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Are you looking to roll out OKR to your entire organization and want to know what you may need to consider? Do you feel like it’s a daunting task and don’t know where to start?
Firstly, we can assure you that it’s not as complex as it seems. And we spoke to Ben Lamorte, about everything you need to know to successfully roll out OKR to your entire organization.
Ben is the founder and coach at OKRs.com, co-author of Objectives and Key Results (2016), and author of The OKRs field book (2022). And as one of the first OKR consultants in the space, having helped hundreds of organizations (including companies like eBay, Adobe, Zalando) deploy OKR, Ben has a ton of great insights and experiences that can help you as you get started with the OKR roll out process.
Here are some of the topics we discuss:
- What is the first thing you should consider when looking to implement OKR?
- Is there a rollout approach that works best?
- Can any company implement OKR?
- How important is senior leadership backing when implementing OKR?
- How can you overcome resistance and ensure company-wide buy-in?
- How should organizations educate their teams on the OKR framework and integrate it into their work?
Henrik-Jan: Welcome to another episode of Goal Diggers, the podcast on OKRs, KPIs, strategy, and growth. I’m Henrik, founder, and CEO of Perdoo, the app that helps ambitious organizations execute strategy and drive 10 X growth using KPIs and OKR. Joining me today is Ben Lamorte, a well-known name and personality in the OKR space.
Ben, before I give away too much information about you, please tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey with OKR.
Ben: Well, thanks, Henrik. And it’s great to be back and great to see you again, even though we’re across continents. I mean, I think the last time I saw you, it was either in Berlin or possibly it was actually in San Francisco, which is where I’m based.
Either way, it’s great to see you again, although it’s virtual. And what I’ll tell you is, look, my journey with OKR is it goes back… I mean, I’m going to give you the quick and dirty version of.. I get out of undergraduate in Mechanical Engineering. By the way, my son’s about to start college and I’m going back to that age.
And I just realized like, I’m sorry, nobody knows what they’re doing at that age. I think I thought I knew I was going to do engineering. I think by the time I graduated, I literally concluded the one thing I know for sure is I’m not going to do mechanical engineering. So then I got into graduate school because I knew I wanted to be in school.
The one that I knew, I didn’t want to get a job. Right. I love school. You know, the stresses of tests seemed a lot better than the stresses of getting a real job. So I went to Stanford for graduate school in management science in engineering. Which, by the way, Henrik is really a fancy way of saying I’m an engineer that doesn’t want to be an engineer, and I don’t really want to go to business school.
So it’s sort of an industrial engineering management science, kind of like technical business knowledge. You know, you’re studying probability and financial management. Ended up going into work in management consulting. And I was doing what we call business forecasting. A lot of financial modeling.
They put me in front of a spreadsheet and said, go figure all these things out. And it was pretty good, but it wasn’t very fulfilling. I knew something was missing. It wasn’t until I was probably in my mid-thirties getting into my late thirties actually that I met Jeff Walker, and Jeff Walker was my mentor. Jeff Walker actually was the founder of Oracle applications.
So if you go back to the 1980s, when Oracle was a hardware company, $20 million a year, Larry Ellison started Oracle. Larry Ellison smart guy, right? Brings Jeff Walker in to become the Oracle applications founder. In other words software. And next thing, you know, Oracle five years later is a billion-dollar company. I mean Oracle now, of course, is a software company, more than it’s a hard balance.
And so I think even Larry Ellison would say in a way, Jeff Walker was the founder of Oracle in terms of the software. And he used OKRs which he had been taught by Gary Kennedy over at Intel. And Gary Kennedy came from Intel over to Oracle. And they used OKRs back then. I’m still in touch with Jeff.
I’m very lucky to have him as my mentor. And here’s the conversation that he had that got me into OKRs. I’m going to read directly from my OKRs field book here. So this is Jeff, maybe having like a late thirties midlife crisis. What should I do with. And by the way, Jeff had been my OKRs coach.
So he started helping me get more focused on outcomes and so forth. So here’s what Jeff says. What is the one thing that you do best that also has significant business value? Me: OKRs coaching. Jeff: how many hours per week are you doing this OKR coaching on average? Me: three or four. Jeff: why not make that 30 or 40?
But there’s no way to do that, Jeff. My consulting clients are paying me to build financial models. Jeff: stop doing that other stuff and start focusing on OKRs coaching. If you can’t get paid to do it, just do it for free. Make it your goal to do as many OKRs sessions free or paid as possible. If you are adding business value, people will start paying you for it.
And if you can deliver significant value, you’ll find out just how big the market really is. Well, I’m not going to read the whole OKRs field book to you. Don’t worry, Henrik. But the reason why I shared that is certainly..
Henrik-Jan: This is the book that just came out?
Ben: Yeah, this is the OKRs field book that just came out last month. I’m really excited about it. It’s coming out. I think it’s available in Europe now and it’s really the first book written for OKRs coaches.
Henrik-Jan: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I think your other book was called Objectives and Key Results, right? Which came out years ago. It must’ve been one of the first.
Ben: Yeah, going back to this, it’s a funny story. In 2016, Paul Niven and I came up with a book also published by Wiley, just simply called Objectives and Key Results.
And it’s a funny story because we didn’t know what to title the book. And so we finally realized, well, why don’t we just call it Objectives and Key Results because you know, that’s what it is. Anyway, so that was in 2016. And then this book is really written more for OKRs coaches. And it’s really designed not so much to be a book that tells you, you know, why you should do OKRs, or here are companies that do OKRs or, you know, here’s an example of an OKR, but rather wait a minute, how do I really do OKR?
So, you know, what are the questions you ask? I mean, I think the part of the book that I’m most excited about is in the epilogue, believe it or not, where I tried to list out all of the questions that OKRs coaches ask. But anyway, going back to that story that I was giving with Jeff Walker, I remember that conversation like it was yesterday, you know, he just challenged me and said, if he basically said, if you’re lucky enough to have something that you think you can do, that’s going to make the world better and you love to do it.
