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Plans that Work: Strategy Execution Through OKRs

By Betterworks
February 19, 2021
4 minute read

The term ‘strategy execution’ is a hot topic in management these days. We’ve found that executives rank it as one of the biggest headaches within their organizations. How do we solve for this?

What we’re seeing more and more is the decision from leadership to choose OKRs as an approach to help solve for better strategy execution. When adopted and implemented properly, the power of OKRs translates strategy into a set of cultural practices and execution processes that any organization can adopt. It’s fairly easy for leaders to understand why they need OKRs and how they can help, but a trap many organizations fall into has to do with execution.

The common OKR mistake

We’ve found that organizations make the mistake of putting a disproportionate amount of emphasis on strategy, leaving no time and energy for the crucial piece—execution. Individuals within a company have a limited amount of time and energy. If too much of that is expended during the planning phase, little to no energy is left to focus and follow through on execution. 

The planning trap

The overarching goal of OKRs is to translate strategy into execution. When organizations start using OKRs, we tend to see a pattern where the strategy phase is drawn out in the following ways:

  • Holding lots of unstructured meetings. With no clear purpose, we waste time talking and talking without outcomes or actions. Meetings where folks feel they’re spinning their wheels is damaging to time, energy, and morale around a project.
  • As leaders begin writing their first set of OKRs, they concentrate on waiting for the perfect idea to present themselves instead of making a decision.
  • In addition, they obsess over the supposed quality of the OKR. Are we following the formula? Is it strong enough? Would John Doerr give it an A+ if here were grading it?
  • Pouring too much thought into a company-wide OKR announcement.

All of these actions expend a lot of energy in an organization—and that’s only looking at the strategy phase of OKRs. John Doerr famously said, “Ideas are easy. It’s execution that’s everything.” How do we tip the scale so our focus is not just on planning, but is spent on executing against the strategy?

How to focus on strategy execution

Streamline the planning. 

The planning phase of OKRs must be streamlined. Otherwise, an organization will exhaust their wealth of energy resources and the program won’t become embedded. One very effective way to streamline is by setting strict guidelines. 

OKR programs should have clear guidelines for how to tackle the project and how long those phases will take. Although people tend to bristle at deadlines, they must be given weight in order to keep things on track. An example schedule might look like the following, starting 3 weeks before the newest quarter:

  • 2 weeks: Review the previous quarter’s OKRs and crowdsource ideas from the rest of the organization to help set the clear vision for the next 80 days and share objectives with department leads to bring back and share with their teams.
  • 1 week: Finalize team-level and individual contributor OKRs.

This set-up ensures that within 3 weeks, every single person in the organization is set and aligned on their objectives and can start working against those goals immediately.

Implement a tracking process. 

We’ve set up clear guidelines on where OKRs need to be set, when, and at what level. Now, people need to have the same level of clarity around tracking progressing these OKRs throughout the quarter. 

A big reason organizations fail to fully adopt OKRs is because leadership doesn’t give clear enough expectations for when and how to talk about and assess those OKRs. This presents some tension, as organizations need to keep in mind the limited well of energy they can feasibly dedicate to the process. If too much is asked in terms of tracking, people fall behind and it’s very difficult to get our minds back to the high-level of strategic thinking.

When launching an OKR program, make sure to define the types of check-ins or progress reviews that you want to take place. Then, put some sort of mechanism or explanation in place for how to structure those conversations. 

Types of check ins:

  • Team status updates: scheduled team OKR status discussions
  • Manager conversations: mid quarter coaching check ins
  • Execution OKR update: status update and OKR adjustment

For example, a team status update is a type of check-in. Perhaps those teams meet weekly, but that might not be the right cadence for covering the topic of OKRs. Instead, OKrs can be touched on briefly every 2 weeks or even once a month.

For managers and employees, 1:1 conversations are powerful ways to leverage OKRs and stay focused on what’s important. However, if leadership asks that all 1:1’s include an OKR review, those conversations can devolve to feel like micromanagement. Instead, leaders can encourage managers to include OKRs as a talking point within their 1:1s, but know that a larger conversation will happen either mid-quarter or once a month, for thoughtful and focused OKR conversations.

It’s vital that leadership doesn’t simply leave it up to people to figure out how and when to talk about OKRs. It must be made explicit—executives have to make it easy and lightweight for managers. 

Empowering teams of teams.

The term teams of teams comes from Stanley McCrystal’s management book about restructuring organizations, so they aren’t top-down hierarchies, but distributed teams of teams. OKRs can be a way of agile planning and developing these strong teams of teams. Leaders need to understand then that their role isn’t about being the final decision maker within an organzation. Rather, a leader’s role is to create an environment of connectivity. The leader must set the stage to bring truth into the system and function like the ultimate network connector.

When a leader is rolling out OKRs, it’s a great way to review and see what everyone is working on. However, it’s also easy for a leader in that context to then dictate each team’s OKRs. That behavior is still a command-and-control mindset that won’t serve the organziation well. 

Instead, leaders can look at the OKRs and ask, “Are our OKRs providing a way for us to become more connected to a set of teams?” Leaders need to focus on whether the connectivity is strong and whether the network of teams is online and communicating. Of course, achieving the goals we put in place is highly important. But first, we have to measure the connectivity of the system that we care about.

Learn more about strategy execution through OKRs by accessing this exclusive conversation with Reid Koster, OKR Practice Lead at Betterworks.