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We live in times of immense uncertainty — which tends to lead to an unclear outlook on where your organization and teams are headed. Setting a sound strategy and subsequent goals to help you succeed becomes all the more difficult.
While the OKR framework may not be a solution for turbulent internal and external circumstances, it is a tool that can help provide an increased amount of certainty for organizations.
We spoke to Marco Alberti, founder and OKR coach at Murakamy about how organizations can navigate uncertainty with OKR and discussed the following:
- Is OKR a tool that can help organizations navigate internal and external instability?
- What are the benefits of using OKR during times of uncertainty?
- Why do organizations tend to abandon OKR in times of crisis? And how can organizations avoid this from happening?
- How can employees incorporate OKR into their work schedules, to stay focused but agile during times of uncertainty?
Henrik-Jan: Welcome to another episode of Goal Diggers. I’m Henrik, founder and CEO of Perdoo. Joining me today is Marco Alberti, an OKR coach and founder of Murakamy. Marco, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey with OKR so far?
Marco: Yes. So thank you for the invitation and the possibility to be here.
Yes. As you mentioned, I’m Marco, I’m the founder of Murakamy and Intuity OKR. Experience: since more than eight years now. So focusing on finding out what is the right way to manage or steer a company. So, I was in the role of Vice President in the company and the company ran out of cash.
So we have to find a solution eight years ago for a really serious problem. And I Googled a little bit and I talked to other founders and found out, okay, there is this thing called OKRs. And the only thing I could find was the Google video obviously. And, then we watched it as a team and we tried it out.
And after 10 months we had like a turnaround from let’s say 1.5 million losses to 7 million in profits and from a team with total stress to a team with yeah, totally new ideas, a different culture, the CEO was freed from all the discussions the all days long. And this was really interesting to see what happens in a company when you change a leadership principle and the leadership framework to OKRs.
And there were so many questions still unanswered. So we tried to answer them and I wrote a little bit about it on our blog — Murakamy blog. And then other companies texted us and say, Hey, you did it. Can you teach us how we can do it in our company? And this was the start of a journey.
And now we try to find out how to steer a company better. So this is still part of the journey today.
Henrik-Jan: Yeah. Eight years ago, you must have been one of the first OKR consultants out there, right?
Marco: At least in Germany, I would say. Yes.
Henrik-Jan: Yeah. The video that you refer to, I mean, I think you mean that Google ventures video, where they introduced the concept of OKR to their portfolio companies. Yeah.
Henrik-Jan: And you referred to OKR being a leadership framework. Could you explain why you think it is a leadership framework?
Marco: Yes. First of all, a short disclaimer, when I talk about OKRs, I talk about our version of it. Like it’s an interpretation, it’s a style like yoga, you have different styles.
And I think that’s the same in OKRs. So we define our framework — the Murakamy framework as a holistic framework. So it’s not for us like you have to steer the goals throughout the company. It’s not like I know what’s right. And then we have to focus on it and say, okay, we, we have to manage it through the company, make it transparent and make it happen.
For us, it’s more like a holistic framework to bring the right culture, the right structure, and the risk mitigation process in it to find out what are the right goals based on what is the vision and what is the mission. What are the strategies? And therefore we have a process developed that helps you to find out the right goals instead of managing your goals, which you already have.
So I think this is the best explanation, why we think it’s a holistic management and leadership framework and not only a tool to steer the company based on your given goals.
Henrik-Jan: Yeah, no, I totally agree. This is also what we do with Perdoo, right? We always start with the mission and vision of a company. Let people set up their strategy. KPIs and OKRs come at the very end of that process from our perspective.
Talking about implementing OKRs right in organizations. Especially nowadays, right? If you read the newspaper and all the uncertainty going on, organizations are faced with continual internal and external instability, right?
Is OKR a tool that can be used to overcome all these uncertain factors?
