OKRs and the (Employee) Attention Economy
Connecting goals to business strategy.
Paul Niven likes to say that employee mindshare just might be a company’s scarcest resource. “Think of the competition vying for a chunk of that real estate,” he says about this localized version of the attention economy. As Niven, founder and president of OKRs Training, observes, “Employees are worrying about how they fit into the company’s goals. They are following industry trends, preparing for meetings…How do you rise above the cacophony? How do you put focus on what’s most important for your company right now?”
With OKRs “The framework demands that you isolate your most fundamental priorities,” says Niven, “that you dedicate yourself to what needs to be done now to achieve your Big Vision.”
Harnessing that focus, however, requires a prized slice of employee mindshare. How do you capture and sustain employee attention on goal setting? Niven has some ideas.
Read the room: align your goal-setting approach to your audience
His interest in structured goal-setting was sparked more than 20 years ago by Balanced Scorecard (BSC). He was part of an in-house team charged with creating the corporate Scorecard at Nova Scotia Power (NSP), an early adopter of the framework. “When we presented the BSC concept and our Scorecard to managers, you could almost actually see the light bulbs going on above people’s heads as the company’s strategy was translated—for the first time—into clear objectives and measures everyone could understand.”
That stayed with Niven. “I realized I wanted to spend my professional life helping companies achieve what I saw happen in that room.” He continued to coach NPS managers on BSC for a couple of years, then went on to consulting, ultimately writing Balanced Scorecard Step-by-Step and launching his own firm in 2001. Niven has since written five more books on strategy and strategy execution while partnering with clients such as Anheuser-Busch, the United States Navy, and Adidas.
Balanced Scorecard looks at goal-setting through four lenses: financial, customer, internal process, and learning and growth. The more Niven worked with it, the more he realized it was most effective with a highly specific audience: “In the C-suite, where it’s really important to tell a comprehensive story, the four BSC perspectives work well. They force executives to think cohesively about how all the pieces fit together. This can then provide context for OKRs throughout the organization.”
Even one level down, however, Niven was finding that it was hard for employees to fit their work into all four BSC categories. He also found that outside the executive suite, things move too fast for BSC’s annual cycle. He began wondering how he could employ the power of goal setting and strategy execution, but, as he puts it, “align with the rhythm of business today.”
OKRs turned out to be the answer to Niven’s questions. “The 90-day cadence builds strategic planning as a habit, and OKRs liberate non-executives from the four BSC perspectives. They let employees focus on what is most important. To them. Right now.”
Expect a learning curve: Cultivate early OKR wins
Niven was moved to make OKRs the core of his consulting practice, but he knows getting started with them is not as easy as it may first appear; jumping in without some training or guidance can lead to frustration and flagging employee attention for goal setting and, worse, for work itself.
He recalls a client in the real estate industry whose first attempts to introduce OKRs were “rapid and disappointing.” As Niven did some troubleshooting, he saw that while the CEO was a believer, he hadn’t addressed “Why OKRs? Why now?” and his own OKRs were poorly written.
“We provided training in OKRs fundamentals so the CEO and his team could write high-quality OKRs. We then worked with the newly appointed OKRs Champion (and a Champion is something Niven always recommends) to fill in the “why” of it all. Niven says the CEO was humble enough to recognize his own shortcomings, welcome feedback, and share with the entire organization what he’d learned from his own OKR stumbles. “This turned into an early win and fueled momentum that exists for the company to this day.”
This C-suite work provides context for all other OKRs that cascade down or ladder up. Without it, people new to OKRs tend to let their job descriptions, or what Niven calls “keep-the-lights-on activities” serve as their goals, when they should really be getting themselves to the next level.
“You might hear, ‘Well, I work in HR, so hiring people and overseeing benefits are my OKRs.’ Well, they’re not really,” says Niven. Leaders need to uncover what is holding them back from world-class performance. “If you are the head of HR for your firm, you might ask, ‘Why can’t we attract the people we want?’ An OKR might then be to hold a hiring fair with the top universities in the country that have specializations in your field.”
Brainstorm in bursts: Build in time to reflect
Launching from that newly clarified corporate strategy, Niven next leads clients through OKR brainstorming—with a current twist. “Pre-COVID we would get in a room with people for eight hours, working at the whiteboard,” says Niven. Keeping people on task in this format can be challenging in the best of circumstances, and once remote work became a way of life, OKRs Training had to find a way around “Zoom Fatigue.”
What was previously done in one marathon session is now broken into virtual modules of two hours. “We end our first session with some draft objectives and key results,” says Niven. “But now, because the second session is a few days away, people literally sleep on it, thinking more deeply about what they came up with on Day One.”
It’s a pause that can even allow for a rewind. “Now we have time to recognize that an OKR we drafted on Monday might contradict the strategy, or even reveal a flaw in the strategy,” says Niven. He recalls that with a recent client, “Our second session began with the realization that a core assumption regarding one of their customer-focused objectives wasn’t accurate. What at first appeared to be a satisfaction issue, turned out, upon reflection and analysis, to be more related to challenges in their distribution channels. The client began to rethink their strategic direction on the fly and gain new clarity.”
“You are simply not going to get that kind of insight at 4:30 in the afternoon, when people are generally more prone to consensus,” Niven says. “Brainstorming in bursts does away with some of these pitfalls and gets more active involvement from everybody.” Brainstorming in bursts works so well that OKRs Training plans to continue with it post-pandemic.
Build narratives: tell stories about OKRs and through OKRs
Of course, even in a conference room or over Zoom, Niven knows he is competing for a share of the attention economy. That’s why he weaves stories into his training, bringing to life pivotal moments faced by everyone from Coldplay to Abraham Lincoln. One of Niven’s books, Roadmaps and Revelations, is written as a fable. Another is a collection of business cartoons, so it is no surprise that he values storytelling in his approach to OKRs.
In fact, Niven asserts, your OKRs themselves should tell a story. “Once you have an objective, you can create discrete, separate key results. But if you can show how key results link together causally, how they work together to tell a story—that’s more powerful.” And he has a formula to guide objectives to their full storytelling potential:
Verb + What You Want to DO + ‘In Order To’
“That last part, the ‘in order to,’ that is the business value, the strategic relevance,” says Niven. “If you adhere to this, you know, right away what you should be measuring; measure the business value and then work backwards to tell the story of how you got there.”
Niven has devoted his career to helping companies find focus through OKRs. “Strategic planning seems to be a subject that is perennially cloaked in mystery,” concludes Niven. “My mission is to debunk that. It’s not mysterious. It’s not difficult.”
Learning Faster With OKRs
An OKR coach's perspective on becoming more agile.
Learning Faster With OKRs
An OKR coach's perspective on becoming more agile.