11.18.2020

How to Get OKR Buy-In

An OKR Coach takes a grassroots approach

Peter Kappus

When it comes to showing teams how to use Objective and Key Results (OKRs) Peter Kappus, knows how to rally the troops — in a low or no pressure way. “As with any kind of change you need to find a way to do this, so that you start getting benefits early, so that it feels pleasant and leaves you with more energy to continue, rather than frustration that you just want to stop.”

Before the OKR methodology can work its magic, it helps for team members to be realistic and flexible. These are qualities that Kappus, a London-based OKR coach, embodies in his own life. He is a business transformation consultant who has worked across industries from media, science, government and tech; he is also an improvisational pianist and a digital abstract artist. This renaissance man understands that it takes time for employees to become comfortable with the goal setting process of OKRs. The terminology, structure, and measurements can feel overwhelming, especially in the beginning. Kappus’ solution is simple: “meet people where they are because that’s where the work is.”

Working bottom-up, Kappus has shown teams how using OKRs, even imperfectly, can make life easier for everyone. He shared his grassroots approach to employee engagement by helping teams jump in and get some pretty impressive benefits sooner rather than later.

How teams can turn initiatives into OKRs

Without even getting into OKR terminology, Kappus guides teams to work backward from their day-to-day initiatives into metrics and target outcomes, all the way up to an Objective.

He starts by asking people, “What are we working on? Are there fires that we need to put out right now? Are there bits of work that we are excited about? What’s that spark of something that’s alive in the team? Let’s write that down.” As he puts it, “Teams already know what they are doing day to day, even though they may not know exactly why they are doing it.” He wants to give “all these things a home so that everybody feels heard and there’s a place for things that are meaningful to them.”

Next, Kappus asks teams, “Why do we have big hopes for this? If we accomplish all of these initiatives, what things start to change, and in what ways?” Putting numbers to it, Kappus gets more specific: “if we’re successful in moving certain metrics towards certain targets by certain deadlines, how does that enable us to make some other big broad, inspiring statements?’ How does achieving that target number lead to changes like increased users or profits or lower costs.” That’s how you find the metric associated with a Key Result (KR) and, in turn, the Objective (O).

Using OKRs to get the executive team buy-in

Kappus once helped a large international media company adopt OKRs as part of a company-wide initiative. One team was responsible for an old legacy software application that handled commissioning and scheduling for thousands of programs. Writing down their outstanding projects, team members revisited a significant and long-running initiative: to move that software onto a cloud-based infrastructure. After numerous false starts over the years, this “to-do” still had not managed to get traction.

Initially, Kappus pushed the team to make this challenging initiative a “proper” Key Result with a metric, and the team played with ways to make it measurable. Despite their best efforts, Kappus remembers that it felt artificial. But to get it moving, they labeled the initiative a Key Result anyway, albeit an imperfect one (no metric).

As an OKR, the issues from the initiative to retire the old software system gained more visibility. Another unique aspect of Kappus’ approach is that he encourages teams to do a weekly “confidence vote” where each member shares their personal confidence level in delivering each Key Result, then discuss why they feel that way, and what they’re going to do about it.

In the first few weeks, team members gave this new KR a vote of 60-80% “confidence” that it would be accomplished. Until one day, the database administrator gave it a vote of no confidence, literally a “zero.” When the team pushed back, this sole objector stood his ground, pointing out that the team lacked a rollout or rollback strategy, a test plan, or communication strategy.

Facing this blunt reality, Kappus remembers, “He was absolutely right. We voted again and arrived at a 40% confidence. We thought it was still possible, but recognised that we had a ton of work left.” The team was electrified, shifting gears to brainstorm around the initiative and what specific actions they needed to take. Kappus now recognizes this exchange as “a real gift. After the session, they kept coming back to this example of why they needed to be honest about our confidence scores even though it was painful.

Because the media company uses OKRs to publish team confidence reports widely, the 40% score quickly came to the product owner’s attention. Kappus muses, “within ten minutes of the result publication, my boss was on the phone saying ’I saw your confidence took a nosedive. How can I help?’” Kappus says that the timing was perfect. The team needed management assistance to set the wheels in motion, “that week, my boss set up conversations with the other teams that we needed to talk to.”

Most importantly, Kappus feels that this exchange built trust between the leadership and the team. “The product owner learned to trust the team to do the right thing, asking for help when we needed it, and we learned that we could trust him with our honesty and that he would reply with genuine help, not disappointment or fear.”

Kappus recounts, “the following week we had a lot more confidence. And there was another virtuous cycle that we suddenly realized that there was a connection between what we do all day and the outcomes. By the end of the quarter, we actually delivered the thing. And it also meant that my product owner could manage upward to his senior leadership team.” As the cycle continued leadership started asking, ‘how are those OKRs going?’ They were coming to us instead of us having to push things to them,” Kappus noted.

Just articulating the OKRs created a mirror, observes Kappus, “It was the first time OKRs became more than just a management exercise, but as a valuable tool for making decisions and figuring out where they should be concerned and where they needed to intervene.”

woman looking at OKRs on sticky notes

OKRs build better understanding and relationships

Even when teams start with imperfect OKRs, Kappus has still seen increased success in goal setting, employee engagement, decision making, employee satisfaction, and performance management. OKRs can engender necessary and sometimes difficult conversations, which leads to increased collaboration and trust between team members and leadership. By “starting where you are,” delving into neglected tasks, or finding that “spark of life,” OKR benefits can start immediately.

“OKRs give teams a megaphone and a chance to tell management what is important.” Kappus likens OKRs to the “Speakers’ Corner” in London’s Hyde Park, a famous open-air site for public speaking, debate, and discussion. “It’s your chance to say, “you know, for right now, today, this is what we need. This is where we want to spend our time.” The dialog and transparency empowers everyone, strengthening not just outcomes but relationships. This makes work more engaging for team members and management — by sharing the big picture.

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