Marco: When you ask me totally, yes. Because I think that’s the heart of it. It’s for steering in uncertainty. It’s not steering uncertainty when you have a given process when you already know I have to do X. And then that is the result. When you’re facing uncertainty, you need an agile approach.
It’s like sensing and responding to try out and find out what we can learn and then reassess and then make new decisions and, and try out the different ways to a given goal. So we think especially in times of uncertainty, OKR is really the tool to go to because you have a risk mitigation tool at hand.
So, you don’t have the bottom-up or the top-down approach. In our point of view, you have both at the same time. So different perspective. Answering the question, what should we do next? And when the different perspectives, let’s say the different departments of the company come to the same conclusion, then the possibility is high that you have the right goal you have to follow.
And therefore we think it’s the right tool to steer in uncertainty when you do it up and down at the same time.
But the answer to that question, right? Like what, what are we doing next? Like the OKR framework kind of like forces you to then write that up as an objective with key results. Right? But the answer to the question, what should we do next? Could also be something more neutral, like what you would call a goal, perhaps, right? Like what’s your take on that? Like, ’cause the OKR framework and the value of answering these questions and reflecting at certain points in time.
Henrik-Jan: Yeah. I totally, totally agree with that of course. But why should we always write this up as an objective with key results?
Marco: I think when you see the whole asset allocation. As the question at hand. So where do I put my resources? You cannot make the asset allocation based on a pure headline.
You have to say, okay, I want this goal. And this goal is specific and therefore I think this should be the goal. And then this should be the output and the outcome of this goal. And on the other side, I have to think about the resources I have to put in, and then you have a lot of options on the table.
So we put all the options on the table and then you have all these containers called OKRs with a specific goal, a result you get, and an idea of how much resources you have to put in. And then you can make the asset allocation based on where is the price low and where is the outcome high.
And then I can allocate all my objectives, which is not possible when, when I only have a headline like a normal goal ish headline, then you cannot say, okay, this is the given fact, this is the input. This is the output. And then I cannot make the trade-off decision because, in the balancing of the portfolio, it’s always about the trade of which goal I choose and which I don’t choose.
And then you can make the asset allocation decision. So I would say this is the main benefit of it.
Henrik-Jan: Okay. Interesting. Going back to the topic of uncertainty. Like we can all see and read what’s going on in the world right now. For those organizations that decide that because of these uncertain factors and the benefits that OKR brings, they decide to implement OKRs right now.
Like, are there additional challenges that they need to overcome doing it in these turbulent times? Or should they better wait for example, until there is more certainty again and things have calmed down a bit?
Marco: Yeah, I don’t think that it’s a good idea to wait when you face uncertainty. Because when, when you face uncertainty, you need something, you need a process to give your team a little bit of stability.
And when the process is stable, then the uncertainty outside of your company isn’t so scary anymore because you have a little stability based on the stable processes. So this is a real argument for doing it now versus later. With the implementation of OKRs, for most of the companies we see, or the like bigger or older companies it’s like a mindset shift.
It’s like we have to accept that we cannot plan the reality. The reality doesn’t make sense of what we plan. So we have to face the uncertainty and face the reality that there is bad luck and good luck in the results. And we cannot force it, even if we want to force it based on our plans.
So we have to sense and respond. And this is the biggest change when you do it in uncertain times, you have to face the uncertainty and accept the uncertainty. That’s not the question of your plan or it’s not the question of execution alone. It’s good luck and bad luck and the right tests and the right culture and the right people, the right time.
And then the result is the result. And yet you have to accept it. And this is hard for like a traditional management mindset.
Henrik-Jan: We see that some organizations, despite everything you just shared with us, do abandon OKR in times of crisis. Maybe consciously, sometimes unconsciously.
Like they get so busy putting out fires that OKRs just fall by the wayside. Like they forget to update them. They forget to close them and set new OKRs. Why do you think that is? Because that sort of behavior that we see with some organization in the market totally contradicts all the benefits that you just highlighted for us.
