Is your OKR program delivering? Five questions leaders should ask about their OKRs

Jan 31, 2023

You’ve chosen OKRs to help manage your organization’s growth or transformation. Your teams have been writing OKRs for several quarters but you’re wondering: Are OKRs really going to work? Are we maximizing the impact of this new approach or are we leaving something on the table? Are OKRs going to be another management fad, or will they really take root and propel us towards our goals?

To get a clear indication whether or not you’ve laid the foundations or success, here are five questions you can ask to test the health of your OKR program. If you want to read more about a question and what answers you should be seeing, click on the link below:

  1. Can I see a clear link between team OKRs and our organizational strategy: Our beliefs about Why we win?
  2. Am I seeing teams becoming more and more committed to OKRs? Are there teams that are going through the motions?
  3. Across my organization, is the quality of OKR writing improving quarter by quarter?
  4. Am I seeing greater numbers of cross functional OKRs?
  5. Am I using OKRs effectively as one of my personal leadership tools?

Here are some ideas to help you get good answers to each question.

1. Can I see a clear link between team OKRs and our organizational strategy: Our How we win? 

In your quarterly business reviews and when teams seek approval of OKRs for the coming quarter, can you see a clear link from Key Results to customer value? To the improvement of key capabilities needed for success? 

When teams present their OKRs, ask them to explain how their OKR choices link to your key strategic themes and your organization-wide OKRs. Responses will vary, so coach to help teams make the connection. 

Ask yourself: Do I see a strong enough understanding of our strategy in leaders? Can they tell the story of our strategy so others can internalize and act on it? If leaders can tell the strategy story, then teams will develop strategy-aligned OKRs. Do you need a better way to help you connect your OKRs to Strategy? See our article: Breathing life into strategy with OKRs. 

We are experts in building great links between your strategy and OKRs and we wrote a book about that: See Daniel Montgomery’s Start Less, Finish More

2. Am I seeing teams becoming more and more committed to OKRs? Are some teams just going through the motions?   

Committed teams own their OKRs by setting and achieving ambitious goals. Compliant teams check the boxes. How to tell the difference?

First, are teams meeting frequently? If teams don’t meet they can’t use OKRs. Further, bad meetings can be worse than no meetings at all. 

If you dig a bit, you’ll probably see a range of meeting behaviors, with some teams that are meeting weekly, or bi-weekly, some monthly, and some only when the quarter’s end is in sight.  Committed teams will likely meet more often and their meetings will be better. 

Second, some teams may be stalling out because leaders and team members need stronger skills in facilitation, giving and receiving feedback, coaching and even in running effective meetings. These are fundamental skills needed to create true teams – in which people collaborate effectively and feel their teammates are a source of energy. It’s these true teams that can really take advantage of OKRs. Teams in name only will struggle to use OKRs effectively. 

When people talk about OKRs, do they sound like believers, or do they see just a nuisance process to which they must comply?

Does your organization have help for struggling leaders and teams? Will teams be open about their challenges or will they struggle on in silence? In our experience, the teams that struggle may not ask for help, so look to recognize leaders and teams who are honest about their challenges. 

3. Across my organization, is the quality of OKR writing improving quarter by quarter?

You shouldn’t expect to see really well-crafted OKRs everywhere across your organization in the first one or two quarters. After that, however, you should see marked improvement, as more teams write good OKRs with outcome-focused Key Results that have quantitative measures. You should see KPIs and OKRs working in tandem as teams manage their work. And you should also be observing teams setting and achieving stretch goals.  

Look also for a growing enthusiasm for the OKR process. Teams often start with feelings of failure – they recognize their OKRs are not well-crafted yet. They should be actively seeking to fine tune their OKRs quarter by quarter. So at this stage, encourage them to look forward to the next reset. OKRs should evolve over two or three OKR cycles and teams should be celebrating their progress. 

How you can help: Can you recognize the difference between good and bad OKRs? Leaders need good OKR coaching skills and they need to be able to help teams fine tune their OKR thinking. 

Good OKRs are:

  • Ambitious, but not crazy
  • Built on outcomes, with quantitative measures 
  • Related to value creation or to customers, either external or internal
  • Limited in number: Ideally, three objectives with three KRs each

Encourage teams to accept help and to work on OKRs as a group, without simply delegating OKR writing to one or two team members.

4. Am I seeing greater numbers of cross functional OKRs? 

After 2 – 3 quarters, you should be seeing more OKRs that are shared in some way across functional teams. Why? Because teams should now be recognizing that the business outcomes they seek cannot be achieved by their team alone

By encouraging teams to set OKRs about broader business outcomes, you will be prompting teams to seek cross functional collaboration. Let teams know that you want to see OKRs that are shared, and managed collaboratively. Once people see the power of this collaboration, it will begin to take on a life of its own. 

Agile teams are often cross functional and so OKRs are a great tool to support agile management practices. Use them to ensure that agile teams are focused on the right goals and use quarterly business reviews to make sure their OKRs are closely aligned with strategy. 

5. Am I using OKRs effectively as one of my personal leadership tools? 

Think about OKRs as a language to turn your vision and strategy into action. Done well, OKRs should ignite focused and coordinated action aimed at your strategically important outcomes. By talking about OKRs you remind people of what really matters and where they need to focus their energies. 

One CEO we know “speaks OKRs” in his daily interactions with people. In the hallway, he asks about “your team’s OKRs” and leads the by-weekly check-ins with the executive on their OKRs. Are others in the organization able to see your commitment to the OKR process? 

Finally, how do you answer questions 1 – 4 for the team you lead? Are the members of your team committed to leading through OKRs, or are they simply complying with your wishes? If OKRs are not turning strategy into coordinated action for your team, that will be obvious to the organization. 

If you find you don’t like your answers to the 5 questions, let’s talk.  

Let us help you identify how you can write great OKRs and align them with the right strategic communications, culture and leadership practices. We have a survey tool that can test how you are doing on each of these components. 

To learn more about how Agile Strategies can help you accelerate your business results with OKRs, visit our homepage. If you’d like to hear about how we can help maximize the effectiveness of your OKR program, send us your details from our contact page, and we’ll get in touch.

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Agile Strategies is a boutique OKR consultancy based in Boulder, Colorado. We’ve researched, tested, and integrated the best strategy management tools to help you build and sustain an agile business. We help leaders become more agile so they can stay focused achieving their vision.

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