Rolling out an OKR program requires strategic vision, detailed planning, and strong collaboration across an organization. To make a program truly great, it takes the leadership of a passionate OKR Champion, not only during the program rollout phase, but to instill a business rhythm and ensure long term success.
While there are established best practices in place to make sure new Champions don’t spend time reinventing the wheel, it doesn't mean leaders can’t tap into the culture and ways of working at each company and put their own stamp on things.
Here are 4 best practice tips for OKR success, as heard from real world champions.
“You can’t force someone to adopt your program, you just need to hope you have enough mass on one side of the bench to effectively drive adoption, set a true culture change, and move the needle in an impactful way.”
So says Mariel Breton, the OKR Champion at Roambee, who provides supply chain visibility and intelligence.
While the champion is the key driver, it’s important to be realistic and note that you can’t do everything.
“People shouldn’t be forced to do OKRs, and in fact, not everyone in your company should even have an OKR.” (Viva Goals recommends only owning OKRs down to the team level).
“You’re not responsible for the tasks and outcomes your teams are doing, but what you can control is focusing on culture, rallying for all teams equally, and driving the ‘one team’ concept, which is the epitome of alignment. You’re responsible for OKR program health and making sure there are metrics so that others can influence and improve outcomes.”
Breton quotes Roambee CEO Sanjay Sharma, who said [by using OKRs] “Employees will work in a more intelligent way. Smart people will need to collaborate across time zones, geographies, functions, and cultures in real-time to drive business results.”
“In the end, I take my role seriously, but try not to take myself too seriously (her co-workers call her ‘The OKR Lady’). Like any other program there will be early adopters and early rejectors. It’s about building up critical mass until a sizeable chunk of your company population runs on OKRs, and things will spread from there.”
What does it take to launch an OKR program to forty thousand employees?
We asked Liz Pierce, the Principal PM Manager and OKR “Super Champion” at Microsoft to take us through her learnings while rolling out a program at massive scale.
“To set the stage, our Experiences and Devices (E+D) group moved to adopt OKRs in the Spring of 2020. At the time, we were focused on adopting the philosophy, not a specific software tool. OKRs filled in a key gap in our planning – our leadership set top-down strategic priorities, but there was a lot that was lost in translation between that and everyone’s day-to-day activities. OKRs were being used elsewhere in Microsoft to great effect, and our leaders were particularly excited about OKRs as a bridge from strategy to execution – helping to drive alignment, transparency, and employee connection.”
“Jumping ahead to 2022, we’d already been using OKRs using a mishmash of homegrown solutions people had adopted, such as Excel, ADO, Power BI, and other third party programs, so we had a bit of a head start. So with the launch of Viva Goals, we decided to go big and roll out to more than 40,000 E+D team members worldwide. We kicked off the work at the beginning of May, and went live about 90 days later on July 26th.”
There were a couple of big decisions along the way that Liz and team needed to align on:
• Who was required to use OKRs and Viva Goals vs. who was just being provided the option?
• Who was on point to actually run the OKR program at various levels?
• What was leadership’s expectations on Rhythm of Business?
• What type of resources and support could teams expect in getting things off the ground?
From the user side, here were some of the questions they got asked that you’ll need to be ready for:
• How do we know if our OKRs any good?
• How do we narrow focus / cut down too many KRs?
• How aspirational should we be?
• Can you walk me through entering OKRs in the software?
• What are best practices on managing alignment?
• How do I set up software integrations?
• What are our OKR check in best practices?
“Taking a step back to think about what it took for each of the programs that we were supporting, it was admittedly a lot of work -- about 50% of my time for that 12-week period, with a cast of folks supporting for varying amounts of time and intensity. We learned a lot about how to make it go well, and were lucky enough to learn from others on similar scale roll outs to set up our strategy. You can find a lot of this in the Viva Goals adoption guide, which we leveraged heavily.”
In the end, Liz cited 4 must-have elements that helped her be successful: sponsorship, clarity, scaling, and product support.
Sponsorship: “Having our EVP Rajesh be a strong advocate, with me on point as a singular, clear DRI (directly responsible individual) was super important – I felt accountable for the overall program.”
Clarity: “We had a central, public milestone to all aim towards, which was key to get people to make progress.”
Scaling: “Building out the network of OKR champions and advocates in the broader team was huge – one person couldn’t scale to the entire organization, so they became my partners in crime.”
Support: Finally, we benefited from deep product knowledge, but more importantly, from product access. We identified certain product needs and wants and were able to get great engagement to get those things built.
“Really?!? A 2-hour meeting?”
That was the response that OKR Champion Michael Davis received from a few team members when he set aside time to reflect on the previous quarter’s OKRs.
After all, closing out a quarterly OKR takes just a few minutes. You enter your final check-in, you either reached your goal or fell short, you give yourself a score, and that’s it. The fact is, we live in an incredibly fast-paced business world, so it’s easy to gloss over this process and immediately focus on the upcoming time period.
But to Davis, “You can’t make true progress if you don’t take time to stop and reflect.”
First, the 2-hour meeting was kept on the books, and each team member went through the OKRs they were responsible for, with a simple framework:
1. “What went well...” (Highlight success)
2. “Even better if...” (Highlight key learnings and what would have made things better)
Next, team members really delved into the outcome – and structure – of each OKR.
“Taking the time to step back and reflect on what your intention was when setting your goals 3 months ago is a great way to get better and better at crafting meaningful OKRs” says Davis.
• “If you crushed your numbers, that’s great. But does that mean you ‘sandbagged’ just a little and picked a safe target? How can you set better stretch goals the following quarter?”
• “If you missed your targets, was it that your targets were too ambitious? What can you learn from that? Or, was it because you set too many Key Results, and lacked focus on what was most important?”
Lastly, the team celebrated wins.
• On a weekly basis, shoutouts to team members and OKR wins are given on “The Wall of Love” within Microsoft Teams, with those kudos being shared to the whole company during all-hands meetings.
• Quarterly, the Customer Success team celebrated wins by bringing in a company to host online trivia games. Things went from “this might be kind of cheesy” to “competitive trashtalking” pretty quickly.
• At the end of the year, there was a company-wide gathering to celebrate our annual goals.
OKRs are an amazing way of channeling focus and driving a business forward, but it’s equally important to step back and reflect along the way.
OKRs are new to many people, so it only makes sense for Champions and their teams to get the right training to learn both methodology and software.
To give my own perspective, as Director of Training at OKR platform Ally.io, which was later acquired by Microsoft and became Viva Goals, it was my responsibility to make sure champions had the right resources to get the job done.
As I often told our customers, “An OKR program is really unlike many other platforms that an employee will encounter while on the job. What’s similar is the software side of things. Users today are pretty savvy when it comes to picking up any new cloud-based software, and Viva Goals is no different, being really intuitive when it comes to navigation, entering OKRs, and performing check-ins.”
“What’s unique about OKRs is the methodology side of the equation. This starts with change management implications in rolling out a new system across an organization, and goes into strategic planning, aligning teams, and learning how to write effective OKRs.“
One of our most popular training programs was our OKR Leadership Program. This was taught to hundreds of champions in a multi-day, live class to enable them to learn the background of OKRs, practice crafting great OKRs, learn the software, understand the responsibility of being a Champion, and how to create habits that stick.
Now that class has been streamlined and can be taken online in a Microsoft Learning Path:
As you’ve seen, it takes the leadership of a passionate OKR Champion to ensure long term success. But by following a mix of established best practices and adding your own spin, your company can achieve focus, purpose, and alignment and achieve amazing results.
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