amongst all of them and get it onto paper so that you can articulate it to the rest of the organization.
Cool. Now let's talk about that. How do you do that? What questions do you ask? Well,
Yeah, I mean, I, I use Roger's questions that I've mentioned. I, I talk about Richard Ruel. I also use Michael Porter, who hopefully everyone's heard of. And Michael Porter's famous quote, which I always love, is the essence of strategy is deciding what not to do.
And it's generally, you talk to leadership team, they have a ton of great ideas. They have a kind of general market they're aiming for, but they probably have 10 great ideas. And actually what. When you're trying to help them articulate strategy, it's about making choices. It's about deciding which of these ideas do we think is the most powerful, has the most value to us, and, you know, maybe is the most difficult to achieve.
Because That will give us the biggest com competitive advantage. And it's starting to articulate that and the journey. Yeah, it's asking questions like, where do we get to in three years? And that that can be, you know, you can call that a vision and how are we going to get there? What kind of progress are we going to make over time?
And what, you know, it could be we believe that, um, if we enter this marketplace and create this, let's say an AI capability, it will allow us to price better than our customers. Mm-hmm. . So there's various hypotheses wrapped up in that and it's picking them out and it's kind of choosing. Okay. What order are we going to test them in?
What do we do if a hypotheses fails or alternatives? And it's kind of like, almost like a flow you're producing and then you, And then the next step is to turn that into a narrative, right? Because people love a story. You know, as it happens. I got into, OKRs, because I think it was 52% of people in the organization didn't know how they had their work connected to strategy, which is incredible, really.
You're talking thousands of people. And that was because we didn't really build a strategic narrative. And that storytelling around your strategy just brings it alive. And you know, when I've worked with clients and we've done that, all of a sudden people go, Oh, I get it now. I can see how I can influence that. I can see what are the key things we need to prove. Well, you're…
Talking about two very distinct and difficult skills. You know, one is, um, challenging questioning, um, debating, uh, with others, uh, leaders, you know mm-hmm. , who have varying personalities to try and come to a consensus on what the shared hypothesis are.
Uh, and then you're, then you're talking about a separate skill there, which I, I, I agree with you, is equally important, but really difficult, as well as curating it into a narrative that's compelling and that people can, and is relevant so they can connect to it and familiar, you know, Because if it's this weird, strange narrative that doesn't really relate to them, they're not going to feel that sense of purpose to it or connection.
And, and you're right that that is a tough skill. And as a, as a consultant or a coach, you, one of the things that I try to avoid ends up happening, a customer will say to you, Okay, I agree we need strategic narrative, but what does one look like? And then you think, Well, I'll, I'll outline one for you and see what you think.
And you do that work. And then they say, Great, this is our strategic narrative. Let's use that. Which is, which is a coach is not great because you want them to build the skills, but Right, right. at least it, at least it gets some starting off.
Give us the example and we'll just use that, change the name at the top and that will be ours. You know? Yeah. Thinking involved, you know? Do you think people do a lot less thinking these days a lot more, just copy and paste?
It's interesting. One of the things, I think you're right, I think they do, especially with frameworks, because there are so many frameworks and you go on, there's a guy on Twitter who has a great site and it's all the frameworks you can imagine, and you can sit there all day kind of, Okay, use that one for this and I'll try this one, I'll try that one.
But actually the skill is thinking, okay, what problems am I solving? And OKRs, solve to me, sell focus and alignment are the two things that they solve best. And how can then I get it to work in my context? So I, I really love the skill of writing. Um, I think this is, Marty talks about quite a bit as well. I think Amazon used this technique, and I take it, you know, about working backwards and a and a six pager, the, the, um, the press release, that kind of thing.
I think when we, when we articulate through writing, it just helps our own thinking. And as I write more as a consultant trying to share content, I realize that a lot of my ideas are pretty half baked and it's only when I write them down and read them back and describe 'em to someone else, they, they, they start to emerge as something useful.