Go do it. Don’t sit here and tell me that you need to build these financial models. And what happened was when I went out and met with people who were doing, you know, OKRs or wanted to look at goal-setting for that matter. Or they had KPIs, but they were trying to maybe reset their KPIs at the time because this was, this was back in 2014, 2013, really, before OKRs got more mainstream. I found that those conversations were very very powerful.
And, you know, when you ask people the questions, you know, why do you want to achieve that objective? Or how will we know we’ve achieved that Objective?. Or what is the intended outcome of that task, right? If they say we’re going to launch the blog. Well, what is the intended outcome of that? It gets them into a critical thinking mindset and that I found well, that was 15 years ago or so.
And I didn’t go into OKRs coaching full-time until about roughly 10 years ago. That’s when I really decided to say, I’m just going to make this be my thing. So anyway, Jeff, I think is probably..
Henrik-Jan: 10 years ago?
Ben: I hope Jeff is proud, but I’m also very thankful that he challenged me to just do this. And I did a bunch of those free sessions. Like you said, just start doing it for free. And I did. And eventually, it started to catch on luckily. Well, I got really lucky as you know, Henrik when Measure What Matters came out in 2018, that was the best book that ever could have happened to anybody in the OKR space.
Henrik-Jan: I think so too. I mean, we have some criticism on Measure What Matters, but..
Ben: I have a lot of criticism. I have a lot of criticisms. But the one thing that I think we can agree on is at least to create an energy around OKRs.
Henrik-Jan: Exactly, yeah.
Ben: You know, and that’s really what we needed.
Henrik-Jan: In general. I think the book introduces the concept or at least the benefits of the concept really well.
Henrik-Jan: Ben, I mean, we have a lot to talk about, right. We were talking to each other again now after what’s it been like two or three years since we last met in San Francisco?
Ben: I want to say maybe even three or four, but yeah, it’s. Yeah, but let’s, let’s do that after the podcast.
Henrik-Jan: ‘Cause we do have an interesting and important topic to talk about.
The topic that we talk about today is what does it take to successfully roll out OKR company-wide? And you wrote two books on OKR. You’ve been in this space for such a long time. I mean, you just told me that you started getting into this space already 10 years ago, so it’s great to hear your thoughts on this matter and to hear from your experiences, working with your clients, how they can roll out OKRs company-wide. Right?
And the reason that’s important, is I think there are a lot of companies out there that start working with OKRs. I mean, typically I think they start with the leadership team, perhaps maybe one or two levels down and oftentimes do have the ambition to roll it out company-wide. But I think that’s where it sort of gets stuck sometimes.
It takes longer than initially planned and that slows the rollout. And therefore, that then slows down the real value OKR can unlock for organizations. So I think it’s an important topic to talk about and think you’re the perfect person to discuss this with. First question, and then I’m passing it over back to you.
What do you think is the first and most important thing organizations should consider or do when looking to implement OKR?
Ben: Yeah. I mean, this is of course the big question that has to be answered. And the good thing is I have the answer. So really what it comes down to is always right. This is my mantra here. Always begin with why OKRs. Really, we have to understand why OKRs and then we have to confirm that it’s the right reason and that in fact, the organization can benefit. So as an OKRs coach, I’ll always start with why are we even trying to do OKRs in this organization? Or if you already are doing OKRs, why did you start?
And is it getting you to move in that direction? So for example, let’s actually start with some of the bad reasons for why to do OKRs. And in fact, I won’t work with organizations that answer questions this way. Right? So if you tell me, well, we really want to do OKRs. Oh, really? Why is that? Well, we read the book Measure What Matters and it’s the best practice that you know, everybody’s doing. So we’re going to.
Or, well, you know, it turns out then Google does OKRs and, you know, Google is a really good company and we want to be like them, so we’re going to do OKRs. So this is the idea of imitation, you know, I’m going to do it because the other people do it and that’s not a very good, well actually, that’s just a terrible reason to do OKRs. I mean, look, there’s companies doing all kinds of weird things that have acronyms, right.
And you don’t just do that because they’re doing it. So that’s number one. Number two is: okay. This one maybe is an even worse reason for why OKRs. And this one I really have to kind of come out and talk a little bit about which is we are doing OKRs to shine a flashlight on performance and hold people accountable for, you know, getting their jobs done.
And ultimately we’re going to use OKR as our system for rewarding and punishing employees. Well, that’s like performance management. I don’t want anyone to use OKRs, if that’s their number one reason for using OKRs. If that’s the case, you really should be looking at a performance management solution rather than OKRs.
So with those two things, and by the way, there’s a whole story about Yahoo that I don’t even know if it made it into Measure What Matters, but Marissa who’s mentioned in Measure What Matters, who was at one point, I believe the CEO of Yahoo, if not the CEO, one of the main people there, and it was probably around 2012 or so early two thousand tens where she adopted OKRs at Yahoo and did it in this way to basically identify poor performers, hold people accountable. And there were all kinds of things in there, you know, stack ranking, you know, this group got this score and that group got that score. So we’ve got to get rid of somebody from this group.
I’ll put the link to the business insider article if it’s still out there, Henrik, at the end of this podcast, but it was scary. It was like OKRs gone wrong. Okay. So what are the right reasons? You know, I mean, if the given organization might tell me, I want to do OKRs because we’re in growth mode and we want to get so much done.
There are so many different things happening. We need to be able to focus on what matters most. This is probably the best reason to do OKRs because I’ve seen it over and over again. OKRs can really help you narrow the focus and get aligned. Alignment goes right in hand with what is the most important area to focus and then how can we all work together to achieve that?
So this is the best reason for working with OKRs. There’s others. Right? You could talk about, I want to get more engagement. I want my people to be able to see how their work impacts the bigger picture. There’s some other sort of good reasons. Transparency. I’ve seen those as well, but pretty much focus and alignment are the two big ones and it needs to be specific to your organization.
Probably one of my very favorite reasons for doing OKRs was from Zalando when I met with their CEO and I said, well, why do you want to do OKRs?? And he said, you know, we need to have OKRs as a communication tool, because you know, when we were a smaller startup, we could just communicate. Everybody knew what was going on.