Marco: I think it’s kind of natural. When you have to firefight all the time, then it’s really hard to ignore a fire. So when you have to ignore a fire to make this portfolio allocation, then it’s really hard to ignore it while it’s burning. But you have to be aware that when you don’t ignore the little fires, then you have to, yeah.. to pay the bills when you’re only reactive in your company.
So you have to invest in and reduce the speed for a moment. Not the, not the whole quarter. I’m not saying, okay reduce the speed for the whole quarter. But for a few days and say, okay, let the fires burn for two days and say, what are our options?
What can we do? What can we not do? And what are the best investments of our resources? And then we can actively decide. Which fire do we want to face and we want to fight and which fire do we let burn? Because if you have too many fires, then you cannot fight all of them. And this is the the conscious decision where to put your resources, and energy against, and where not. And paying the price you have to pay because there is always a price you have to pay.
And when you reduce the speed for two days and say, let’s think for a moment. Let’s see what our options are. Let’s bet on the best options and then fight with all the power we have the right fight. Then I think you pay a lower price in comparison to fire fighting mode all over the place. And this is the argument why you shouldn’t stop doing OKR during a crisis. But it’s totally normal that people are reacting like this. We see it as well.
Henrik-Jan: But yeah, as you said at the start your answer is that it’s very hard to ignore a fire. Right? Even if it’s a little fire, it sort of attracts your attention. Yeah. So, you gave us one clue.
You said that try to set maybe one or two days aside to just evaluate what are our options, what should we do. What should we not do? That can be very helpful. Of course, narrowing the scope to one to two days for that. But what else, what are, what else can organizations do to prevent these important exercises that OKR brings to a company? These important thought exercises to continue doing it?
Marco: Yeah, I think one of the most valuable things is here to realize that a question of mindset because you have to be aware that you pay a price anyway. So it’s not the optimization. Priceless versus we have to pay a price when the fire burns down the house.
So we pay a price in any way, we have to make a decision. So this is a real good basis for the workshop discussions. When we know, oh, it’s not like we achieve all our goals or none of them, we have to pay a price anyway, when we focus on this set of options called OKRs. Then we cannot do all the other options and all the other options are so much, so much more than, than they, what what’s, what’s impossible in one quarter.
So you’re always paying the price for not doing all the other options. So I think this is the most important mindset when you make decisions in a management context that, you know, I decide for one goal and this is at the same time, a decision against 1000 others. And this is all related to paying a price.
But hopefully, the sum of it is it’s more like on our side when we decide to five, right? The best goals within our OKR framework for this quarter. And then we can watch all the little fires burn, but not destroying the whole company. When you, when you’re in firefighting mode.
Henrik-Jan: Yeah, but even when you set OKRs, like, from my experience, lots of organizations are still ending up with way too many OKRs. Right? And, yeah like you’re then sort of avoiding the hard decision, right? About like what not to do, and is, yeah. Maybe that’s somehow related to it, right? Like if you come up with too many you think you can do everything then you’ll still end up in the same situation.
So are, are there any.. Yeah, go ahead.
Marco: I totally agree with you and most of the companies, especially when you, when you start using OKRs or when you are in firefighting mode, you always say, okay, this, we have to do this and we have to do this. And my question is always why? You have to say what’s in it when you don’t do it?
So what, what’s the price you have to pay? And then three months later, you see, okay, you have 10 OKRs and then you realize, oh, we made three out of 10 or four out of 10. So the reality doesn’t change. Even if you say, okay, I must do all of them. But when you see in the reflections, the second and the third quarter, ah, okay.
It’s too much. We cannot achieve all of them. Then the reflex is okay, let’s try less and less and less. And then we come to a, to a realistic view and this is the even better decision-making process because it’s more realistic when you, when you say, okay, 10, then the rest is based out of luck because we don’t know which three out of 10 we made at the end of the quarter.
