A Strategic Mindset with OKRs

Orienting on the right metric to accelerate scientific research.

gloved hand holding a vial of covid-19 vaccine

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the creators of SciNote took on a daunting task: to digitize the scientific community’s data in order to decrease misinterpretation. OKRs helped them keep their mission in sharp focus and allowed them to truly measure what matters.

In 2020, a scientific race was underway to understand and develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Scientific publishing — particularly around COVID-19 guidelines and vaccine development — played a major role. And the key to that research is data traceability.

To the layperson, the scientific process may seem simple: Ask a question, proceed with a test, and get an answer. But when it comes to collaborating, funding, and being published, scientists need to be able to retrieve any data they might be asked for. When scientific data is published, it needs to have supporting raw data, all the notes, all the dates, and all the details about how these results were achieved and published.

In an interview with Authority Magazine, Klemen Zupancic, CEO of SciNote, recalls being overwhelmed during his first project. “My main source of information was a paper lab notebook from a colleague, with the worst handwriting, whose work I was supposed to continue. Chasing him down, making sense of his data and his logic of organizing files was a challenge in itself,” Zupancic says. Realizing the problems with misinterpreting raw data was universal, Zupancic saw the need to create SciNote, a Wisconsin-based, open-source electronic lab notebook (ELN) to help scientists manage their data.

And there was so much data to glean from. Today’s scientists are generating more and more digital data on a weekly basis. It’s growing exponentially and the paper cannot support all of it.

SciNote knew labs were inefficiently managing data. Zupancic set out to enable scientists to retrieve any data they might need and cross-reference their research with other labs.

To liberate researchers from being bogged down in data, SciNote aspires to be the most trusted name in digital transformation of research labs. This isn’t a case of building it and the scientists will come. SciNote needs to scale trust. This is a culture change; the biggest hairiest kind of goal. They need a reliable process to do that.

A tool for global collaboration

Tea Pavlek, a trained scientist and vice president of SciNote’s marketing department understands this all too well. As an avid mountain climber, she is used to making Big Hairy Audacious Goals. She often makes analogies of summiting high peaks to research and life. “If you want to reach the summit or a certain mountain pass,” she said in an interview, “you need the deep inner drive to do so. Something you believe in. That’s your clear Objective.”

Pavlek knew a synchronous collaboration helped researchers, and that scientific research was slow to embrace electronic data recording and collection for fear of glitches. She had read the book Measure What Matters by John Doerr, which inspired her to pilot OKRs in the marketing department at the end of 2019.

Within a few months, the team discovered that solely doubling traffic to the website wasn’t measuring the right thing, because it wasn’t necessarily leading to wider adoption. Why? As Pavlek puts it, “Quality matters much more than quantity. We decided that doubling the traffic should be defined more precisely. That is, we want to increase the new organic and referral monthly traffic to our website and it will take the position of a Key Result within our new main Objectives.” Instead, they reframed the Objective to become “a high-performing website.”

“It seems so obvious now, but back when we were first defining it, it didn’t,” she says.

Klemen Zupancic, CEO of SciNote

In the meantime, the COVID-19 pandemic was in its nascent stages. Through introspection, Pavlek realized that the marketing team’s Objective wouldn’t meet the challenges for this historic time or for the company.

As labs around the world were forced to change their operations, digitization and remote collaborative processes became an immediate imperative. The first Objective was to provide quality information for scientists who needed to digitize work processes. Pavlek began asking, “How do we increase the value on our website for people who are looking for a solution?”

This led them to focus on conversion, which in turn transformed their approach to content. As Pavlek explained, “The world is moving towards digital, and for many laboratories, this is a big change to address. It starts with getting information on what digital transformation means, how to approach it, and how labs can form their own strategy and choose their own software.”

Some of the strategic OKR refinements were simple, such as rewriting Key Results to focus on outcomes rather than inputs. For example, SciNote went from focusing on creating “X number of webinars” to creating “X number of webinars that result in Y number of expected follow-ups.”

The more precise focus worked. SciNote achieved their expectations by the end of Q1. That success led them to stretch their goals so that it better addressed the researchers’ most immediate needs.

Pavlek adds, “We doubled monthly website conversions by the end of Q1 and tripled it by the end of Q2. In Q4, we had conversion rates we could not even think of in an aspirational way last December (2019).”

SciNote utilizes one of the crucial aspects of OKRs to achieve this. Constant evaluation, pivoting and upgrading or downgrading OKRs until teams hit the right green zone. This allows teams to refine goals as they learn what truly matters.

“That’s another thing that we like about this OKRs system,” said Tea. “Goals are not set in stone. People don’t need to blindly follow the goal just because it’s there, even if they realize it’s not optimal.

Whenever someone noticed through research or analysis or looking at the metrics or the numbers, SciNote teams were empowered to make OKR strategy changes. They could say, “I know we put it in the OKR, but this is what I figured out. And I don’t think we should go there,” says Pavlek. OKRs allowed people to constantly question Key Results and even goals while improving the existing OKR system.

The new forward

According to Adam Finn, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Bristol, digitization is a major contributor to why vaccines for COVID-19 progressed quickly without researchers cutting corners. In an op-ed for The Guardian, Finn says ditching the pen and paper helped. “Information is immediately available for analysis even as it is being collected,” Finn writes.

SciNote understands this. Redefining and aligning their purpose with their Objectives have helped them lean into the challenges of the pandemic, and even win over researchers who previously preferred a paper trail. With the right measurements of progress, SciNote was able to leverage their small team in a global crisis — distinguishing “good ideas” from “good ideas that help us meet our OKRs.” The results, according to Pavlek, “have been amazing.”

If you’re interested in starting our OKRs 101 course, click here.

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