You know, we’d meet in Berlin or wherever they were and have their company-wide meetings. It’s a couple of hundred people. Okay, well, we can all be on the same page. You start to grow. And the next thing you know, you have silos. And you want to be able to have this feeling of everybody knows what’s going on. We’re all on the same page.
How do we stay in touch? OKRs creates a common language for people to do that. So that’s, that’s a great example of where you will really see success with, OKRs is when we know why we’re doing it. And what I mean by what we, I mean, the CEO has to state: here’s why we’re doing OKRs.
And then now we have to actually show after several periods of doing OKRs, that it’s actually allowing us to achieve those goals for why we’re trying to do OKRs in the first place.
Henrik-Jan: Gotcha. So first and foremost, make sure that you have the right reasons that you know why you’re looking to implement OKRs, and also make sure that those are the right reasons to actually start implementing it. Now there are, of course, different ways you can roll out OKRs to an organization. Do you think there’s a rollout approach that works best? Is one approach better than the other or does it depend on the organization?
Ben: Yeah, I mean, let me start by saying, I think it’s critical that once you know why to do OKRs you really do have to now define what I call these deployment parameters. Which are basically the foundation for the OKRs program itself. So regardless of whether we roll out, OKRs only at the top level, or for example, we pick one team or whatever we have to take the time.
And it’s not, it’s not a lot of time. It can be done in a couple of hours, right. It’s not like this is a big deal, but you need to know what level will we roll out OKRs. So this gets into that question of, you know, do we want to roll that OKRs at the top level, or for example, a given, just pick one team or do we want to pick several teams right out of the gate?
So let’s first of all, focus on that question. But also do we allow multiple OKRs? Right? If you read Radical Focus, you’ll hear Christina talking about you get one objective. Well, maybe we’re going to allow three objectives or at most four or whatever it is, but we need to come to some rules of the road.
Are we going to allow, for example, milestone key results? Key results that don’t have numbers. And again, we talk about that in Measure What Matters. I mean, I know Felipe (Castro) did an analysis. More than half of the key results in that book don’t even have numbers. And yet John Doerr is saying key results should have numbers.
So it’s kind of like, well, which is it? So there’s some confusion here. Well, every organization has to figure that out for themselves, you know, but once we’re on the same page about what those “deployment parameters” are, you know, is the OKR cycle really three months or is it six months. Or whatever it is, now we can begin to talk about what’s the best way to roll out OKRs and the number one most important thing of those deployment parameters to think about is at what level will we roll out OKRs?
And this is a super important thing. Like the first rule of thumb is whatever you do, don’t do this, right? Whatever you do, don’t try to roll out OKRs across the entire organization all at once. This is something that everyone I talk to says, don’t do that because everybody who’s tried that has failed.
And in particular, what that means is don’t roll out OKRs to individual people, right out of the gate, always start with higher levels. This is the best practice. And probably you’re going to do, I’m going to give you the three most common options. Okay.
Henrik-Jan: So sorry to interrupt, but then you say, you said this is the best practice. So then you’re saying that the top-down rollout is the best practice? Did I understand that correctly?
Ben: Yeah, I mean, well, let me get, let me go into that. Generally, yes. Higher up is the way to start, but like, let’s talk about the three most common ways. Okay. So the number one most common way is top-down.
So in other words, you start with the company level and then you roll out OKRs to teams. Now, this is going to work best for smaller companies, right? Like I’m working with huge companies like Nike, right. Or Walmart or something like that. They’re not going to have me working with OKRs at the very top company level, because it just doesn’t make any sense.
We’re going to pick some business unit or what have you. So the second most common way to do it is to pick. And this is typically the case in larger companies, is to pick a certain business unit or perhaps a certain team. And just have OKR succeed in that pocket first, before we try to roll it out to other parts of the organization.
And in fact, this is what Zalando did the company that’s based in Berlin. That’s super cool. Right? One of my.. I’m so lucky to have worked with Zalando. I had no idea how cool this company was. You know, when you’re from the United States, you haven’t really heard of Zalando, but I guess…
Henrik-Jan: You guys have Zappos, right?
Ben: Yeah, we have Zappos and you know, that’s a whole other story over there, I guess.
Zalando and Zappos. I mean, they do start with Z and end with O sort of there feels like there’s a connection there. And I guess they both started with shoes. But Zalando, I mean, the people that I met there, every one of them, I was telling you now, if you’re listening and you ever worked at Zalando and I ever met you, I want you to know you set the bar very high for being super cool.
Henrik, I want you to imagine that in the snack area, we had bell peppers. Okay. Cucumbers, apples, so, literally vegetables mixed with fruit. Where I’m from here in the U S we talk about being healthy, but we just don’t live it like these people did in Berlin. And I was, I was just pleasantly surprised. But so what they did was at Zalando, they started with OKRs in the brand solutions group. And I think they had roughly 80 people in this group. So it was a pretty small area of Zalando, but actually they had success for almost a full year with OKR, within this brand solutions group before the CEO said, okay, now that we’ve seen it work here, we’re going to leverage OKRs across the larger organization.
That’s probably a good way to do it. You know, if you have a given group that can start with OKRs and then show success, and then we roll it out to the larger organization. In other words, the best practice here is nail it before you scale it. Right. And then the other way I would say is I’ve seen actually organic, the third option would be more of an organic use case.
Maybe there are several levels where it’s happening in the organization all at the same time, but not at the very top level of the organization. So in the case of Zalando I said, brand solutions was doing it. Well, you could theoretically say, look, rather than only picking brand solutions. Maybe we pick brand solutions, a marketing group and maybe, a usage group or some testing, data testing or something.
So we put three or four different little groups and see how it goes. Generally, those are the three most common ways. Or actually in a way that’s the two most common ways either top-down starting with a company or picking a business unit and kind of then expanding it either can work. But I think in a small company it’s like of under a hundred people, I would say you pretty much have to start with the top level OKRs in order to give your organization a shot at really succeeding.
