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Show notes

OKR is often mistaken — it’s seen as a rigid framework with rules that need to be followed to a T to ensure its success. That’s far from the truth. The OKR framework provides best practices that are tried and tested, however, beyond that, it’s how you integrate it within your company culture and how you operate as an organization that ensures its success.

In this episode, we’re speaking with a special guest, Ben Stilwill from Streamline Health, who’ll provide us with a window into how his organization has integrated OKR within their cultural DNA by combining it with other engrained cultural elements — their One-Page Strategic Plan & Clifton Strengths personality assessment by Gallup.

During this episode we’ll discuss:

  1. How Streamline Health got started with OKR and their  experience so far
  2. How they’ve integrated OKR within their cultural blueprint
  3. A deep-dive on Clifton Strengths and their One-Page Strategic Plan
  4. How they maintain a healthy OKR program
  5. OKR advice and best practices

Learn more about:

Transcript

Zahra: Hi, everyone. I’m Zahra and I’ll be the host for this episode. Joining me today is Ben Stilwill. And we’ll be talking about his organization’s experience, working with OKR, and how they’ve combined their OKR program with certain cultural elements that are embedded within their business. So, Ben, I guess this is my queue to pass the mic over to you.

So please tell us a bit about yourself and your journey with OKR. Sure.

Ben: Hi everyone. My name is Ben Stilwill and I am the Senior Vice President of Customer Success at Streamline Health Solutions. And we provide software solutions to healthcare providers, specifically around the revenue integrity of medical coding.

In my role of customer success, I lead the teams who enable the customer journey. So implementation, account management, customer services, and support. And in addition to that, I led our initial implementation of OKRs in Perdoo. And I continue to act as the OKR Ambassador for the organization. So I helped the senior leadership team craft their OKRs, and most importantly, utilize Perdoo.

Zahra:  Nice. Thank you for the intro. And again, thank you for joining me today, Ben. Let’s dive right into it. Typically organizations adopt OKR because they have a certain itch that they need to scratch. And I’d say that there’s often common grounds for those so-called itches, but the details of the why behind it is often very company specific.

So I’m sure I’m not the only one here, but I’m personally very interested in understanding what it is that made Streamline Health Solutions adopt OKR in the first place. And also how you’ve benefited from using the, the framework ever since.

Ben: Yeah, definitely. So, it’s kinda hard to think back before OKRs.

It was only two years ago, but the thing we had in place beforehand was this monthly operations review, which was really each department had their own KPIs that they selected. And then they reported out on their ongoing activities. A lot of sync meanings, but you know, again, mostly report-outs.

So it just didn’t feel like we were all marching in the same direction, so to speak. And then at that point 2years ago, we had a new CEO come on board. And his initial observation was that our management team was comprised of a lot of smart people doing a lot of good work. But the alignment just wasn’t there — sort of scattered working on different things.

And we had this one-page strategic plan, which is a grand vision of where the company was going, but in the short term or medium term, we really were on different pages and it wasn’t really connected to the long term. And then to make things more difficult, the vision kind of lacked clarity at the associate level. We pushed the vision down and didn’t help managers communicate that in a personal way.

So it was difficult for associates to understand how to apply themselves to that. You know, we had sales goals at the time, and developers and customer support analysts were saying, what about me? How do I fit into this? And so the CEO gave us Measure What Matters by John Doerr. And he asked us to find a tool where we could track the OKRs. And then to build connections to those OKRs, be accompanied with Gallup’s Clifton strengths instrument to try to make it so that everyone felt like they connected from the top vision down to their individual strengths.

You know, it’s really created a rallying cry for the organization. Each OKR is inspiring, it helps indicate where we want our resources to be focused. And then, from there, the teams can hang their OKRs from those more inspiring ones to the ones that are actually going to get the work done. And they’re able to do it in a personal way.

So I think it’s just been.. The alignment I can’t speak enough about.

Zahra: Great. I’m really happy to hear that. Funny that you mentioned that you asked to read Measure What Matters. Was this your first interaction with OKR or had you heard of it before?

Ben: I’d loosely heard about it. Because obviously there are pretty large companies that have used it over the years.

