Updated: May 21
The underlying success factor behind any high impact team is alignment. When a team focuses on one particular outcome, they create an unstoppable force.
Creating alignment on outcomes is a core tenant of Transformational Leadership, so regardless of whether you practice Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) or not, the approach here can help you unlock a powerful movement within your business.
“You get what you focus on. You don’t have to work harder; it’s not through doing more hours, it is by being more focused within those hours.”
― Ben Hunt-Davis, Author "Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?"
Today I want to help you unlock this power by generating alignment across your business with Objectives and Key Results using these 4 simple steps:
Mid quarter, start talking about your priorities
Draft at the top, share with your teams
Final draft and align down
Align horizontally between teams
In our experience, it is best to set one objective (rather than the suggested 3 to 5), particularly when you’re starting out. For the rest of this blog, we’ll talk about doing this with one OKR at a given level, but there is no reason why you couldn’t do it with more.
Step 1: Talk about your priorities mid-cycle
Midway through your cycle, you should be discussing with the people around you, the business around what the priorities should be for the quarter ahead. Most organisations follow a quarterly cycle for goal setting, which means you should be starting to discuss your focus for the quarter ahead once you’re about 6 weeks into the cycle.
This activity is a simple one with very little formality needed. The trick is communicating clearly that the objective is to understand people’s views on priorities across the business at all levels. This is not a practice to take orders. In fact, the objective is to focus on the most pressing outcomes, so most priorities and ideas will not make it to the top of the list.
Often we get asked at this point how we know what’s next, even though we’ve not finished the quarter yet. Two reasons:
If you’re doing OKR well, you’ll generally find there is a consistent theme of work as it aligns to your strategy.
You should have a pretty good idea of how you’re progressing and whether you’ll need to continue driving similar or different outcomes for the quarter ahead.
Step 2: Draft at the top, share with your teams
Whether your department or entire organisation is doing OKR, we find it best to draft an OKR at the top level of where they’re being practised. The activity to draft the OKR varies, but in simple terms, the leadership team follows these steps:
Reflect: Consider what you’ve heard from people around the business and any priorities you’re passionate about.
Ideate Key Results: Note down the ideas, ideally framed as outcomes/measures.
Vote: Vote on the highest impact ideas for the quarter, maintaining a balance between urgent/important, and not urgent important items.
Refine: Review and consolidate into the top 3-5 items focusing on the items with the highest votes, and consider whether they look the foundation for good Key Results. Pay particular attention to whether they align a large portion of the teams under you and connect with some relevancy the themes from the current quarter to avoid team members feeling like we’re chopping and changing too much.
Write the Objective: Once you’ve landed on some good candidates for your key results, consider what you've achieved if you nail all of them. Frame this up as a statement which is the foundation of your objective.
Identify Key Result leading pairs: Given the OKR probably needs a lot of work at this point, we’ll also want Leadership Team members to volunteer as leads for each Key Result in pairs who’ll focus on getting the result right and champion its execution throughout the cycle. Shared accountability with personal responsibility.
Get feedback from teams: The OKR created in this session will be messy, poorly worded and possibly not reflective of reality (yet). That’s ok, time to share it with our teams to hear their thoughts and implement their feedback. Each leader should do this in person, capturing feedback and further iterating the OKR in a centralised location (using a wiki, Google Docs or our favourite OKR tool: KOAN).
Output: A drafted top-level OKR.
Outcome: A leadership led OKR with team members feeling engaged.
Step 3: Finalise the top-level OKR and align vertically
Now you’ve gotten feedback from the teams and produced a number of iterations of the OKR as you go, you should have something which looks pretty good by this point. You’ll want to check in as a Leadership Team and do a final confidence vote on the OKR, validating that it’s meaningful and inclusive.
Once we’re aligned, it’s time to align everyone else! Many teams find success in running an OKR Marketplace, however, when starting out, following the practice below might be a good place to start:
Embed the feedback: Have a final session with your Leadership Team to validate that we have embedded all of the feedback, the objective is inspirational and the Key Results all have clear measures. Once you’ve aligned on the OKR, it’s time to connect with the why, capturing a narrative which reflects what you want your team to Think, Feed & Do.
Share with the teams: Take the OKR to your teams. Once again, gain the feedback, and this time talking with your team to set their OKR which aligns with the top-level OKR. There may not be a complete alignment, or possibly none at all, and that’s ok. What’s important here is the discussion. If the team strongly feels like they cannot align with the broader objective as they have more urgent priorities, then we need to provide this feedback to the top-level OKR.
Draft team OKR: Once they’ve drafted an OKR, it’s time for every team to identify which teams they’re dependent on.
Finalise the top-level OKR: Now that we have our feedback, we can finalise the top-level OKR. That doesn’t mean it won’t change as we get more feedback, but it means only minor tweaks will be made as new material information comes to light.
Output: Team level OKRs and a “finalised” top-level OKR.
Outcome: Team goal clarity and engagement, focus on what’s most important right now.
Step 4: Align horizontally between teams
Each team should now have their own OKR which ideally aligns with the top-level OKR. Now we need to make sure the teams are aligned and able to support each other.
Share team goals: Now each team has written their OKR and identified other teams which they need support from, it’s time for the teams to get together and talk about their needs. Be careful to ensure people do not use their OKR as a stick (e.g. if you don’t help me then I’ll fail this quarter), rather it should be a conversation starter. There may be collaboration needed to ensure teams with conflicting priorities can both be successful
Identify dependencies: Where another team is dependent on you and you can help them out, reflect their OKR within your team’s OKR. This may be as a dedicated key result or may require a tweak to your existing key results. For example, increasing the scope of the key result, or increasing the metric to account for the contributions of the other team.
Ensure goals are in fact shared: The intent here should be the teams have aligned goals that factor in the result of them working together, not in isolation. As an example, if two teams need to work together to increase customer satisfaction by 20%, they both should have a KR to make the increase in full, not just the proportion they believe they can contribute.
Output: Aligned team level OKR.
Outcome: Team level alignment, minimising goal conflict.
This will enable your success
What’s better? Setting goals from the front line with first-hand information or set it at the top with people who are entrusted to lead the strategic direction of the business? Crowdsourcing a top-level priority for the business which has been validated and vetted by the leadership team gives you the best of both worlds.
Having your teams aligned on a focused set of outcomes, in a manner where they are supporting each other creates an unstoppable force that drives unprecedented outcomes for your business. The critical practice now is to embed it within your operating rhythm and tracking progress, ideally weekly.
In a future article, we’ll explore how to operationalise your OKRs into your business and team operating rhythm.
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