Henrik-Jan: And if we talk about a larger company, like Zalando that you just referenced. I mean if you mentioned you pick a business unit or a team, like, does that need to have like a certain size so that you have like a critical mass or?
Ben: Yeah, well, there is definitely a critical mass. And what I want to talk about is this notion of, do you really need to “write down OKRs”, to be doing OKRs. Cause this is actually a really, you’ll like this Henrik, this is a really interesting distinction. I’m working with a company which I won’t name, but think of it as CBS, NBC, or ABC or CNN, you know, one of these major newsgroups okay.
And what I want you to picture is they’ve created OKRs across a group of like, let’s say 3000 people. So it’s a pretty large component of the organization. Now imagine this, they have something like I don’t know, 80 squads. Okay. So a lot of these, what we call cross-functional squads that are responsible for different small areas of the news and the user experience.
Yeah. I’ll just leave it at that. You know, you can imagine what that might mean, right? So it might be election coverage on social media. It might be sports coverage on ESPN or whatever. So there’s just a little channels and things and some of it’s video and it’s all sorts of things. The way the news works nowadays is super multimodal.
And so there’s lots of these little squads are dealing with the technology of delivering the news. Well, all of them are “doing OKRs”, but of let’s say 80 squads, I would say about 60 of those squads are actually writing down OKRs, the other 20 squads, it turns out did not have OKRs. You know, they might be in a platform, squad where they’re just trying to get these things done that come up because they serve another squad or they’re the user experience or the I’m sorry, they’re the front end squad.
You know, they’re like a shared resource team and they do this and they do that. So they work with the other squads for those squads to achieve their OKRs. But if you ask them, are they doing OKRs they say yes. Even though they’re not writing down OKRs. They’re asking a set of questions.
Right? Which is, to me, the definition of OKRs which is that critical thinking framework, which is the questions that we ask. That’s an ongoing discipline, meaning we’re asking these questions all the time, and then we’re talking about what measurable progress looks like. So we’re doing that even if our team is not specifically writing down it’s OKRs.
We’re actually still doing OKRs. Because we’re asking those questions. So that’s been an interesting one. And so there might be like that.. Squad might not have any actual OKRs that they’ve written down because there’s no measurable progress this quarter for them, that’s like totally attributable to them.
So they’re not going to have OKRs, but maybe the next quarter they will, or maybe the next quarter they’ll have one OKR, but they’ll have 50% of the work be something. Maybe it’s more discovery work or, you know, just doing experiments or whatever it is.
Henrik-Jan: So that is voluntary? I mean, does that touch with the organic approach that you also briefly explained?
Ben: Yes, that’s it. So what I’m finding now, this becomes ultimately where we’re headed as far as the best practice. And this is also what’s happening like at Walmart and other large organizations is that we train as many people as we can on OKR. And the good news is it’s really pretty easy to train people on OKRs.
This is not, you know, a two week intensive certification or something. What we need to do is spend a few hours with these people. It’s not more than that. And it’s the theory of it is let’s get as many people as we can up to speed on what OKRs are, how it works, right? How will you write an OKR? When would you use it?
What are the questions you ask? And actually what I’m learning now, maybe going ahead a little bit, but what I’m learning is it’s more about becoming an internal OKRs coach. That’s my goal now with my clients. So getting them to know how to ask the questions to themselves. Rather than relying on me to ask them the questions that help them to shape OKRs and think in this more outcome mindset.
Now what happens is if we train them through practicing, they actually break into groups of practice asking these questions. It’s incredibly energizing and they love it because now they get to actually become OKRs coaches. Now they’re in a much better position to say, Hey, I want to set OKRs with my team or, well, I don’t need to set OKRs with my team, because we’re more a business as usual kind of an organization.
But now I understand I have more empathy for those teams that are setting OKRs and now I can talk to them about OKRs and can be more productive. So that actually is important. What I’m realizing is to train lots and lots of people.
And I will tell you here’s the, here’s the funny thing that happened. You know, the pandemic was of course a disaster for everybody. I’m not trying to pretend that it was good, but there were some strange side effects. Like for example, I did a training with a Fortune 500 company. Where they said, well, what if we put 250 people into the zoom meeting?
You know, we just did breakout groups of five and all that. And I said, well, I mean, we could try it. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like that’ll work because in my experience with on-site training, once you hit about 30 people, I couldn’t really do the breakouts. I couldn’t manage it very well. Somehow Henrik, okay. I did these breakouts, 50 breakouts of five people, and I kid you not like of the 200..
Henrik-Jan: Were you jumping around in different breakout rooms?
Ben: Well, here’s the thing. I didn’t even do that. We had 250 people. We have 50 breakout rooms, but they had clear instructions to practice the OKRs thing. None. I think like 10 people dropped off of the two-hour training. So, you know, that’s like, they gave me the feedback that they’ve never seen this before, but 250 people on any two hours zoom meeting, they’d always lose more than 2% or whatever that is.
So what happened was they had a spreadsheet and they were writing down their OKRs, and they were interviewing each other about that. And then I was giving comments, you know, asynchronously or whatever you want to call it on the Google doc. Well actually, I guess I would say simultaneously, but just offline in a weird way.
And then we would come back at a few groups would share and I would, they would ask questions and I would say good job or whatever, but I would say, Nope, you got to make the key result be X to Y you didn’t specify X, you know, do you need to … we’d analyze little details about that Key Result.
And I’m telling you it was a huge success. So I’m now realizing that this might be the future for OKRs training, is that what these remote tools.. And I’m not trying to be lazy and say, I don’t want to travel because actually I love, you know, going to Berlin and meeting with you or whatever, but zoom meetings it’s somehow it’s super scalable.
And so people are coming from all around the world. Yeah. It was really a breakthrough from the pandemic this happened. So I guess what I’m saying is if we can scale the OKRs thinking..
Henrik-Jan: It unlocks different possibilities, right? Like we’re often focusing on the negative sides of a zoom meeting, but it also generates new opportunities.