I think reading the book was helpful to understand some of the principles behind it. I still left the book and I recently re-read it. I still left the book with, okay now make it your own. And I was like, ah, well, how do I actually do that? And I think it took us a while to really adapt to, we had the senior leadership team (they’d) all read the book.

There’s, you know, the addendum at the end is kind of Google’s playbook or a couple of tips around implementing it, but it really is kind of hard to say, all right, what’s the first step, the second step. And it’s taken us, you know, we’re still learning, but, but over the two years, we’ve started to integrate it with the cultural framework elements.

And really now it does feel like we made it our own.

Zahra: Yeah, we’ll come to it in a bit, but you mentioned that it was difficult for your associates to connect to the organization’s vision. And there was a lack of clarity. And actually, that’s a very commonly reported pain point and that’s when organizations feel the need to actually find a solution and, you know, manage all these moving parts.

Again, we’ll get into the depths of this, but it’s important to highlight that while OKR is a goal management framework and a tool that can help organizations execute those strategies, it really also is a communication tool and bridges the gap between strategy and teams. So..

Ben: Yeah, I think that’s a good way of putting it: a communication tool and now with hybrid work and, you know, people being all over the place, working autonomously, things like that.

I think having the OKR tool to really put it out to say: hey, here’s the alignment that we see and the daily work that you have contributes to the team, contributes to the corporate. I think it’s very helpful in that sense.

Zahra: Yeah. And that’s actually what you said earlier. Like they ask where do we fit in?

And I think when you create that transparency and you kind of provide the space to communicate all those moving parts really, that’s why they can identify why they can contribute to using their goals or their expertise so to say.

So you might’ve experienced this, but in theory, OKR is pretty simple and straightforward, but when you have to implement it across an entire organization and get that buy-in, from teams and people, that’s where it gets tricky, right?

So how do you maintain a healthy OKR program across your entire organization?

Ben: Sure. So I think that there are two things that we kind of focused on. The first was integrating with our operations. And that is as simple as making sure that it’s very visible and frequent in your daily operations.

So we run through our OKR is a lot, several times a week at the executive level. And then we have working sessions that are longer with the senior leadership team on a monthly basis. Our CEO is very committed to the OKR framework and is quick to point out when we’re working on things that are not aligned with our objectives.

Things outside of the guardrails are not going to push the organization forward. So, he tries to stop that as soon as we can.

The second one is what I mentioned earlier, integrating it with the cultural framework. So we’ve had a one-page strategic plan with which I think I mentioned for a couple of years.

That’s from Verne Harnish’s ‘Scaling up’ book and that goes in-depth on core values, the vision but then it serves as sort of the jumping-off point for our, at least our annual OKRs, as well as our three-year OKRs. And then we also integrated it with, Gallup’s Clifton strengths, which is what we use to help individuals, managers and teams work at their best.

Zahra: I really like that, that you bring the cultural elements that are embedded in your organization, into your OKR program. You know, the sad truth really is that OKR is seen as this framework that is super rigid and has a fixed set of rules that needs to be followed to a T to ensure its success, but it really is just best practices. And then it’s as flexible as you want it to be and can be molded to fit your, your organization’s needs. So this is proof of you using different components of your cultural blueprint into your OKR program.

Ben: I think that’s a good point.

I mean, there is like a, you know, you should only have X number of OKRs and key Initiatives, but really when we say make it your own. It’s you know, what are the other elements that are really gonna help your organization specifically? And for us, we picked those two others to really tie in. And I think that was helpful to give better adoption of OKR themselves.

Zahra: But so you had, the one-page strategic plan and Clifton strengths as a part of the organization’s cultural framework from before, or did that kind of filter in when, when you implemented OKRs?

Ben: Yeah, so the one-page strategic plan we’ve had for a couple of years, the Clifton strengths part was something that we implemented actually after OKRs.

Zahra: Okay. So a quick note to listeners here who are interested in learning more about Verne Harnish’s book called ‘Scaling Up’ and Clifton strengths from Gallup, we’ll include a link in the show notes for you to read about it a bit more.

Moving on, before getting into the details of how these elements actually come together at Streamline. Can you give us a quick intro on what Clifton Strengths is all about?