When you say, okay, I focus on three, and then these three objectives really check the boxes. Then you have a conscious way of achieving your goals. And this is even better than letting good luck and bad luck rule your game.
Henrik-Jan: Is this a question that you recommend people to ask when they to ask themselves when they set an OKRs, is what’s the price of not picking up this objective?
Marco: Oh, most of the time I use these kinds of questions when someone says this is given, so we have to do this. Or we must because our investor wanted, or the shareholders or the mothership says we have to do it, or we agreed on a conference to do it or whatsoever. Then the question is interesting to say, says who? And what is the price you have to pay when you don’t do it?
And I think this is interesting.. The answer to it most of the time is, well, not much. So then you’re open to discussion.
Marco: If you want to do it or you don’t want to do it, this is a different discussion, but I have to is always like, this is given and this is the most misinterpretation we can observe when people say, okay, this is my reality.
Help me to translate my reality into OKRs. And then we say, this is not our job. Our job is to transform your reality by OKRs, by using OKRs. We want you to transform your reality to a better reality and not let your reality be a reality. And frame it into OKRs and help you to formulate glorious goals and try to achieve all of them at the same time, because that’s not the game.
So you have to be aware that you want to change your reality and want to pick, especially, we want to do this, this and this. And maybe this, this, this we cannot do because we don’t have enough resources. And we want to pay the price because it’s a conscious decision for, for the goals on one side and against it on the other side.
Henrik-Jan: Interesting. Last question. So we spoke about these times of crisis, right? And why do some organizations then tend to decline.. Tend to abandon OKR. And you mentioned it’s because of all the fires that are all of a sudden happening. These fires attract everybody’s attention. Now, is there anything that employees can do?
Like how should they incorporate OKR into their daily or weekly work schedules to make sure that they remain focused and agile during these times of uncertainty?
Marco: Yeah. Given the fact that the company is using OKRs, right?
Henrik-Jan: Yeah. Yeah.
Marco: Well, yeah. Okay. And so on a personal level, I find it helpful to see it a little bit like a Kanban process.
When you say okay this is the list of my 15 key results, let’s say. And on a day-to-day or on weekly basis, I cannot work on 15 different results at the same time. So I set a focus for every week and say, okay, this week, I want to focus on this and this and this key results. So like, this is my topic for the week.
And then I plan tasks for every day of the week. So this is my list for Monday, and this is my list for Friday. And then I try to achieve clear results within this one week. Based on, let’s say three different key results. I picked for this week and at the end of the week, I make a little reflection.
We call it the four reflections. What is the main achievement this week? Not what I tried to achieve. So what I had on the plus side of it there is a real achievement I can use. This is, um, a real benefit I produced. What is the learning? Which problems do we face and what’s the focus for the next week?
And based on this process, you can really stay agile because you are reallocating your focus every week based on the surroundings, but you are still focusing on your, let’s say 15 different key results that at the end of the quarter, you can present, hopefully most of the results you wished.
Henrik-Jan: Okay, so do you recommend them to pick out like maybe one or two key results per week and then really try to make a big dent there? Or how would this work in reality?
Marco: It’s a little bit I’m responsible for. .
Henrik-Jan: Yeah. Yeah.
Marco: This is the question. Are you on a personal level or are you on a team level? When you have, let’s say 10 people in your team, then maybe the focus is a little bit broader. When you have only your own resources to manage, then you can say, okay, I want to focus on this, this, and this, and at the two to three focus topics in a week should be great.
And then you can draft like three to five major tasks per day. It’s totally enough knowing what’s going on anyways, when you have five different, hard tasks every day related to the, the top three, let’s say key result every week. Then you’re making progress in the right direction, in our experience.
Henrik-Jan: Great. This was super helpful, Marco. So thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us. And, yeah, it would be great to welcome you again, to talk about something else on this podcast.
Marco: Yeah. Thank you for the invitation. Thank you for having me.