But hey, going back to the implementation approaches, one thing that we have good experiences with now is that we typically start with like the top leadership team. Sometimes one level down. And now that we’ve launched these view-only licenses, we give everyone or lots of other people in the organization, depending on their size, of course, view-only access from the start.
And with that, they also get access to an online OKR training so that they can get up to speed on the topic. And then we sort of go for that organic approach that you reference, right? So everybody like has view only access and on a voluntary basis, they can raise their hand and say like, Hey, like our team, or I would love to play a more active role here.
And those are the people that are naturally very interested in it. Get it. And then you create like these different ambassadors throughout the organization that then are of course a big help when you do decide to roll it out the rest of the business.
Ben: Wow. I’m so glad that we’re reconnecting and that we’re doing this podcast Henrik. I have to say this is therapeutic. Just hearing you say that. Because when I first started with OKRs, you know, full disclosure, I think this is kind of, you can see it on my resume. I’ve worked with BetterWorks and at the time we were the self-proclaimed OKR software tool of choice.
We had the funding from John Doerr and all of that, right. So we thought we were number one. And the only problem though, and, you know, look, I, I’m still friends with the people at BetterWorks. So I don’t want to say anything negative about them, but this is kind of something to think about was my experience was that we were trying to sell licenses to all the employees.
So for example, if you were, you know, a 500-person company, you know, we would sell 500 licenses right out of the gate. And I found that this didn’t resonate with the CFO of some of the organizations, right? Because they would say, well, look, not all 500 people are really adopting OKRs yet. We only want 50 licenses.
So then what we would do is try to make a deal with them, right. And say, well, instead of selling you 500 for the price of 500, we’ll still get you 500, we’ll do it for the price of 250, you know, it was kind of not connected. Okay. So the organic model that you just described is absolutely 100% the right approach when you talk about selling software licenses.
And when you start talking about rolling out OKRs even from my perspective as an OKRs coach. I’m beginning to think also is the right model. In other words, you make it available. You train, you introduce, you give them low stakes. You don’t tell them, you know, now that you’ve been trained, you must do this.
And you have until the end of the quarter to do this, and you must populate this data sheet. See because, OKRs should not be a compliance tool. I got to tell you, Henrik, we have enough things in our life already about, you know, we gotta get this done by this date. And HR says, do that. And this is about back to my point around performance management, which is a compliance process, right?
We, in some cases with big enough companies like legally, we have to document our performance reviews with HR by a certain date, you know, and if we don’t, we can get in trouble and all that. Well, when you look at OKR, it really shouldn’t be the opposite. It should be a lightweight system. It should be a framework for communicating.
It should be opt-in and therefore it should be an organic growth model. And that is absolutely so cool that you have now created the view only, you know, ability for users to kind of like explore and learn and then they can raise their hand. I love the way you said that. Yeah. So that’s, I think that’s probably the right way for pretty much any organization, especially bigger organizations. Okay. To get going with OKRs.
Henrik-Jan: You mentioned now for the second time that growth mindset, that growth model, like, do you think any company, I mean, you already explained like reasons why companies should implement OKR, but do you think any company can implement OKR or is it depending on having a certain size or being at a certain stage, like the growth that you already mentioned?
Ben: I do think that any company can implement OKRs regardless of their size. I mean, even a company of five people I think can benefit from OKRs. I think the problem is, and this is a true story now. It’s a funny story by the way. I did a OKRs project with a client, it was really successful. And then they said they want to introduce me to their buddy who’s in the wine business because we started drinking some wine.
It happened sometimes. Back when I used to travel with clients, maybe we would get together, and get some wine. Started talking about Pinot Noir. I live near Napa Valley and this guy said, wait a minute. I have a friend that lives up in Napa Valley, who has a winery, his family winery. You know, he inherited it now and he’s running it.
He’s been running it for the last 10 years. And he could, I bet he would really like OKRs. And I said, oh, and you know, and he’ll probably, he can’t really pay you with a lot of money, but I’m sure he’ll give you some wine. And I’m thinking, oh, wait a minute. I can drive up to Napa Valley to meet with him. So I go up to meet this guy in Napa valley.
We sit down, we haven’t poured any wine yet. And I say, you know, have you heard about OKR? As he says, well, I’d been, you know, my friend told me about you or something. I said, okay, well, listen, here’s how it works. And we started jumping into OKRs, I probably should have started with, why do you want to do OKRs?
Right, Henrik? You know, but he didn’t really know what OKRs were so I had to do some education. But ultimately we found out that his goals, he didn’t have goals to grow his business. He produced something like $5 million worth of total wine each year. And they sold it. And you know, sometimes it would go down to 4 million.
Sometimes it would go up to 6 million. He didn’t really care. He just wanted to maintain the business the way it was. So in that case, if you’re not in growth mode and you’re just kind of keeping things the way they are, it’s like a lifestyle business. Actually, OKRs don’t add any value because OKRs, are all about where do you want to focus to make improvements in the near term.
And so his answer was, I don’t really want to focus anywhere to make improvements in the near term. I want to keep things pretty much the way they are. And if something gets out of whack, I want to kind of deal with it. And I said, oh, well, then you don’t need to do OKRs. And so of course, we were able to pop open a bottle of wine and celebrate.
It took us less than an hour to realize that the OKRs project was going nowhere. So I only tell you that because I do want to clarify that certain organizations where there’s just plain old business as usual, probably don’t benefit from OKRs. You can also imagine. Let’s say you were a telecom or a call center, and all you did was just answer calls.
It’s just business as usual, right? Like I’m answering the phones. It’s an inbound call center. That’s it. Well, I have all these metrics for my individual people. They’re seasonal workers. I don’t really have OKRs. I’m just trying to answer the phone and get it. In that case, you probably don’t need OKRs and that could be within a given company, you might have a group that’s lets say the call center group. They probably don’t need OKRs because it’s just everything’s business as usual.
Henrik-Jan: Yeah. That was very helpful, Ben. We’ve talked about different implementation approaches, right? And, one of the approaches that you explained is starting with a business unit or starting with a few squads. Do they still need to have like senior leadership team backing if they do that. Does one of the execs need to be involved in that case?