Ben: Yeah, so it’s really just a personality instrument. I think it’s the best one for a variety of reasons, but you could liken it to Myers-Briggs or DiSC, or there’s a handful of other ones out there that the benefit that I see of these instruments is it creates a common language with which people can describe themselves to others.

It helps team members understand each other and different approaches to problems. It helps managers create environments in which associates can perform at their best. And it can help foster healthy conflict.

Zahra: I really like that approach. And I think also consciously recognizing individual strengths and approaches isn’t only a way to get the right people working on the right goals, but it’s also a way to empower them and ensure that they’re heard.

Ben: Yeah.

Zahra: So, yeah. And you previously mentioned that your one-page strategic plan is kind of the diving board or your, your compass for your organization’s OKR program. So besides the vision and purpose, what else does the one-page strategic plan contain?

Ben: Yeah. So there are things that you want to do over the course of a longer time period.

So obviously the vision is your ultimate goal. When you talk about your core values, it’s really what your organization sort of stands for or things that are commonly held throughout the associate base, et cetera. It also has you know, a 10-year goal, which has meant to be, you know, the big hairy audacious goal that others have mentioned.

And then you go into a three to five year, what are the capabilities we need to build in order to get to that 10-year goal? And then what’s the three-year goal that’s really going to get us there short term. And then you get to annual priorities. So we meet on a regular basis, at least semi-annually to do a full, deep dive and say, all right, most of the longer-term stuff should be rock solid, but we do revisit them.

And then sort of the annual priorities are really where we spend a lot of our annual planning cycle, to make sure we understand, how those longer-term ones need to play out in the short term. And then you look directly at, if we have four annual priorities, those are the corporate OKRs for the year.

Zahra: Okay. Nice. So you’ve mentioned quite a lot about these three moving parts, and that is your OKR program, your one-page strategic plan, and Clifton Strengths, as a model. How did they all come together at Streamline Health Solutions?

Ben: Yeah. So, one thing I’ve heard on this podcast before is just the idea of OKR is creating or enabling, alignment and autonomy.

And so we really, very much think that the OKRs can create those two elements and we use the OPSP and Clifton Strengths to really further that. So, the alignment piece is really fed from a strategy. It sets guard guardrails, it says, all right, here’s loosely where we’re going to play and how we’ll get there.

So the one-page strategic plan really puts those guardrails up. And then we want our associates to operate autonomously. And so the Clifton strengths come in and because we say, all right, here’s generally the output that we’re looking for. We’ll leave it to the teams and associates to kind of say, all right, given your strengths, given the team strengths, how are we going to best contribute to it?

And I think the managers are able to personalize the goals based on understanding strengths, and then associates can identify, their ways of working. So I can give two examples. First, we had an OKR that was focused on increasing the financial impact that customers got from our software and at the CEO level, we could have said these are the four ways you will increase finances.

Instead, we communicated the intended outcome for the year. And one of our analysts strengths is an analytical learner. And he was able to run with the intended outcome and do side-by-side learning sessions with our customers to get the data he needed to make recommendations for financial improvements.

It was entirely led by him. It was based on how he knew he could operate best and you know, really turned out a win for our customer. And then the second example, I happen to be an ideas person. I love a whiteboard sticky note all over the place, our chief operating officer’s, more focused on creating a list, knocking down steps, and we work on the exact same OKRs.

But my approach is best on the initiatives that think in the abstract and need to rethink an entire process. And his approach is much better would mean to actually execute those changes or make things happen. And I think in both examples, the important part is that we’re aware of different styles and approaches, and we empower that individual to use those different styles.

And I think, honestly, if you match that with that sort of clear, alignment, you know, you really can’t be stopped.

Zahra: Yeah, no, I really like how that all comes together and it sounds like such an effective way of working with OKRs because I personally am very much a fan of such personality assessments.

And I can imagine when you combine it, as you said, with your vision, your strategy, and then goals on top of it, it must create a foundation for such dynamic and probably even very successful cross-functional OKRs. Just like the examples you’ve provided. And it seems like all these methods are ensuring that your OKR program is becoming like a cultural, it’s your cultural DNA so to say.

So as you grow as an organization, how would you ensure that your new hires are seamlessly folding into the OKR program and, how do you maintain clarity on your strategy?

