Tackling Systemic Change with OKRs

How the YMCA of the North uses OKRs for equity

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This piece is part of a two-part series featuring the YMCA of the North. To read part one, click here.

For Glen Gunderson, creating systemic change is like building a cathedral.

"In Europe, think about the cathedrals that were built that in effect, took 300 to 500 years to build,” he says. “Somebody was laying bricks in the middle of the structure and didn’t see the beginning and won’t see it finished.”

What Gunderson is building doesn’t have the same physical demands, but it does require great patience. The President of the YMCA of the North is currently overseeing an organizational transformation. He hopes to move the nonprofit away from a swim and gym model into a holistic well-being center. Part of that transformation involves introducing additional programs and sources of revenue. Another is integrating equity and systemic change into the organization’s goals and processes.

“We are very restless and unsettled with the status quo,” he says, We’re a charitable organization and an organization with the intent to grow. We want to do things that are going to have a meaningful impact that is going to shake things up to get us to a unique place.”

Making a difference: Using OKRs in equity work

The events of 2020, highlighted just how crucial transforming the Y’s mission was for the community. The YMCA of the North serves the Greater Twin Cities region. Being located in the city of George Floyd’s murder was very sobering, said Gunderson, forcing internal conversations about how to do better. Those conversations resulted in some initiatives and ideas, and reinforced the Y’s commitment to equity.

Gunderson knew that making a difference meant measuring their progress. But how do you measure whether or not a community is more culturally competent or if their wellbeing quotient has improved?

The team was already using OKRs, but laying the foundation for systemic change would introduce a layer of nuance they hadn’t yet encountered. “Those are tough things to measure,” Gunderson admits. As What Matters previously reported, Gunderson renamed OKRs as “MOKRs”, adding mission, to objectives and key results. Adding the mission component assuaged concerns that OKRs might be “a little too businessy, a little too for-profit driven versus community driven," he continues. In a non-profit setting, that balance is often a delicate dance. Without any metrics, it can be difficult to track whether actions are leading to significant change. But focusing too narrowly on metrics can make employees feel disconnected from mission, raising the risk of burnout.

That’s why Gunderson believes that incorporating mission into each OKR is so critical. For example, the organization aims to eliminate homelessness for young people. “We have 6,000 homeless young people in our state. To me, that’s not an acceptable stat. Zero would be an acceptable stat.” Focusing the team on an ideal but measurable outcome crystallizes action.

MOKRs help. This way, when his employees view an OKR, it represents more than a basic checklist of activities. Gunderson says a MOKR gets everyone “thinking about the manifestation and delivery of our mission” and the transformative potential for their community. The Objective to end homeless is paired with a set of Key Results for building the right ecosystem across the community. For the Y of the North, housing 6,000 regional homeless means setting measurable milestones for facilitating partnerships between government entities, not-for-profit organizations, and major corporations.

It’s similar to the approach OKR founder Andy Grove adopted when Intel was facing intense competition from Motorola—who was then producing microprocessors that were cheaper and easier to use. Grove broke it down what that would mean for specific areas — specifically engineering, sales, quality assurance, and manufacturing. As What Matters previously reported, because everyone in the company — across all departments — knew what they had to do and why, Intel was able to restore its position as a market leader during the 1980s.

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Improving the ability to work with different cultures, known as cultural competence, emerged as another MOKR for advancing equity. In an ideal world, everyone in their community would go through cultural competence training. Knowing that this was unrealistic, they decided to zero in on the highest leverage points in the community: the public sector and corporations. By helping city leadership and companies with their cultural competence journey, the organization could achieve a wide reach in their community without exhausting their resources.

YMCA of the North is only in its third quarter of using OKRs, but so far, Gunderson says that it has helped people focus on the work they need to be doing. As a result, “we are making greater progress than if it were not an OKR,” he asserts.

Mixing aspirational and short-term objectives

Like many organizations, YMCA of the North follows a quarterly cycle. They set organization level OKRs annually and conduct a “retro and reset” every quarter to assess whether they’re on track and if they are selecting the right objectives and key results. “It’s so valuable to pause to mine learning.” says Gracie Koester, an OKR consultant from Agile Strategies who helped the Y with their transformation. “The quarterly Retro & Reset is something that sounds great but people can feel ‘too busy’ to actually do. Yet, when organizations engrain this into their regular habits, they accelerate the impact they can have.”

“Our objectives tend to be longer-term aligning with the strategic goals, with a mixture of short and long-term KRs,” Gunderson adds. “We categorize KRs as committed or stretch. The longer-term KRs are often stretch and as we get closer to achieving we would expect in a future quarter they change to committed.”

Committing doesn’t always result in success, but “As of yet, we haven’t abandoned a KR that we were not meeting,” Gunderson says. Instead," we have used those situations to learn — for example, we could have written the KR more clearly or in a different way that would make measurement less difficult. We are wanting to reinforce that not meeting a KR isn’t always terrible, but it is always an opportunity to learn."

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