Henrik-Jan: How important is senior leadership backing? Even if you start top-down right there could be misalignment or disagreement about why you’re doing this.
Ben: It’s a great point. It’s a great point. I would say at first I would say senior leadership is 100% absolutely essential. But I want to give you the fine print on that, which is every now and then, regardless of your job title certain individual people inside an organization will behave as if they are senior leadership. And so I even if, you know, even if we have senior leadership backing, I think it’s also important to have those certain other people who are maybe not senior leadership level take on sort of that senior leadership backing rule, where they really understand the big picture.
And they’re basically leading the OKRs program that said. What I would say is a lot of times, OKRs fail because there’s no real senior executive leadership. So for example, I was working with one organization where we didn’t do the top-level OKRs. It’s actually quite interesting because it was a big enough company where it didn’t make sense to set the very top-level OKRs. The “top of the house”, because all it would be as financial consolidations. It would be like, you know, get this much money. You know, have a stock value of that or something, you know, they didn’t really have anything that they could point to that was really aligned across all their different groups, because it’s just such a big company.
So they ended up having something like 12 different, you know, what they call durable teams. I think they were. And each of those durable teams in effect had their OKRs. What we learned was that the senior executives, and by the way, my fault on this one, they actually said, should we put a senior executive as sort of the head of each of these durable teams?
And I said, no, no, no. Let’s let the durable teams do this bottom up. Why should we get executives in there and let them figure out what their OKRs are? And then they could present them to the senior leadership team. So they did that, but what happened was I made that mistake because the senior leadership now was kind of checked out.
So they really weren’t involved from the beginning in the development of the OKRs. And so they were like, yeah, whatever, whatever, what that meant was during the OKR cycle, when we were reviewing key results, the executive leadership, the senior leadership really wasn’t involved because “I had told them not to be involved in the beginning”.
They interpreted that as well, then I guess they’re just off the hook. And so at the end of that cycle, the learning was, we should’ve had executives baked in, right from the very start on each durable team. I’ve now done this, I’m working with a big bank. And so, you know, I’m no longer stupid. Let’s just say it that way.
I won’t make that mistake twice. Anyway, this bank has a, what they call a sort of something similar: they have various objectives. I think that is throughout their kinda like durable teams. But each one of those “smaller teams” has an objective executive sponsor with the key result champions who are the people whose names on the individual key results are more of the team members.
Now that is working really well because it sends a signal to the organization when they see a senior executive’s name next to that OKR. And they know that those they’re going to be discussed at the senior leadership, you know, biweekly reviews or whatever. That’s going to make sure that OKRs, are taken seriously.
So it’s not necessarily a compliance thing. Like, oh no, I have to do it because you’re not a senior executive there, but it just sends the signal of, okay, this is really happening. And having that senior executive in the OKRs development session right from the start really does go a long way.
Henrik-Jan: Yeah. Yeah. Really like that. Having that set about senior leadership. Some people, if not, most, they don’t like change, right? And for whatever reason, I think there’s also often the perception that OKRs creates additional work for employees. How do you overcome such resistance and how do you get that company-wide buy-in?
Ben: Yeah, this is, these are really good questions because every time you work with any organization, there’s always some group of people that are going to be against the change and probably for good reasons. So to some extent, we need to disarm them. And we need to, I think this idea that we talked about making it be more of an organic thing.
So the first thing we could do is we could say, all right, well then don’t do it. You know, you have to at least learn about how OKRs work and try it for one cycle. That’s one thing I found is in order to make a decision about whether or not you want to eat the chocolate. You have to take a bite of the chocolate.
You can’t just say I don’t eat chocolate. It doesn’t make sense. So what I would do is I would minimize the amount of time and the training. So sometimes you can just do a half an hour introduction to OKRs. And then you can say, let’s develop OKRs. The funny thing about this is I have found that if you can identify, sometimes my clients can tell me yep.
You know, Bob and Martha, they’re the two that are going to be like, you know, forget it. They’re going to argue with you or tell you, why are we doing this, it’s too challenging. I said, well, here’s what I’d like to do. Can I please meet with Bob and Martha before the larger group? And then what I’ll do is I’ll actually do OKRs coaching with Bob and Martha.
This is what’s amazing. If I start asking those types of people, you know, well, what is your big objective for your team or what is the mission of your team? Tell me about why that objective is important? How will we know you’ve made progress in that. Now, once I start asking them these questions, in other words, once we start doing OKRs, but just their OKRs, right?
It’s almost inevitable that they tell me this is unbelievably valuable. They just it’s about them. See if you try to make OKRs be about you as the OKRs coach, you know, working with a client. It’s going to become a fight. So what you need to do is just engage them, just jump right in and I’ll give you one other story about that.
Well, in the beginning, I would get pushbacks from my clients. This is a funny one. It was you’re showing me too many examples that don’t relate to my industry. You should show me more examples that are specific to my industry. So I would do that. I would start changing my OKRs in my presentation so they would be in their industry. Right?
Then they would say: No, you’re showing me OKRs in my industry that are actually wrong. It would be better if you would just show generic OKRs rather than showing me these OKRs that you’re trying to tell me, look like my industry, but really they don’t. They just confuse me. So you see what they really wanted.
And this is what’s funny about people, right? What they really wanted was something that they weren’t asking for. What they really wanted was not to see any of my examples. They just wanted to create their own examples. They wanted to get their hands dirty and start building their OKRs. So I learned the lesson that that’s like what I mentioned with Bob and Martha, the sooner we can just get into doing their OKRs. And the less time we spend talking about the theory or the history of OKRs, or, you know, the do’s and don’ts and all this kind of stuff, let’s just jump right into it. Those people tend to be happier.
The other one I would say is getting internal OKRs coaches throughout the organization is nice. Instead of it being me, trying to tell them I get various people inside the organization, supporting the OKRs program. That seems to be very helpful. And then I think the final point I’ll make is it’s like we talk about.. Maybe it’s the first point I made. Remember it’s not everyone or every team that needs to define OKRs. Some teams will be better not defining OKRs and rather defining what we call, like just do its things that just need to get done.
