How do you overcome resistance to an OKRs adoption?

Paul Niven is a management consultant, noted speaker, and author of six books on the subjects of Strategy, Strategy Execution, Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), and Balanced Scorecard. He is the founder of both OKRsTraining.com and The Senalosa Group , assisting over 300 organizations across the globe to effectively execute their strategy. In this Voices of OKR piece Paul share ideas for bringing even the most recalcitrant organization around to embracing the vast potential of OKRs.

The benefits of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are many, varied, and rapidly becoming well-known at organizations around the globe. Increased focus on what really drives your strategy forward, enhanced top to bottom alignment, and increased engagement from team members finally able to demonstrate their unique contribution to success, are all hallmarks of the OKRs framework.

But, sadly, not every executive or every team within organizations are initially excited about implementing the methodology. In this post I’ll share ideas for bringing even the most recalcitrant organization around to embracing the vast potential of OKRs.

First things first, if you’re experiencing resistance to OKRs, you must determine who is leading the chorus of defiance. Is it the CEO? C-level executives? Or rank and file employees? The answer will have significant ramifications for efforts to alleviate concerns. Let’s start at the top. If your CEO appears reluctant to use OKRs you have a problem that absolutely must be solved before you can even consider moving forward. Not surprisingly, the first order of business is determining the source of their discontent with the model. Is it a simple lack of knowledge? Or, perhaps they attempted OKRs in another organization, and due to poor implementation practices, it failed. If ignorance appears to be the reason for eschewing OKRs, that gap can be readily filled by providing the CEO with a copy of the mega-popular John Doerr book, “Measure What Matters.”

Or, if your CEO is more the hands-on type that prefers details, supply them with the book I co-wrote on OKRs. This simple step fulfills two important functions: 1) The books provide ample knowledge on the system, and 2) Doerr’s book in particular has become extremely popular with CEOs, and that subtle peer pressure may be just enough to tilt the scales of influence in your favor. If, however, your CEO suffered through a less than successful prior OKRs effort, I would suggest that many of the tips and techniques shared below will prove beneficial in your efforts to bring them around to your point of view.

Let’s now move to a scenario in which you’ve undertaken OKRs at your organization but are simply not getting the traction you anticipated. Team members seem averse, and maybe even downright antagonistic toward the idea of embracing OKRs. Outlined below are several techniques we at OKRsTraining.com have seen to be effective in winning over skeptical audiences in any type of organization.

Know, and communicate widely, why you’re using OKRs: At the end of the day, OKRs are another change program, and that attention ask is often a difficult one for employees in today’s change-weary companies. If you expect people to utilize OKRs to full effect, the first priority is clearly spelling out your business rationale for implementing the framework. And a hint: “Because Google did it” isn’t an appropriate response. What problems are you trying to solve, and how do you see OKRs providing the solution? Don’t keep that a secret – shout it from the rooftops! If you expect your teams to accept and adopt OKRs, your primary responsibility is to communicate why they should pay attention. Never neglect what is maybe the most important acronym in the organizational universe: WIIFM. What’s In It For Me. Paint a vibrant word picture of the future for your staff, and make it clear how OKRs can propel both them and the company to new heights.

Ensure you’ve been clear on the three vital OKRs roles. The first is Executive Sponsor. Someone at the top, preferably the CEO, has to be the beating heart of your implementation. It’s up to him or her to evangelize the concept and engage in the necessary repetition of why, why, why OKRs are critical to your success. Next comes the OKR Champion. As noted above, OKRs are about change, and you need a trustworthy guide on this journey. Someone who will serve as the go-to source for all things OKRs at your organization. This person or small team (depending on your size) must fully immerse themselves in OKRs and become your in-house subject matter expert. The Champion will be the first point of contact on important decisions like determining your OKRs cadence, meeting and review schedules, and thorny issues such as whether or not to link OKRs to your performance appraisal process. Find someone with passion and enthusiasm for the topic and watch the spell they cast on their colleagues. Finally, Ambassadors can be considered “super users” scattered throughout the organization. They coach their teams, act as mentors and cheerleaders for the framework, and liaise with one another to ensure best practices are widely shared.

Invest in up-front training: No, this is not a shameless plug for our services…despite the fact that our company is called OKRsTraining. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of what we see in the field day in and day out: organizations that rush into OKRs because it seems easy and expect everyone to create their own with zero education on the fundamentals. What often results are vague, poorly-written objectives that fail to articulate the business value they hope to achieve, along with feeble key results that say nothing of how the evidence of success is to be demonstrated. Little wonder these same team members are likely to revolt and quickly proclaim that “OKRs don’t work.” The good news here is that you don’t require months or even weeks of training to master the model. A few sessions with an experienced trainer or coach will have you on your way to better results in a jiffy.

The tips above will help get your teams on board, but once they’re up and running with the framework it’s vital to establish momentum for future growth. When you embark on an OKRs program you’re launching a change initiative whether you label it that or not. You’re changing the way you measure performance, the way you conduct conversations, and if done well, you’re changing your ability to align, engage, and execute for the better.

In order to make that change happen you have to ingrain OKRs into your culture; how you do things day in and day out. In other words, OKRs have to vie against the cultural habits your organization has erected over the entire time it’s been in operation, and those typically run deep. Very deep. How do you begin to sew OKRs into the fabric of your organizations? Here are a few things you can do to start making OKRs a healthy habit.

Build on habits you already have. Scientists call this “habit stacking,” adding a desired new habit to one you currently practice. For example, we’re pretty certain you have management meetings of some kind now. Take a portion of that time to discuss OKRs, or better yet, use your OKRs to drive the meeting agenda.

Make it easy for people to access their own, and others’ OKRs. Don’t bury OKRs five levels down in some dusty, rarely used corporate intranet you last updated with meaningful information in 1998. Bring them front and center for all to see and discuss. There are many robust software platforms for OKRs that make transparency and accessibility a breeze. Ensure your teams post their OKRs to a common repository so that review and analysis are simple for everyone. And don’t forget the old school possibilities of poster-sized versions of your OKRs on office walls.

Start small! One key to successfully launching any new habit is establishing quick wins through realistic action. If you’re out of shape you wouldn’t charge into the gym, throw 225 pounds on the bar and expect to press it a dozen times. Try that and you’d surrender after one doomed repetition. Instead, start with a reasonable goal you’re likely to achieve. In OKRs parlance this translates to a couple of things:

  • Keep the number of OKRs small at the outset.
  • Don’t burden teams with too many.
  • And, of course, make them aspirational but ultimately achievable.

As both consultants and practitioners (we of course use OKRs ourselves) we’ve witnessed the power of this simple, lightweight, yet powerful system to ignite change, power transformations, and drive execution in organizations large and small of every conceivable type. It can work for you too! If resistance is the challenge, follow the advice above to get your team and organization back on the winning side of the ledger.

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