OKR Confessions: Elise from City of Seattle

Elise Kalstad is the Service Analytics Lead at City of Seattle – a progressive city government leader in technology, innovation and the environment. In this Voices of OKR piece Elise shares all struggles and wins in her OKR journey and gives her recipe for success with OKRs.

Why OKRs

The Seattle Information Technology Department (ITD) serves the IT needs of 38 City departments, 12,000 employees, and many community programs. This large and diverse clientele often fragmented our teams, many of which worked in silos and troubleshot issues on a case-by-case basis instead of an enterprise solution. We needed a way to make our goals transparent for the departments we serve, better align our teams to work across all departments, and show progress toward reaching our goals.  

OKRs were a way to quickly pivot when needed and remove work silos, so that dependencies are clear. They could help us make sure that our work structure was aligned and that all staff could see where IT was going and how their work contributed to the overall success.

To prepare, we contacted another City that had recently rolled out OKRs and gathered lessons-learned and helpful tips. And we have continually been adjusting and modifying our OKR process to fit the priorities of the IT team at the City of Seattle.  

How we started

ITD’s new CTO brought the concept of OKRs and guided its implementation throughout the department. I became involved in the OKR program as it fit into my organizational performance duties. But I was not alone in developing the OKR program.

The success of our OKR implementation was very heavily dependent upon our senior leadership embracing the plan. Strong executive sponsorship and investment in training were vital to the success of OKR adoption.

I created an OKR Champion program within the department. These were early adopters from various teams throughout ITD, trained on how to help their teams understand and start developing OKRs. We started with presentations at our ITD All-Hands quarterly meetings. We continued to sprinkle some OKR knowledge at any opportunity we had. We tried to include OKRs as part of everyday life – part of our regular stand-up meetings, monthly check-ins, or budget decisions.

I believe it was the initial push of training to the OKR Champions and throughout the department that really cemented the success of the program. As the training expanded through teams, we continually shared how OKRs really support us as a team and individuals.

Baking OKRs into everyday work

An early win was bringing OKRs to our Executive Team and making sure they were part of their vernacular. This included their weekly meetings, stand ups, one on ones with the Chief Technology Officer, etc. In turn, their meetings with their management teams would then begin to have the same OKR terminology. If  somebody was to propose a possible priority project, they’d have to go back and question themselves – “Is this part of my OKR? If not, should I really be doing that?” Having executive management at the front leading those discussions has a positive effect as we’re seeing more decisions being made based on OKRs and people filtering out anything that isn’t value added.

Another thing we did is a monthly check-in with all managers. The goal was to gather everybody together and talk about successes and barriers that each team is facing. It brought clarity – we were all able to see, for instance, what type of content our City government TV channel was producing or what our infrastructure team was doing.

The meetings brought rich discussion and transparency and were a good way for everybody to learn more about OKRs, more about each other’s work and see cross-functional dependencies.

Top 3 benefits of using OKRs

The big benefits, among lots of other little ones, I’ve experienced as a result of using OKRs are:

1. Clarity of priority goals

Clarity of priorities is essential because sometimes they shift, and we need to make sure that we’re keeping everybody informed. For example, due to Covid-19 what we thought were our priorities at the beginning of the year, were no longer our priorities. We had to quickly pivot. OKRs were a great way to clearly communicate that.

2. Less siloed teams and increased teamwork

Breaking down the silos and being able to see teams ask each other “Are we going to get this migration done in Q2?” Having the opportunity to witness such conversations and ‘Aha’ moments has been incredible and quite valuable.

3. Greater alignment to clients

Most of our goals should be directly related to client value. It is essential that you can ‘hear’ the client voice in every objective of ours – for example, every OKR is framed in a “we know we’re successful serving our clients when… as measured by…” way. This way the conversation is always about the customer and what we’re doing for the customer.

Top 3 difficulties with OKRs

1. Breaking through

Getting people comfortable with just stating an objective, writing it down and not being bothered by the fact that it is not perfect. One of my colleagues said it well:

“It’s like learning a foreign language. It feels awkward and uncomfortable at first. But the only way that you get better at a foreign language is to keep practicing and to push past that awkwardness and that uncomfortableness, and just keep practicing with it.”

2. Seeing the value of OKRs

Getting everybody on board, so that they understand the benefits of OKRs and the value that this powerful goal setting methodology delivers to them.  

3. Tangibility of goals

As we’re not seeking a profit, but trying to improve the lives of Seattle’s residents, our goals might be a little less tangible in some respects. So, finding measurable ways to show progress toward a goal can been a challenge.

Impact of OKRs on team

Beginning

In the beginning, there was some nervousness as no one wanted to do OKRs wrong. When you’re starting something new you want to make sure that you’re not the kid in the back of the classroom that’s doing something totally different than everybody else.

There’s still some nervousness around OKRs, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People just want to make sure they set well-written and clearly articulated goals. It’s a skill, it’s like a muscle that you’re building – having the right objective with a measurable key result. The important thing is to just start and alleviate some of the anxiety that it’s not going to be perfect. And it’s OK that it’s not perfect.

Affecting employee performance

I had to make sure that everyone knew and understood that OKRs are not related to employee performance reviews. It was imperative to clearly state that we were only looking at team performance, setting aspirational goals and expecting to hit our KRs 80% of the time.

The other message that executive management and I broadcasted was, OKRs didn’t have to encompass all the work, just those big bodies of work that are of key importance to our clients. I think that gives a little bit of freedom and people can relax about some of their smaller projects not showing up in their OKRs.

Impact of OKRs on customers

When we started with OKRs, one of our main goals was to get our clients’ feedback and determine what’s really important to them. So, we scheduled a few strategy sessions with our different client departments to discuss how we can partner better.   

I remember one strategy session where we had business representatives from all client departments in the same room and we did just that. We split up into different groups and listed the top five things that are crucial for their business and IT can help with. A lot of them were similar, so it became clear that the understanding of our clients’ needs was consistent. And that was very useful as we built the conclusions from that session into the OKRs at the very beginning, a much less siloed approach to planning.

This has really led to a higher level of transparency with the clients. Before we were just evaluating results based on customer satisfaction surveys, but it wasn’t an enterprise-wide view of how we’re performing. OKRs have changed that.

Recipe for implementing OKRs successfully

1. I’d advise to start simple and small. Stick to that “3 to 5 key results per objective” rule. And don’t feel like you have to show all of the work that you’re doing on a daily basis. Just align it to the priorities you’ve set.

2. Focus on training. Infuse training early at all levels on what OKRs are and why they’re important – from the staff on the ground all the way up to the C-Suite and Executive level, all the people who are going to be making decisions.

3. Make the value of OKRs and the “what’s in it for me” very clear to everybody involved. Everybody within the organization should see themselves somewhere in the goals, so that they can point to one goal and one objective or key result and say “This is where my work helps to contribute. I do X so that my team can accomplish Y.”

4, Also, having a very strong executive support is key. I believe that might even be the most important thing.

5. Bring in the client voice, feed that throughout, pop it in the oven for 375, bake for a month, take a look at it again, refine, edit, put it back in the oven for a little bit, let it sit. And then go for it and start to measure and track progress. Every quarter or every six months, you can take a look at your priorities and decide whether they’re still realistic or you need to change them.

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