Or for example, health metrics that they’re in a situation where they’re maintaining and monitoring. You know, a group of metrics that are already in a healthy range. And so OKRs really don’t make sense for them. So really inviting people to think critically about, should they even have OKRs now in that case, in some cases, somebody will say, well, we don’t need OKRs for this quarter.
It’s very clear. I’m still giving them credit for doing OKRs, you know, for this quarter. Even though they haven’t written down any OKRs because they’ve made a good decision about not having any OKRs this particular quarter. As opposed to, well, I’m just not going to go through this. I’m not going to write any OKRs down.
This is a waste of time. You know, those people, I don’t know… There’s certain people that I maybe can’t get to change. Right. They’re going to just resist. But for the most part, to the extent that we tune in to those individual people and allow them to talk about their OKRs, or maybe even defend why they shouldn’t have OKRs.
They should just have just do it’s like tasks or maybe health metrics, or maybe they have super long-term activities that will not make measurable progress in the near term. They have to explore the market in China or big business plans. Okay. Well then those are more like things that don’t fit with OTRs, then that’s…
Henrik-Jan: Yeah. Yeah, I like that. So not every team needs to have OKRs every quarter. Right? So some teams have OKRs every quarter. Some teams have OKRs, most of the quarters and some teams may never have any OKRs to work on, right? But you say they should still, I mean, they could still go through that exercise.
Is there a valuable OKR for us to work on? Are all our health metrics healthy? If one of them isn’t like, do we want to create an OKR?
Ben: Well, it’s funny that you say that because I had one organization and this is how funny it is. They literally had no OKRs in this one team, and I’ll never forget this. They had these things called, just do it, but they made the, just do its concrete.
Like, so it would be clear whether or not it was done. It wasn’t just like update the blog or something. It was. You know, add the new blog engine with a user logging in. It looked a little bit like a milestone key result. In other words, they translated the project into like a statement of, we know that that output of that work output has been done and it was clear.
And then they actually called this person the key result champion, even though it wasn’t a key result, it was a just do it. I think this was a funny, sort of mix-up. They could have called it the, just do its champion or whatever. But then that person would give a confidence score as to whether or not that just do it item would be done by the end of the quarter. And so in a way, they were really adopting a lot of this OKRs thinking, you know, about checking in and confidence scores and all of that. But even though they were calling it, just do it because these really weren’t key results. I mean, they were just things they needed to do, but so they actually were able to adopt the framework of OKRs, even though they weren’t writing down any OKRs.
So that was one of my favorite examples of like, look, they’re really getting this critical thinking and that’s, to me, I’m giving them credit for doing OKRs right? Because they’re asking these questions, they would even have an objective and they would tell you why that objective is important, but here are the things we just need to do.
And there might be like 10 or 15 of these things. So it didn’t really quite fit the OKRs framework because of course 10 or 15 of these things would be way too many key results. But to them, it was working. You know, they had one of them, I think, had a thing called, be ready for the IPO. That was their objective.
And they could tell you why it’s important. It was important now, because well we want to be able to have an IPO. Okay. We got it. Well, you go down their list. They had like a laundry list of like 30 checkboxes. You know, have the balance sheet approved by the auditors. You know, there was like, there’s like a punch list.
Like you were getting your house, you know, to pass inspection or something to sell it. Or, you know, like, you know, check the box and, and it really worked well for them to use that kind of OKRs thinking in that whole, just do it, model.
Henrik-Jan: I’ve seen, I’ve seen people come up with other acronyms as well, and they said, oh OKR doesn’t work for us. And then they come up with like different words. But if you then look at how they explain these words, it was actually based in the same thinking that is behind OKR. A lot of that is based on how strict do you want to define or how strict do you want to interpret OKRs. And if you interpret it very strictly then you probably come up with a new model that then works best for your organization. Like, just do it for example.
Hey, OKRs are fairly simple once you get the hang of it. Right. And once, you know, like the basics, the best practices, once you’ve gone through it for a few cycles. How should organizations go about educating their teams on the OKR framework and how to integrate it into their daily work?
Ben: Yeah. So what I would say is. I would back you up on that and say that, OKRs are pretty simple. Once you get the hang of it. The problem is it takes a while to get the hang of it. And what I mean by this is one of my clients in Brazil, actually we talked about OKRs. And they really said, look, we have thousands of people. We’re in the beauty and cosmetics industry. And to try to get everybody to make this mindset, you know, into an outcome, as opposed to output mindset. That’s going to be the critical step for us to be successful with OKRs. Because they tried piloting OKRs in certain groups and they just couldn’t get out of this output mindset and you hear about this all the time, right.
People that try to do OKRs make a to-do list. They just make a list of all the things we want to do and they can’t get out of that mindset. So what we did with them is we said, let’s spend this first year not doing OKRs. We’re not even going to call it OKRs. We’re going to call it shifting to the outcome mindset. Although here’s the funny thing we basically did oKRs. We just said we weren’t. But we said, instead of making a list of all the things you’re going to do, talk about what is the big area that you want to improve in. And then tell me what are the outcomes that, that are going to tell us that we’ve achieved that.
So it’s really kind of an OKR model. Well, we would do is we would actually do individual sessions where we said, show me your to-do list. Okay. And let’s start with that. And then let’s try to translate something from your to-do list into an outcome. And in other words, we’re meeting you where you are. We’re not, we’re not saying forget everything you’re doing.
Let’s start to write OKRs. We’re actually saying, given all the things you’re doing, let’s try to take something that you’re doing and convert it into an outcome that you’re shooting for. So we know the things you’re doing are ultimately making an impact on creating value. And we did that with number of people. And, you know, they started to have some breakthroughs.
And so for them, they needed ongoing training and hand holding just to get to that point. Okay. This was a massive project with thousands of people. Now, assuming that they’ve got OKRs in place, though, like you said, and now the teams are up to speed. They’ve already moved to that outcome mindset. Most of their OKRs are pretty high quality.
