Interview

Bart den Haak explains how to run a successful OKR Check-In

28th March 2019 · 6 min read

Bart Den Haak explains how to run a successful OKR Check-In

The terms OKR and Check-In seem inseparable. Everywhere on the internet where you read about OKR, you read that you must regularly check-in with your OKRs. Unfortunately, no one explains in detail what a Check-In is, why it is so important, and how you successfully check-in with your OKRs without creating too much overhead.

We talked to Bart den Haak, a leading OKR consultant based in The Netherlands. Bart has worked with incredible companies like ING, Ahold Delhaize, and KPN. His specialty is the OKR Check-In.

Perdoo:
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you started your journey with OKR.

Bart:
I was a software engineer, lead architect and agile coach for more than 18 years. During my career, I discovered that many organizations could achieve extraordinary results if they change their way of setting goals. Seven years ago I was involved in a big OKR roll-out but wasn’t satisfied with the results. Something was missing. During my research of the last years, I learned that people need to understand higher level goals, and be able to see progress towards them. This must at a high frequency in order to change behavior, feel appreciated, motivated and to be happy in life.

Today, as the founder of Moving the needle, I transform tech companies in order to help them achieve what matters most. As a result, they not only move the needle but also increase agility, cross-team alignment, focus, accountability, and performance.  I work with executives, senior management and agile (software) teams to strengthen their current way of working with state-of-the-art agile and lean methods like OKRs. I regularly speak about these topics at public conferences or private in-house events.

Perdoo:
What exactly is the OKR Check-In?

Bart:
Today, there are many great books out there (Radical Focus, Objectives and Key Results and Measure What Matters) that explain the OKR framework and the OKR cycle. Some of the books do describe the OKR Check-In, but none of them provide any guidance on run a proper Check-In. As a result, I see many companies ‘doing OKRs’ without doing the OKR Check-Ins. In my opinion, the Check-In is the most important event within an OKR cycle. It is the glue that holds together goal-setting and goal-execution.

A Check-In is a short meeting where a company or team looks at the progress of an Objective’s Key Results. Taking into account the current status of the Key Results, one can give a confidence score (called Status in the Perdoo app) on the likelihood of achieving the Key Results at the end of the quarter. The intent of the Check-In isn’t just to report on the progress and status of the Key Results but also to come with a plan to increase the confidence score in case it doesn’t meet the expectations of the team. One can try to increase the confidence score by developing Initiatives that will likely move the needle for the Key Results.

Perdoo:
Why is the Check-In so important?

Bart:
A typical OKR cycle starts with defining your Annual and/or Quarterly Company Goals. When the Company Goals are defined, the teams will define and link their Team OKRs for the quarter to the Company OKRs. When teams enter the quarter they normally continue with their business as usual, giving little attention to the OKRs. At the middle of a quarter (or sometimes even the end of a quarter) they discuss progress towards the Team or Company Goals during a quarterly review. Then they will notice not many needles have been moved.

So instead, teams and companies should do weekly or even daily OKR Check-Ins. Every week or day they should track progress towards their Key Results. This weekly or daily routine will create something magical, it changes the behavior of people. And this is exactly what we want in order to achieve those important stretched goals. Only when teams and companies change their behavior (dear I say, their culture) they will be able to move the needle. OKR Check-Ins help with that.

Perdoo:
What happens if you skip the Check-In?

Bart:
When companies don’t use weekly Check-Ins or skip them, they will miss an opportunity to change the behavior of people. The only way to change behavior is by changing the habits of people. OKR Check-Ins require discipline and commitment. I agree it is very hard to change your way of working, like with any other organizational change. But once the OKR Check-In is part of your company DNA, you will achieve amazing results.

Perdoo:
How do you run a successful Check-In?

Bart:
On company level, you normally do them weekly or monthly with everybody involved. E.g. during a ‘weekly start’,  ‘monthly town hall’ or another all-hands session at the beginning of the week or month. I’ve seen successful OKR Check-In sessions with over 150 participants!  Of course, when you work in a large organization you may want to look for alternative solutions, such as doing them on department level.

On team level, you want to do OKR Check-Ins also on a weekly, or preferably daily, basis with the whole team.  A successful OKR Check-In should take no more than 15 minutes. In the beginning you may need more time, but you’ll see that teams quickly get better over time. I know teams that do them in under 10 minutes!

