A few days ago a manager I have been coaching for a long time said to me: “OKR ist der letzte Schrei, wir brauchen es jetzt auch!” This led to an interesting discussion about the fact that OKR are very lightweight and can be used without a great deal of process overhead, but that even small adjustments are enough to make the framework ridiculous.
I tried to convey to him that an essential success factor for OKR is the transformation of the management role to agile leadership. “My” manager replied, “Why do (classic) managers (like him) have such a hard time with OKR?
I am happy to summarise my answer here in the following 5 points:
1. Own goals become team goals
A manager is also just an employee of another manager who “steers” his direct reports over small and large objectives. Whether this is officially titled a goal or a delegation of projects etc. doesn’t matter. Important is only that the direction of task definition, assignment and execution always runs hierarchically from top to bottom. In the end, this means that a manager receives “her” goals from above from his superior and is personally responsible for the successful implementation and achievement of these goals!
OKR rely on x-functional teams to define goals themselves and on their own responsibility, there is no “from above” here! There is of course a framework which is relevant and which must be considered (e.g. alignment with company goals), but the concrete definition of goals is the sole responsibility of the teams and the individual employees within them. This is an extremely important factor in enabling ownership of the goals and motivation to work on them! Without this we are still in the management methodology MbO (Management by Objectives).
Therefore there is no objective setting or definition “from above”; in case of doubt, there are also no more personal objectives of employees, no more personal objectives of managers. The manager thus loses personal responsibility for the objectives (this lies with the teams) and also the ability to control via objectives (MbO = management by objectives).
As this is also associated with a strong loss of control and power, managers with a (very) directive style of management often find it difficult to use OKR.
2. Self-organisation must be (self-)learned
Self-organisation is an essential part of agile work and is also the basis of good OKR work. It should be noted that self-organisation does not mean complete freedom (“Everyone can decide what they want to do and do it”) or grassroots democracy (“Everyone has a say in everything”). It does mean, however, that in a sufficiently broad framework, the decision-making competence lies with the employee or the teams in order to be able to make quick and correct (operational) decisions. Within this framework, decisions may, should and must be made in a self-organised manner.
“Manager” and “to manage” in the literal meaning describes a role and activity of a person who administrate work. It ultimately means defining, assigning work and controlling work results. It is obvious that self-organisation does not go hand in hand with the management of work by a manager. Managing would inevitably lead to “someone else” making decisions about my own work.
If OKR are used, the definition of objectives and their implementation is put in the hands of employees. However, very often this requires that employees have to learn to live in a self-organised setup. The more classical an organisation is, the steeper the learning curve will be! And it also requires that managers learn to stop managing work and setting goals.
Learning is always – no matter how experienced a person is – sometimes a difficult process, which always – also – leads to making mistakes from which one finally learns. Not everyone is willing to learn new things and make mistakes. The more hierarchies are lived in an organisation, the more difficult it is for a manager to learn the new way of OKRs.
3. OKR specify the course of the work
Most companies live a rhythm – however defined in detail – of planning, team, communication and coordination meetings. These are sometimes more or less structured, but always exist within an organisation. Teams meet with their colleagues and/or their supervisor to get information, align current work status and plan further work.
The OKR cycle brings with it various events in which the (entire) organisation works together towards the objectives. Planning dates, presentation dates, team dates, retrospectives, etc. have to be mentioned. They replace the majority of existing meetings, make them obsolete and reduce the overhead of ad hoc appointments. As an x-functional OKR team, which consists of employees from different areas of the organisational structure, additional team meetings of the own department (“silo”) therefore make less and less sense.
This does not mean that teams, departments or divisions should be dissolved by OKR. But the way of working within the former defined structures and with other parts of the organisation is changing dramatically. It is therefore quite possible that a manager suddenly no longer needs an operative meeting with his/her team! It is not always easy to accept that at this level a manager is no longer necessary.
4. Teams align their tasks themselves based on key results
What is important, what is urgent, how do I prioritise my work? These are questions that arise in the day-to-day of every job and that cause problems in many organisations. Either the wrong topics are being worked on (wrong priority) or too much work is in progress at the same time (everything is equally important) or everyone is working on different, sometimes opposing topics (no common/uniform prioritisation). Unfortunately, the result of this is very often that there is no progress and successive success is not forthcoming!
Key Results, well and quickly measurable key indicators that show the progress towards the objective, are an essential factor for optimal working with OKR. If you have good key results, their values are continuously measured by the team and used by the team as a planning tool for further work.
Based on the key results, OKR teams continually realign their work and define what is done next and prioritise it according to the current level of objective achievement. External (re-)prioritisation, especially by managers, (almost) automatically leads to the situation that OKRs do not work because priorities do not match key results. Teams must therefore define their tasks independently and in relation to measured objectives. Management, in turn, has to let go of the “lever” of directive management for this. This is not an easy way to throw habits overboard.
5. X-functional teams cannot be managed
A manager is used to control, manage, lead his area (department, team) within the organisational structure. This is an essential part of the formation of “silos” within an organisation, but also requires these structures. Without division/department/team structures, a manager cannot manage his division.
OKR rely on x-functional teams, i.e. on teams being defined in such a way that they contain all the roles necessary to achieve the objectives. Since objectives are not formulated as divisional or departmental objectives, but are defined in a superordinate way based on the customer and his needs, these goals are open to employees from different divisions or departments. X-functional working without departmental boundaries is a key success factor of and for OKR.
As OKR teams consist of roles and employees from different departments and teams, it doesn’t make sense for managers from these departments to steer/manage OKR teams. Neither as an individual manager for her own employees within the team nor as a management team for the whole OKR team. Management would not work here!
However, a lot of managers often find it difficult to give away “their resources” without direct access to them in an OKR-team.
OKR works good, help to achieve transparency, alignment and motivation within an organisation and ultimately give companies in complex environments a clear competitive advantage. However, OKR is not a new or additional process framework that enables management to lead employees in a more “modern” way. OKR is rather a different form of organisation and a fundamentally different way of working together.
As the above 5 points show, a key success factor for successful working with OKR is the changed role of the manager. If these are not taken into account, one inevitably comes up against limits in the use of OKR, cannot exploit their full potential and unfortunately often ends up in a “failed” setup.
As a leader, it is therefore important to move from direct leadership to servant leadership, by respecting the objectives defined by teams and providing an environment for their implementation, by helping to cope with the inevitable learning curve of the organisation and its consequences during OKR deployment, by letting OKR set the pace and rhythm, by not letting tasks be dumped into the teams from “outside” and finally by internalising that X-functionality cannot be managed.
A partly challenging way, but nevertheless and always a worthwhile one!