05.26.2021

Leading Teams and Lighting the Way with OKRs

How a global nonprofit uses goal-setting to scale impact.

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This is part 2 of a two-part series featuring the global NGO Light for the World. To read part 1, click here.

Can a soccer ball, a shot of self-confidence, or eye surgery save a life? Sophia Mohammed and Elie Bagbila believe so. They have dedicated their careers to ensuring that the most vulnerable in society are safe, self-sufficient, and included in community life. And now, OKRs for team leaders are helping them scale their impact.

Mohammed and Bagbila are country directors with Light for the World, a global NGO operating across Sub-Saharan Africa. Light for the World advocates for disability rights and provides people in hard-to-reach regions with education, eye health services, and tools and training for independent living. Mohammed’s work in South Sudan includes a Sports for Peace program that operates in displaced persons camps to protect children with disabilities. One of Bagbila’s projects delivers skills training to women, with and without disabilities, so they are able to generate income and be fully part of the village community.

Both would tell you that ensuring inclusion for people with disabilities can be a matter of economic viability and, sometimes, survival. In other words, everything they do feels important. So, when Light for the World’s OKR shepherd Eva Hammer introduced them to Objectives and Key Results, they were initially dubious. How, wondered Bagbila, do you “prioritize the priorities?”

Staff in Light for the World’s international office in Vienna had begun working with OKRs in early 2020, quickly becoming excited by the potential to deepen the nonprofit’s impact through rigorous focus. Now they were excited to create even greater alignment with OKRs for team leaders.

Mohammed was initially concerned. OKRs might mean scaling back on her ambitions for the South Sudan team. “I was a bit nervous at first because people know me for how much I want to do,” she says. “Whenever there is a training or advice request from INGOs or UN agencies, I take it whether I am busy or not.”

Mohammed, Bagbila, and the other country directors not only lead teams, they also negotiate with and support 10-20 partnering organizations, including government ministries and other nonprofits, all while overseeing, implementing, and supporting dozens of programs. Worried that OKRs would add to work stress rather than alleviate it, Mohammed says she soon realized that she and her team could focus more on planned work and less on interruptions. “I could see how OKRs will give more structure and shape to our programs,” she says.

Each Light for the World country team already operates with an annual plan. What was challenging, says Bagbila, was to narrow the focus and shift to a quarterly cycle. “My first thought was ‘Only 5 OKRs???!!!’ Under eye health alone, we have 16 projects and programs.”

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Sophia Mohammed and Elie Bagbila. Photo courtesy of Light for the World.

OKRs for team leaders

For his team’s first OKRs, Bagbila first looked to the organization-wide OKRs and to the priorities of partners in the field. “It’s a bit like a sport; we have to be dynamic, active, and flexible.” He decided to focus on a glaucoma program and a child eye health program deemed high priorities by the international office. Both span multiple countries, and both are directly run by Light for the World. This means the potential for impact is greater and that the teams have greater ownership of key results.

Bagbila then looked at priorities that would be unique to his team. These included providing financial and technical support to a Burkina Faso program aimed at reducing avoidable blindness and vision impairment. While the program was not taken up as an OKR by the international office, Bagbila knew it needed to be part of his team’s OKRs.

Here is one of Bagbila’s objectives and key results for the Burkina Faso team during Q1:

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By the end of March 2021, the Child Eye Health and the Glaucoma programs are launched and their implementation started.
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One kick-off of meeting conducted at the national level .
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One planning meeting for the Child Eye Health programme conducted with a Regional Health Directorate, with at least 3 partners participating.
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“Train the Trainer” conducted for three trainers on glaucoma toolkits.
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Three awareness raising activities conducted during World Glaucoma Day.

Mohammed also found it challenging to narrow focus, but says the process revealed how some things clearly weren’t as urgent as others, especially when considering partner deadlines or potential impact. It also helped to know that de-prioritizing something didn’t consign it to being forgotten; Light for the World keeps track of “non-priorities” that can always be revisited. “We can consider things for prioritization in the next cycle,” Mohammed says, “and clearly identifying what is not a priority means our team gets some relief.”

Sparking motivation, sharpening skills

Hammer, Bagbila, and Mohammed all say OKRs have aligned the work of the international and country teams as well as strengthened planning and communication. Previously, Light for the World clearly shared strategic priorities, but each team developed implementation plans in isolation, reporting only at the end of a six-month cycle.

“We all knew what we were working toward,” says Bagbila, “but if we had not accomplished something we could not figure out why—because we hadn’t identified the specific steps we would take to get there.” Now, the international team and the country teams use key results as a way of advancing and tracking implementation, and everyone knows if there is an area in need of additional attention.

The process has created a virtuous feedback cycle. As organizational capabilities grow, so do those of the individuals. Mohammed has seen increased motivation and a stronger sense of accountability on her team. Ongoing conversations, feedback, and recognition (CFRs) give her a clearer picture of project status and help her to better understand the capacity and developmental needs of each project officer. “I am able to monitor our programs in a bigger way,” she says.

Each project officer now meets weekly with the team’s OKR coach, a time to celebrate demonstrable progress and to look at what is left to do and what support the team member needs to make progress. “One of our officers had field experience but was less experienced as a project manager,” says Mohammed. “Once we implemented OKRs, he got weekly coaching and practice in implementation planning and reporting.”

With strategy and implementation aligned from global to local, and from team to individual, Mohammed adds, “We know what we want to do, and others know what we want to do and how to support us in that.”

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