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Introducing OKRs, from Mission to Action

Francisco Homem de Mello

Since the dawn of Qulture.Rocks, we’ve noticed a gigantic opportunity lying in front of us: helping companies implement some system that could serve as a management backbone around which everything revolves and organizes.

We talked to many customers – organizations of all sizes that used our people, management, and culture software products – who described the excruciating pains they felt when trying to implement “OKRs” as a solution for misaligned teams, poor execution, a lack of cadence and rhythm, or, even worse, lack of collaboration and rigidity in an ever-faster-paced business environment.

That was really weird because the internet (meaning authors, OKR/agile consultants, and corporate executives writing and talking online) had these people think that this problem they were struggling with was largely solved by the said OKRs, which they spoke about as a “methodology”. We were witnessing the explosion of OKRs, first among tech companies in Silicon Valley, and then, especially after the publication of John Doerr’s Measure What Matters, among many other sectors and geographies, as illustrated by this Google Trends chart below, showing a tenfold increase in the number of searches for “OKRs” from the oughts to the 2020s:

What made it all even more interesting is that we at Qulture.Rocks were feeling a lot of the pain described by our customers ourselves. We were a high-growth company doubling or tripling every year, in desperate need of an organizing system that oriented our journey, and tried and tried to implement and tweak OKRs as a solution, to a lot of frustration.

The problems with what’s out there about OKRs

OKRs seem to be an amazing tool that allegedly solves a bunch of problems for different types of companies: it helps startups execute better, product teams make better prioritization decisions, foundations orient around their priorities, and even large enterprises transform themselves digitally. 

But overall, there is a lot of confusion around what OKRs really are and how they should work when the books, podcasts, and blog posts meet the complex realities of practical implementation. Popular authors leave many questions unanswered, and even worse, contradict themselves and each other. 

As an anecdote that we believe perfectly illustrates how hard it is to find proper help in implementing OKRs, Google has a plethora of content produced by its current or former officers (e.g., this and this) and/or published in their official websites (e.g., this) that sound and look like one of those signs at the intersection of multiple trails.

What OKRs, From Mission to Metrics, is

We thought we could do better and articulate one methodology that could help all these teams unlock their potential. The result is OKRs, From Mission to Action, an end-to-end methodology teams and whole organizations can implement, that converses with other cornerstone organizational processes (such as budgets, performance reviews, and even compensation decisions) and that can be powered, if you choose so, by our own software products at Qulture.Rocks.

Where does it all come from?

OKRs, From Mission to Action, is a collection. A work of editing and curation. We haven’t created – almost – any of it ourselves. We tried to solve all the contradictions and gaps left out by people who wrote about OKRs by looking at the framework’s ancestors.

For example, when we found holes or contradictions in John Doerr’s Measure What Matters, we tried going straight to his source, Intel’s Management by Objectives (or iMBOs, as it was called inside the company). If that still left us unsure, we tried going straight to their source, Japanese-influenced Total Quality Control.

In most cases, the paths all went back to a common source: Japan. The Japanese, such as Toyota, collated pinches of Joseph M. Juran’s and W. Edwards Demmings’ on “quality” and developed an algorithm of sorts called Hoshin Kanri that turned strategy into day-to-day action. And once we started reading about Hoshin Kanri, we were amazed (I can’t stress enough how amazed we were, for real) at what they had accomplished a long time ago. It gave us most, if not all, the answers we were looking for. Everything made sense.

That doesn’t mean it’s all Hoshin. It’s what we used to fill the gaps. There’s still a lot of the Silicon Valley flavor that came afterward.

The diagram below summarizes our major sources of inspiration:

Why “OKRs, From Mission to Action”?

It’s a pretty descriptive name for a framework that’s centered around OKRs – goals – but that is part of a bigger picture that starts with the company’s mission – why it exists – and ends, if you will, with what everybody in the organization does in their day-to-day work.

The keyword is alignment: what we do each day has to be ultimately aligned with the organization’s reason for existing. But that connection is far from easy to grasp if we don’t help people. And the stakes are gigantic: misaligned people will either lose engagement or move in the wrong direction. Or worse, both.

If we look at OKRs, From Mission to Action from a 1000-ft altitude, there are five main components to the framework, which we can see in this image below:

Let’s briefly go over these five major components of the Mission to Action OKRs framework.