Then the question becomes all right, how do we make sure that the OKRs get built into your work? The first thing to say is we have to make sure that teams don’t set it and forget it. Common in OKRs is to write them down and then just go back to work. So this means we haven’t integrated into our work.
So what I’ve seen here, this is actually, I mean, you might be setting me up here, Henrik. But this is where I’ve seen tools. Okay. Come into play. Because the one thing that tools do that, like really like, look, I can write my OKRs down on a whiteboard, just as well as I can write my OKRs down in a software tool.
Okay. The thing is, once they’re on the whiteboard, now what? They’re just going to sit there and maybe somebody’s gonna erase them or whatever. So I need to put them into some kind of a system that’s an all in one place type of system. This way, everybody knows where to go to see the OKRs. And it gives me the possibility of integrating it into my work.
Let’s just put it that way across the organization at scale. Now here’s the thing I’ve actually found that many teams are successful by leveraging some kind of thing that they already have. So for example, they might have confluence. And it might be that it’s the culture that everybody in their company is onboarded and they all know how to use confluence.
They have logins, they all know how to get in there and they have a confluence person that can do their OKRs there. Sometimes that works simply because it is a familiar system. And so it’s already part of their work process, their workflow. But I will also tell you, this is sort of a funny thing that you might’ve already known Henrik, but in some cases, when you’re trying to build an OKRs tracker spreadsheet kind of a thing.
And you end up with, I don’t know, 20 columns or something because I do the define OKRs, the check-ins, and then the reflect and reset at the end of the cycle. I try to document that all. And, you know, one row per key result, kind of a fashion. Well, now you’re putting in updates and now you’re putting in the lesson learned or whatever, and you’re typing like, you know, 80 words into a field.
And so that does wraparound text. And the next thing, you know, you know, instead of having all your OKRs for your team on, you know, one page. You’ve typed in, and now it’s like 12 pages and it’s just scrolling on to the next page. And so it’s, I wouldn’t say it’s user-friendly, but there’s something about having it in the same place that really becomes critical.
So that’s probably the number one thing. I think the other one is it’s not just about the tool. It also becomes about managers. Okay. Playing the role of coach in one-on-ones. So I’ve seen managers say, look, I’m going to meet with the team and talk about OKRs especially if you’re a key result champion.
In other words, your name is next to the key result. If I’m your manager, I should be asking you, how are we doing on that Key Result? And I should have some framework, some kind of training because again, managers may or may not be good at coaching. So managers need some kind of, they have to actually have to be coached themselves in order to sort of implicitly learn how to do this.
But there are the four basic questions you can ask. Right? You can say, where are we on the key result right now? What have you done for me lately in terms of action items? What is our confidence? Right? That’s the next question? Are we on track to hit this key result? And then the third one is what are the blockers? What are the risks? Is it driving the right behavior?
So there’s this whole kind of set of questions about analyzing the behavior of the key result and what is needed in order to achieve it, to remove blockers, and so forth. And then the final one is what are the next steps? Now a good process for integrating OKRs into daily work is that the coach manager actually helps that person, their direct report determines what are those next step items really should be the number one priority.
In other words, don’t give me a list of five things that need to get done by the end of next week or two. That’s fine. You can come into the meeting with that, but a good coach will say, and this one here let’s agree. Or maybe they’ll even ask questions. If only one thing could get done. That’s when we meet in the next week or two, what’s the one thing that has to get done in order for us to say we’re making progress.
In other words, helping to prioritize. This is really where you can then integrate into work. Cause you walk out of that meeting now saying, okay, this is the one thing that has to get. And boy that is such valuable information because now you can take that into your daily work and you can say, oh, this is what I got to get done, as opposed to just going through a process. Right?
Henrik-Jan: Yeah. And by the way, I wasn’t setting you up. I mean, starting with like any tool that you already used or starting with a spreadsheet, I think can be a low friction, low cost solution to get some initial traction would OKR. The only thing that I will be afraid of is, is that you may not see the traction there, that you can get with like a proper tool.
And then I’m always hoping, of course, that you’re not abandoning your efforts because of that. But other than that, I will be fully supportive of organizations starting like that. In fact, I would say at least half of the organizations that come to us have started tracking OKRs at a small scale in their company, in a tool that they already used.
Hey, Ben, this was a great conversation. And I think we’ve been talking for almost an hour now, before I let you go, this is the question that we always end all of our podcast episodes with. What will be your number one piece of advice to organizations looking to implement OKR?
Ben: Well, of course, number one, always begin with why. And I think what I would almost call this really as the crawl walk, run story. So in other words, take a step-by-step approach to roll out OKRs, as opposed to doing the big bang. This is the most common piece of advice that I get, that I see from my clients. And it breaks down into, you know, like I said, beginning with why are we even doing OKRs, talking about where are we going to start with OKR?
Is getting all those deployment parameters in place. Right. And the reason why I want to tell you this story is in the beginning of my career, I would do whatever my client said and they would want to get going right away. So if you read the OKRs field book, you’ll see it in chapter four. I actually end up going to Paris because the client told me to do a training, but I hadn’t built out my deployment parameters.
I didn’t really know what we were going to do. So when I got to Paris, the workshop didn’t go so well. Because we ended up just, you know, debating, you know, well, how do performance management and wait, how many OKRs should we set. How are we gonna score key results? Should they be stretched? Or should they be more like commitments?
What about this. Hey, wait, how do we cascade the OKR? Should they be this or that? Well, all of those things are the deployment parameters. So if I had the answers to those questions before I did my Paris training workshop in France, right, it would have been much smoother, but instead, I just jumped right into the training.
We still developed some good OKRs, but the key is to take a systematic process and to really crawl, then walk and then run and take your time. That would be my number one big piece of advice.
Henrik-Jan: Thank you, Ben, as I said, it was great to have you on the podcast today. I had a lot of fun chatting to you.
We’re definitely going to invite you again if you’re up for that. For now, thanks for joining us. And thanks for sharing your wisdom and your experience with our audience.
Ben: Thank you so much, Henrik.