Ben: Yeah, great question. And for both and Clifton Strengths, we did large workshops to kick it off. And so people, you’d like to think because we brought in outside trainers that they probably have a, you know, it was a full fire hose approach to learning these frameworks.

And when we’re adding associates, I mean, we’re less than a hundred people. When we’re adding one to two every month or so it’s hard to make sure that that spirit is still kind of felt there. And our HR team does a good job of running the initial workshops for both of them. But the main thing we really rely on is our managers.

We really focus on how they’ve adopted OKR is how they enable their team to use the OKR, and then how they have the management conversations around Clifton strengths. I think that they’re the main way that we can try to keep that culture alive.

Zahra: So, it works like this: that when someone comes on to a team of fresh, they take this personality assessment and then they’re briefed on certain elements, say OKR or your one-page strategic plan and your core values and things like that. Is that how it goes?

Ben: Yeah. So we have an onboarding session that goes into, goes through the one-page strategic plan walks through our OKRs within Perdoo, and that’s done kind of at the corporate level. And we also give them an overview of Clifton strengths. And then the manager is really in charge of making sure that they understand how the manager views their team’s contribution to the OKR is how the dynamics within their team works with Clifton strengths.

And then we do have a number of you have a bi-weekly happy hour to try to help the new associates get better integrated, really flex the muscles on Clifton strengths, so to speak.

Zahra: Yeah. Thank you for those insights. I really appreciate that. I’m sure our listeners have gained a lot of insight into how you can actually integrate all these different aspects that you have already, that you’re working within your organizations.

So before we go, I have one last bonus question that I think everyone will really appreciate. Based on your, your experience with OKR so far, what would be your advice to organizations that are just getting started with OKR.

Ben: Yeah definitely. So I think the first thing would be to get the buy-in from managers, including how it’s going to actually help them. Yes, you need the CEO commitment, but without manager buy-in, and you’ll continue to see people directing resources outside of the OKRs.

Zahra: They’re kind of like your co-ambassadors, right?

Ben: Exactly. Exactly. Cause chances are, by the time you’ve said, you’re going to do it. The CEO is already on board. You now need to work on making sure that people who are going to bring their teams in are feeling like it’s going to be a good tool for them.

Zahra:  Yeah.

Ben: And then the second one is, you know, back to the Clifton strengths idea is really to personalize your OKR. You need to make a conscious effort to connect every single individual to an OKR and make sure that they’re able to contribute to it. Associates today want to be connected to their organization and feel part of something bigger.

And if I can point at the company strategy and say that I move the needle, I can feel connected. So Clifton strengths for us are just a great way to do that. The third, I know you didn’t ask me to, but I will plug Perdoo. We really like it. It’s an essential tool. It gives transparency to the entire organization.

And it uses OKR terminology within the tool, which is super helpful. And we use the roadmap feature to really see how the cascading kind of works.

Zahra: And, we’re really happy to have you onboard Ben.

Ben: And then lastly, it’s a continuous process. Like I said, when we first started doing it, it was a little overwhelming. We felt like we didn’t have enough guidance, but I think that was because we were still trying to figure out how we were going to use it. And still today just about every quarter we meet with a Perdoo coach, Nicole. (Thank you, Nicole!) to help write the actual OKR.

Because the thing we struggle with the most is making sure that Key Results are outcome instead of output-driven and, you know, making sure that we understand some of the tenets of what that OKR framework was intended to be. So we can still have some leeway, but make sure we’re, um, going down the right path. And we try to seek out other organizations that use OKR, to understand what has/hasn’t worked.

And we’re willing to admit when adoption is low and ask our teams how we can make it better for them.

Zahra:  That’s great advice, Ben, and I couldn’t agree more. And to your last point, OKR really is an iterative process and you’re going to learn along the way. It won’t always be a smooth journey, but if you hold on tight enough and, you know, acquire those learnings and then make the changes that are needed, I can guarantee.

And I’m sure you can guarantee as well that it’s absolutely worth it.

Ben: Definitely.

Zahra:  Anyway, thank you so much for joining me, Ben, and it’s been an absolute pleasure.

Ben: Thank you.