Mission

The mission of an organization must be the foundation of everything it does. We like to think that mission is the purpose of an organization’s existence. In Jim Collin’s words, it’s how an organization would be – hopefully – missed if it ceased to exist.

Strategy

As with many of the concepts that orbit OKRs, there are many definitions of strategy and a surprising lack of good ones. We work with the following definition: organizational strategy is the sequence of steps your organization needs to take to achieve its mission and why this sequence is the best. If you’d like to dive a bit deeper into what strategy is (and examples of Elon Musk’s companies’ strategies), read this post.

OKRs

OKRs are a protocol, by which we mean a way to articulate goals that will help us achieve our first strategic milestones. They are composed of objectives (aspects of the business we want to improve, such as “Improve our sales efficiency”) and key results (metrics and specific target values that, when reached, will help us prove if the objective was attained, such as getting the “Average sales cycle for all sales teams” metric to 52 days, down from a baseline of 60 days).

OKRs are results, and therefore should not be mistaken with efforts. We do stuff to get results, which are usually measured with output metrics. Getting results usually means getting said metrics to certain levels. Doing stuff, such as delivering reports, launching features, etc., are not results, but efforts that hopefully will lead to certain results.

Projects

Projects are large-scale efforts whose intended results won’t be measurable in the short term. For example, we may decide that we need to change our CRM to have better analytics on our customers’ whole journeys, from marketing to customer success, passing through sales development, sales and implementation. That project might take a few quarters and build on a set of capabilities we think will be crucial for our strategy. That’s a project.

Actions

Actions are what we do in our day-to-day. They may be derived either from OKRs – the action plans we plan when we set OKRs and that we think might help us achieve them – or from projects – the stuff we need to get done today to unlock other project phases at the right time and cost.

As might have become evident by our diagram, actions have to be aligned with projects and OKRs, which must be aligned with the organizational strategy, which must be aligned with the mission, since achieving the mission is the ultimate goal.

Our guiding principles

When articulating OKRs, From Mission to Action, we stepped onto a few governing principles that guided our work. Let’s get to them:

  • Stand smartly on the shoulders of giants: we opted to fill in the gaps left out by OKR expertspundits with theories and practices that were time-tested. We learned a lot by reading primary sources – the original authors themselves instead of second-hand content. We saw that many “old” practices such as Quality are still incredibly relevant in current times. Therefore, based on primary research, OKRs, From Mission to Action is built by piecing together aspects of some of the most successful “schools” of management that ever existed.
  • Unlock for human potential: goals have a reputation of being hijacked as a tool to make contingent compensation decisions. We want to change that because goals – in our case, OKRs – under the Mission to Action approach can be unique drivers of human growth. We’ve built practices and rituals that help align people around common north stars and catalyze a lot of reflection and learning.
  • Give context and get participation: goals also have a reputation of being a tool for command and control because, in some contexts, goals have been cascaded down in organizations in a top-down, impositional manner. We believe when given the right amount of context and guidance, people can take a very active part in the process, with improved engagement, more buy-in, and overall better knowledge of company strategy and priorities, which drive better decisions and prioritization throughout the organization.
  • Require the right amount of rigor: OKRs can be very ineffective when the people using them are left to their own devices, having to figure everything out by themselves. That’s why we’ve designed something that gives people guidelines for the whole journey, in a step-by-step fashion, so that they can focus on what’s most important: achieving outstanding results.
  • Systematize and (only) then improvise: Last but not least, as with Karate, improvisation must come only after a lot of practice, to give people rails. The Mission to Action approach is built so that teams can gradually use more sophisticated practices until they “graduate” and tweak the practices to fit their specific needs.

What does this mean for your organization?

OKRs, From Mission to Action, will guide the development of our OKR management module, which is part of our strategy execution product, so you’ll be able to see it in action in the upcoming product releases. We’ll also write a lot about how you can implement it at your organization and finally get the results you want with OKRs, and offer training, facilitation, and professional services to leverage your efforts.

About Qulture.Rocks

Qulture.Rocks offers a complete suite of people, management, and culture tools (including performance management, employee experience, leadership development, talent management, and people analytics).