Leadership in a brave new world: The OKR framework

Date:June 1, 2023

The greater the obstacle, the greater the glory. In a world of challenges that are rarely linear and environmental conditions that are anything but stable, we find ourselves in need of radical new ways of solving problems.  

We inhabit a world of volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity. A world in which we are expected to solve complex challenges whilst dealing with ever-greater consumer expectations. In an environment in which all around us is changing, just how do we fashion long-term plans for traditional businesses?  

The volatility of the FSI market is astonishing. Government regulations, digital advances, commodity price changes, supply chain issues and economic downturns are just some of the ongoing challenges beyond our control.  Client expectations too have changed dramatically. Response times must be shorter, and environmental, social and governance standards must be higher.  Looking to what has gone before as an indicator of what lies ahead is becoming more difficult. Historical information and past trends are losing relevance in predicting what is to come. What matters now is that we build agile plans and strategies that can be quickly implemented.

What matters now is that we build agile plans and strategies that can be quickly implemented   

Organisations and the environment in which they exist are inextricably linked and when they merge anticipating the repercussions of future decisions become difficult. Add to this the complexity of digital transformation, the global nature of organisations and their workforces and structures (not forgetting the impact of mergers and acquisitions) and sound decision-making may feel almost impossible.  

In this brave new world, there are few best practices to which we can refer. Those who successfully lead us through do so because they have a shared purpose and a clear vision. These are the people who will create and foster teams that will deliver outcomes and value. Appreciate those who communicate their company’s plans whilst outlining tasks and responsibilities and balancing this with an appetite for feedback and questions. Value those who encourage employees to explore and share innovative ideas, ensuring that their teams collaborate and understand the company strategy. Oh, and implement OKR’s

Objectives & Key Results: OKR’s  

There’s much that can go wrong. Let’s start with leadership focus, the ability to hone in on what matters most. When leaders exercise this discipline, the focus will trickle down throughout the organisation. Without this focus, we are in trouble. 

Alignment is key. Get it wrong and we create silos, unhealthy internal competition and a stagnant working environment. Get it right, and departments move forward as one cohesive unit until even the most ambitious stretch goals are within reach. Alignment is more than simply everyone knowing what the top-line goals are. It’s the ability to act on those goals in concert. When an organisation instils a shared vision of targeted outcomes, it paves the way for collective success in determining the best next steps. Everyone knows exactly how far they must go to achieve the goal. 

Alignment is key. Get it wrong and we create silos, unhealthy internal competition and a stagnant working environment.

Unless all stakeholders are involved from the get-go they cannot fully understand the concept nor fully support the methodology. Sponsors and senior executives too will be less invested. People generally only commit when they know what they’re committing to. Gaining this trust, this commitment, requires a very real effort by leadership coupled with a company structure that makes it possible. OKRs provide that structure. They make plain what is important and why. When people see the value in what they are being asked to do they are more likely to commit.  

Tracking is a superpower that deserves our attention. It is the ability to monitor progress and course-correct when necessary. It is what ensures that OKRs are an active process, not a passive “set-it-and-forget-it” one. By continuously monitoring progress on OKRs, we can better understand how far we’ve advanced — or how far we have to go. When we consistently measure what matters it helps us frame what must be done either to sustain success or achieve it. 

With OKRs comes a moon shot; the ability to seek stretched goals. This asks people to think outside the box, to come up with innovative ideas to achieve a stretched goal. Google and Intel are each market leaders in their industry thanks to stretched goals. 

Finally, OKRs are not designed to be cascaded down through a company. They are linked to objectives set by senior executives based on a vision and overall strategy. It is possible to introduce OKRs at the division or team level, but these must align with the overall corporate vision. 

Senior Executives strategies for success  

There are four key values to adopt if we want to be successful – and maintain that success –The first is Adaption. This means adapting to the framework conditions to work faster, more efficiently and better achieve the goal. Responsibility. Self-organisation and self-responsibility are only possible if the direction, the mission and the goal are all clear. Orientation takes place at a higher level and has no role in operational details. Transparency. Open communication and the sharing of knowledge is essential. The entire procedure or process we are working on should be transparent. Finally, Commitment. This is the long-term goal, the point on the horizon that we want to reach together as an organisation.  

LEAN into it 

The golden rule is to keep it simple. The OKR framework highlights the advantages of being clear and to the point. Communicate often and keep it short and easy to understand. This will build trust and in turn, help teams to work better together. Empower people and watch them succeed. Maintain a focus on outcomes and transparency. Complex missions, visions and thoughts have no place on this agenda. We need to remind ourselves that every day in every way, we are getting better and better. 

Let’s meet in the middle 

In an OKR framework, 60% of the work to achieve any strategic goal is provided by the teams involved, so somehow both top-down and bottom-up strategies must be integrated in this value-based management approach. It begins with a common understanding, which encourages a learning environment that leads to an outcome-driven organisation.  

The role of executives at the start of any process is to be open, curious and committed. They will move on to take leadership and give guidance. Their final task is to act as role models and continue to communicate, using simple and effective language, with their teams.  

The role of executives at the start of any process is to be open, curious and committed.

During the first two months, the focus should be on introductory sessions with key individuals who sit at different levels of the organisation. These are 101 sessions and require no prior knowledge. This is when the underlying knowledge is built and key stakeholders to buy in.  

Achieving sponsorship for one key pilot at this stage will leverage understanding and get executive involvement. After four months the foundations are in place and lessons learned from the pilot project can be incorporated into the organisation. By the six-month milestone best practices should be established early benefits visible and the entire process ready to be scaled up.  

Essential to success at every stage are clear commitment from top executives in terms of time and budget. As is the freedom to explore ideas, a green field approach that ensures that all involved are curious to learn and eager to adapt.  

In real life

It may look brilliant on paper or as a presentation to a hand-picked audience, but how does this translate into real life?  

Let’s take a client who is a key financial services provider as our case study. We have been asked to implement the OKR framework and coach the executive board to define OKRs that will provide a clear understanding to the supervisory board and a defined vision for the whole organisation. The hands-on experience on the OKRs helped the CEO to understand the organisation’s objectives, priorities and expectations. Having insights into the weaknesses and strengths of the departments in scope the CEO was able to foster collaboration and leverage synergies. Furthermore, by understanding the OKR framework the CEO was able to set up a value-driven culture of goal setting and performance measurement. Finally, the supervisory board and the CEO were aligned and agreed on the strategic direction and supported the overall strategy. The project is ongoing and having completed the initial phases successfully we are now focused on scaling. The teams communicate more often, collaborate and align with each other and are more goal focused. Those who work together win together. 

About Projective Group

Established in 2006, Projective Group is a leading Financial Services change specialist. With deep expertise across practices in Data, Payments, Transformation and Risk & Compliance.

We are recognised within the industry as a complete solutions provider, partnering with clients in Financial Services to provide resolutions that are both holistic and pragmatic.  We have evolved to become a trusted partner for companies that want to thrive and prosper in an ever-changing Financial Services landscape.