Yes. Yeah. Yes. I find that too. I find to try and take an idea and then leave for a day and then rewrite it. Mm. Is like a really good mental exercise to keep you, you know, in tip top shape mentally. Cuz then you have to try and not only remember what it was, but try to articulate the memory, um, in a sort of succinct way. It's kind of good exercise,
But yeah, it's a great, great piece of advice. I love that.
Anyway. Jesus. We're going off, but, uh, this is really interesting. So let's take a quick, quick synopsis. Uh, Okay. We wanna start 2023 with OKRs? Yeah. What's our company strategy? Oh, half of our company doesn't even know what the strategy of our company is.
Maybe we don't even have one. Okay, well let's have a session where we'll try to, um, at least have one, um, or pretend, and then we sort of asked the, asked ourselves the hard strategic questions. Mm-hmm. , you know, what are our hypothesis? Um, yeah. I liked one that you, you said very quickly, but it was really powerful.
One is like, if we don't achieve this, what will happen? You know, it's, it's a nice question to visualize a future where you don't meet your goals or the hypothesis doesn't come true. You know, that can be. Motivating, Highly motivating. So it's good to set, uh, ask some questions that are hypothetical in a almost a negative sense. Like, if we don't do this Yeah.
What will happen? Yeah. That's, that's something we all do. We all think of the happy path. We're gonna go here, we're gonna go there, it's gonna be great. When our customers will solve their problem, we'll scale up. Um, but the reality is that, you know, one of the things I share a lot is that most ideas fail, and I'm sure you've seen the same research. 10% of ideas at booking.com work with Google, say 20%. So you, you hypotheses are in the same area. Mm-hmm. until you actually get down there and test them properly. You really don't. Yeah. Have a strong hunch, but,
And so on, on paper, this, all, this all makes sense. Okay. These hypothesis of how we're gonna win, how we're gonna be more competitive and bring that advantage to the market that's, you know, leadership talk, that's fantastic.
But then as you're saying, you need to test the hypothesis and to test the hypothesis. You need a symbiotic relationship with the frontline, uh, employees you've hired. Because you're not as the CEO or board of director, you're not gonna actually do the work to implement this hypothesis. You're gonna give that direction and ask, you know, here's the direction you figure out how to implement it.
So now we get into, okay, how are we gonna actually execute this strategy? And that's where you're saying, OKRs is the most powerful framework to do that, right?
Yeah, absolutely. And I think if we look at the kind of whole cycle, I think, you know, you mentioned there, you start with that strategy review and someone that maybe you need to write your strategy, you need to go back and rewrite it, or you need to get consistency amongst the leadership team.
Yep. And OKRs is a good, good time to bring that, You know, we talked at the start of the conversation about helping you ask good questions and raising good questions. Well, it's a great point, you know, to ask a question, what are the critical hypotheses to prove next year? Um, and you should arrive at, So if you think about the OKR setting session, you should arrive at that session, prove an idea of how to measure those strategic hypotheses.
You know, you've thought about them quite a bit and the attendees of the session, they really need to be, even if not all of them were involved in writing a strategy, they need to know it inside out. You know, the time to learn your strategy is not at the start of that meeting. I'm a big advocate in the quiet meeting starts Amazon, have.
You don't use an OKR session to learn about the strategy. You need to come in with that. Well understood. And clients I work with at the moment, I think they're doing a good job of that. You know, we, I was in, I was in a session, um, recently in Estonia, came to the session, all the attendees had a really good understanding of, of the strategy.
So that's, that's first you need that. You want to enter that session informed. Um, and I'd like to ask a question for all the attendees before they attend that session, which is, think about a fantastic next year. So let's, we're talking about only ones here in terms of that strategy. What outcomes will they observe?
Have them answer that question, you know, on their own, not, not in the group. And also kind of have in mind why that, and why now? Why is this particular, um, outcome for the year important? Mm. As, as Amazon, you know, we touched on already start often repeats. Start with the end in mind. Think about a great year, what it's going to mean. I think, you know, it's okay to be ambitious about that.
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