Are OKRs just another acronym in an overcrowded world… or an important part of an outcome-oriented product cycle?
At Mediahuis in Antwerp, Belgium, organisational developer Sarah Faict and product and data director Stijn Vercamer believe the latter.
In an INMA product and tech blog, they explain how the Belgia-headquartered group has reorganised its product team, and, in the process, changed its way of working with working with objectives and key results (OKRs).
They say the process is not finished, “and will probably never really be,” but report on their current status and next steps. Starting with an explanation of what OKRs are.
“The assumption is that, when you write out your company’s KPIs into inspirational objectives, people will be more motivated to effectively reach those objectives,” they say. “These objectives should not be about mere output (tasks), but about what you really want to achieve.
“That is also why an objective should be ambitious and qualitative.”
Key results should be measurable, time-bound, and value-based. “The value part is important because it tells you why you should reach this key result,” they say.
“For example, with summer approaching, many people want to lose weight to look better in their summer clothes. An obvious KPI is: ‘I want to lose five kilos’, but, if you translate it into ‘I want to be the fittest version of myself’, you tell a different story. You want to feel better, and many key results (making healthy food choices, sleeping more hours, etc.) can help with that, not only losing weight.”
The initial reasoning behind OKRs for Mediahuis was that they needed to measure progress more transparently and establish an actionable framework across the broad organisation.
“We also observed the framework we used to that point; KPIs did not really put people in motion or create the focus we needed to progress. So, why not try using a framework that returns ownership over output and outcome to the people who make it happen?”
OKRs should be the perfect solution to this, but are they?
In its OKR transformation journey, Mediahuis encountered some hurdles.
OKRs are typically managed on a quarterly basis, but their objectives turned out to have a longer lifespan, which conflicted with the quarterly cycle. As a result, they got stuck with the same OKRs endlessly coming back every quarter. “We somehow had to balance OKRs with KPIs, which remained the most used framework of many management teams.
“We felt some change fatigue in the product management team after having reorganised a lot during the last couple of years. We appreciated the OKRs, but did we really benefit from them? Where was the speed in action? Where was the focus? What results could we show the leadership team?”
The OKR journey started with a lot of enthusiasm, reading some theory and talking to people with experience in the field. “Our first steps were promising, but after a few iterations we felt the team was losing its appetite for the project. There seemed to be no room for improvement.
“We still believed we should proceed, so we asked for professional help. With the guidance of the company iLean, there was a growing awareness that we didn’t need to force our organisation into the theoretical model of OKRs, but rather turn it around: What was already in place and how could we build on that to create more focus and speed of action?
“We’re also happy to mention that their first impression was that we were already doing a lot of things right and we didn’t need to panic. That was a nice start.”
In a next step, they were liberated from an “all-too-dogmatic” way of thinking about OKRs. Instead, we now see the OKRs as a framework from which they chose the best tools for Mediahuis and its product teams.
“The key insight was that we needed to move away from forced quarterly targets. In OKR theory, the idea is to formulate an achievable quarterly objective. But if it’s not in line with the way you run the business in your company, you should adjust this. Make the objectives work for you and not the other way around, so to speak. For us, this meant working with annual targets, which we match quarterly to an achievable result.
“To actually do this, we created a very big paper poster that we hung on the wall during our stakeholder workshops. At the top we drew the strategic trajectories of Mediahuis Group, and so we worked both top-down and bottom-up with our outcomes and initiatives.”
The poster also stays up now, reinforcing this message a little bit every day, despite its “old-fashioned” paper format. “We go by the creed ‘use what you need’, and in a real-life, in-person workshop, a physical poster does the trick!
This new way of working results in a better discussion about priorities: Discussing outcomes is easier because you are talking about what brings value to your customer and/or to your company. That is a lot more tangible than discussing ‘cold’ KPIs.
Main learnings have been that OKRs are a means to an end: Make them work for you, not the other way around.
Stop forcing the team in a quarterly OKR setting, and allow longer-term objectives. Also, translate KPIs into actionable OKRs that show value and inspire your team
Work both from the top-to-bottom and from bottom-to-top in your strategic framework. From top to bottom, ask how the main strategic trajectories translate into concrete initiatives with a desired outcome. And from the bottom up, ask whether you can map each initiative to a larger strategic trajectory?
Start small in your measuring ambitions with stakeholders involved. Not everyone is a data expert (yet). And if not all of your stakeholders know or support the overall strategy, make it very clear.
“We now have workable OKRs with quarterly outcomes,” they say. “However, we find we are not yet measuring them very well. A logical next step is therefore to look at how we can make these results more measurable.
“We also need to establish a point in time at which we measure them. Many initiatives do not reach cruising speed until a quarter or two after they have been implemented. That is not surprising, since our business is human-driven, and human behaviour typically does not change overnight.
“In addition, we should take a look at how and when we communicate the results of all this hard work to all our stakeholders. In that same spirit, we also should learn to celebrate our successes and stop what doesn’t work.”