The key to a successful Check-In is preparation. Before a Check-In starts, progress on your KPIs, Key Results and Initiatives need to be updated by the Leads.

A Check-In should also have a clearly defined agenda:

  • Discuss the progress of the Key Results and set a Status.
  • Report on Initiatives’ progress and commit on who will work on what.
  • Discuss KPIs / Health check
  • Discuss upcoming Initiatives and impediments

Perdoo:
Should the Check-In be a separate meeting? How does it relate to existing team meetings? And how does it compare to a Scrum?

Bart:
I hear this question a lot. We already  “do Scrum” and have tons of ceremonies already. I get it that adding another meeting can be too much of a burden for teams. If you’re already use Scrum, the OKR Check-In can complement the existing events. For example, teams can blend the OKR Check-In intoto their daily Scrum event. Since the daily scrum is about making a plan for today, you can perfectly append the elements from the OKR Check-In in there.

Also, other meetings can be enriched with the OKR Check-In. Because it only takes 10-15 minutes to run an OKR Check-In, you can always find ways to add them to existing meetings. The nice thing is that OKR Check-Ins will make your existing meetings way more data-driven. No more HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) discussions, but true data-driven conversations.

Perdoo:
Progress on Key Results and Initiatives doesn’t always evolve linearly. For instance, some Key Results may be lagging. How do you deal with that in the Check-In?

Bart:
Key Results describe a future state in terms of outcomes. Outcome-metrics are often lagging metrics. They are always behind (e.g. measuring body weight in case you want to lose weight). Since lagging metrics are usually good indicators of success, most companies and teams use them in their OKRs. As a consequence, they often don’t see much progress on a weekly basis (e.g. monthly revenue of NPS). With practice, it is possible to identify outcome-based metrics that you can see moving on a weekly basis (i.e. that are leading). But it will take time and effort to improve on choosing the right metrics for your Objectives.

In order to move the needle of your Key Results, you need to use a scientific approach. Based on concepts from the LEAN movement you should use hypotheses (or “bets”) within your Initiatives descriptions. E.g. “I believe that going to the gym 3 times per week will decrease my body weight” is a nice Initiative. But this is still a hypothesis, you are not sure until you finished the Initiative and see the actual needle of your Key Result moving.

All your Initiatives should have clear leading metrics defined (e.g. # times I go to the gym or # calories I consume). These metrics you can easily track and discuss on a weekly or daily basis during your OKR Check-In. Note: Finding these leading metrics is often very hard for management and teams. But it’s critical to see progress towards your goals on a weekly basis.

Perdoo:
What happens after the Check-In? What are the takeaways of such a meeting?

Bart:
After an OKR Check-In, the people in the company or a team have a clear understanding of the direction (Objective) and the progress towards this Objective (based on the Key Results). They’ll also know the Status (on track, needs attention, off track) for each Key Results, which is forecasting the likelihood that a particular Key Result will be achieved or not. They’ll also know what Initiatives they’ll need to work on this week to contribute to a Key Result.

Perdoo:
What are the most common mistakes that you see people make? Which things should be avoided at all times?

Bart:
Coming unprepared to a Check-In, i.e. progress on Key Results or Initiatives is not updated. Always make sure that everything is up-to-date before the meeting starts.

Perdoo:
Based on your experience, once people get the Check-In right, what do they like about this meeting? And what don’t they like?

Bart:
Once the OKR check-in is a routine in their work-lives, employees understand better the direction of the company, their contribution to the bigger picture and they are up-to-date on what everybody else will do.  This will give a huge boost to their motivation, create autonomy for teams and drive creativity within people. Most people are very happy with the data-driven conversations, the constructive meetings and actually seeing progress towards a goal they thought was not possible to reach before.

Perdoo:
What other tips, insights or best practices do you have for our readers who are struggling with the OKR Check-In?

Bart:
Here are some best practices:

  • Have an aspiring Objective to work on.
  • Come well-prepared to the Check-In.
  • Keep it short (under 15 minutes).
  • Make sure you track progress on your Initiatives and make commitments on the Initiatives (who is going to work on what).
  • Each Key Result and Initiative should have a clear Lead.
  • The Check-Ins should be transparent.
    • Everybody should be welcome to join the session. Progress towards goals should not be a secret. For companies with multiple departments and teams, special OKR software systems can be really helpful in making Check-Ins transparent and the tracking of your progress easy.

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