Hello Natalija, thank you very much for this interview. I am very happy to have the opportunity to ask you some questions about OKRs. A hot topic today raising a lot of interest among agilists as well as businesses.
First of all, I would ask you for a short introduction about yourself and OKRs: how did you get acquainted with them?
Today I am a trainer, facilitator and coach focusing on Leadership & Responsibility, OKRs and Remote Collaboration and Learning. Before starting my own business, I have been working within People Development and Transformation – mostly somewhere along the interface of HR, IT, and Communication. So goal setting has always been close to my work, but rather oriented around traditional approaches of yearly target setting and linked to individual bonuses.
An E-Commerce company I worked for a couple years ago started to implement OKRs in IT shortly before I got there. And given my interest in agile methods and new ways of working, I teamed up with the process owner to train employees, develop the approach and experiment with OKRs in HR as well. So after a lot of theoretical knowledge in the years before, I finally got first hand experience of what it is like to work with OKRs myself and how teams and the whole organization develop using them – and was hooked.
Natalija Hellesoe will be our guest to deepen live the topic and answer our questions.
What did you like about OKRs? How do they become your profession?
I really like the short timeframe of defining goals, tracking progress and reflecting before starting into a new cycle – so basically applying iterative working to goal setting and always taking the latest information available into account. But even more importantly, I saw that working with OKRs triggered very different discussions and conversations and placed the emphasis a lot more on communication, learning and development.
When I started my own business, I did a lot of work in the Agile HR space and OKRs were always a part of it. And working with many coaches and trainers around the world, I gathered a lot of knowledge, experience and perspectives on them and saw the enormous potential to develop organizations with them. These experiences also led to my recently published book and the community around OKRs AT THE CENTER where OKR practitioners inside and outside of companies can explore the possibilities of developing organizations with OKRs.
OKRs are a quite popular topic of discussion today, introduced for the first time in the high tech/silicon valley industry. Are there specific characteristics a company must have in order to be ready to apply OKRs successfully?
In my opinion, there are no absolute requirements as such – apart from an open mindset and the courage to face uncomfortable conversations – and patience. Many companies start to implement OKRs and then fall short of their (probably exaggerated) expectations, because they want to become more agile, more outcome-driven, more autonomous, more focused and so on – all at the same time and at best overnight with OKRs as the silver bullet to make it happen. Of course, it does not work like that. On the contrary, most companies will tell you that to really experience some of the benefits of OKRs it takes at least 2-3 cycles – no big changes happen over night.
In working with business transforming or adopting new mindsets, it is possible to face some failure/seatback.
What have you learned from your failures so far?
I learn something new from my failures everyday, but let’s look at an example from the OKR context: At the beginning of my OKR-consulting and training journey, I tried to always support managers and teams to define outcome-driven OKRs – a goal for many of my clients to hopefully improve value-creation in the company. Unfortunately, even if the teams succeeded in defining outcome-driven OKRs, it led to great frustration because they (or their organizations) were often not ready to work with them.
One learning that came out of that experience is, that it is important to have a clear vision what you want to achieve with OKRs – but it is just as important to have an honest look around: what is your culture like, what is your structure like, how does leadership work in your organization and so on – and then find a balanced first step.
For example, If companies are not ready for an outcome-driven way of working for example – including the necessary changes in leadership, strategy or task planning processes – frustration is inevitable. Therefore, I always start with the OKR vision and an assessment of the status quo, then design their (first) OKR System – so the way they work with OKRs – based on the conclusions and then iterate from there. As OKRs develop over time so does the organization.
Adopting OKRs also means working on the mindset. What is the role of top and middle management in applying OKRs to the organization?
As with all major changes in organizations, leadership has a critical role. When it comes to implementing OKRs, the organization benefits faster when leaders really support the endeavour and give more responsibility for goal setting to the teams instead of viewing it as a threat to their position. At the same time, it is crucial to support the leadership teams on their change journey as well – letting go of responsibility, habits and established routines is not easy – neither for the employees nor the managers.
Here in Italy, as in Germany, family businesses are very important actors. Do you have some advice for the application of OKRs in family businesses?
I would say for small, family-owned businesses “Start where you are” is even more important.
OKRs give you a certain level of flexibility to adapt it to the company’s needs and in my opinion that is crucial for success. Your balanced first step might be very far from Google’s OKR setup, but just right for you to start.
Do you find specific differences in applying OKRs in business according to their structure? Does OKR work better for highly structured/hierarchical organizations?
I would not argue that OKRs work better in certain organizations – but it is easier to achieve certain benefits when you start with different circumstances to begin with. Large, highly structured and hierarchical organizations often look for stronger focus, better alignment throughout the organization and faster adoption to change. These benefits can be achieved with OKRs to a certain degree – but do often not go beyond that. Only when they make other changes in the organization (like cross-functional teams, flatter hierarchies, different incentive systems) can they leverage OKRs to achieve more benefits.
Companies already starting out with flat structures designed around the value stream get that lever more easily – but often face other difficulties for example due to complex alignment processes or lacking strategic competencies. So every OKR implementation is a unique journey of conscious trade-offs and continuous improvements.
What are the limits you perceive most in the OKRs today? What do you think needs to happen to go beyond them?
With which frameworks, methodologies, approaches do you think the OKRs should necessarily integrate more tomorrow?
I would say the limits of OKRs are often set by the companies applying them, because they underestimate the potential and challenges when implemented in the whole organization – and are not ready to face the consequences of the necessary decisions. You can’t have your cake and eat it too – so letting go and unlearning as well as experimenting and redesigning is a big part of a successful OKR journey.
I believe that OKRs can create a great moment for ongoing change in organizations – by serving like a mirror to the organizational culture, structure and leadership mindset and making challenges visible. But without a courageous decision to proactively reflect and act on what you see in the mirror to develop your organization it will not deliver.
So one topic I am working on is to combine concepts and methods around self-responsibility and self-efficacy, like “The Responsibility process”, with the OKR concept to support teams and organizations to get out of the trap of blaming the leadership, the method or the world economy for their missing success and proactively work on getting closer towards their goals.
Thank you very much, Natalija!