Seated shoulder to shoulder with the senior directors, I once again found myself in the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company. “We need to make some critical decisions here. Surely not all of these goals are our number one priority. Our competitors are pivoting on a dime,” one of the directors pleaded. She continued: “If we don’t get crystal clear about what’s important to us, our customers are going to make the decision for us by leaving, and then it will be too late.”
What I saw was a group of executives that were very much invested in the strategic initiatives that applied to their area of expertise. In essence, the very definition of working in silos. Some may think that this is a classic tale of too many cooks in the kitchen, but teamwork makes the dream work, as they say. If they could pool their efforts and hyperfocus on just one strategic goal that everyone throughout the company could have an impact on in their own way, then they would see remarkable results. The problem was: Where to start? They had already tried SMART goals, KRAs and KPIs, but they weren’t gaining as much traction as they had hoped. That’s when I rolled up my sleeves and introduced them to Lean OKRs.
Lean OKRs are the evolved version of the original iteration: Objectives and Key Results. Perhaps you’ve heard of OKRs before. Back in 2018, the book “Measure What Matters” by John Doerr came out and OKRs started gaining traction as readers became familiar with OKR success stories of Silicon Valley’s finest: Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix and Apple to name a few. Many leaders jumped on the proverbial OKR bandwagon and simply rewrote their current goals and KPIs as OKRs with the hopes of seeing similar growth numbers and successes. For many, their results weren’t what they had expected and they promptly cast OKRs aside. It seemed that OKRs only worked for those Silicon Valley tech giants. You see, OKRs only accelerate what’s already present.
This is where Lean OKRs step in to correct the course. They steer the ship back to the basics of what matters most when setting ambitious goals: strong leadership, the autonomy of product teams, an environment open to experimentation, cutting out excess, a relentless focus on customer value and a consistent schedule of check-ins. These are the principles involved when it comes to achieving strategic, aspirational goals and are discussed extensively in the book “Moving the Needle with Lean OKRs”. By pairing Lean philosophy with the existing OKR model, companies are able to hyperfocus on one goal company-wide, where teams are positioned to work cross-departmentally, effectively dismantling silos and their restrictions altogether.
Lean OKRs use a lightweight governance model of routine check-ins (weekly, quarterly and annually) that encourages accountability across all levels. Novel to Lean OKRs is that the emphasis is on creating continuous customer value. Furthermore, teams have the agility to quickly pivot because the “why” of a particular goal is more important than how it is achieved. It’s like strategy execution on steroids. It is for precisely this reason that companies working with Lean OKRs seem to be accelerating faster than their competitors. When a speed bump appears, teams can troubleshoot independently and realign with other teams.
Hyperfocus on one strategic goal
To define an effective OKR, the Objective should be viewed as the answer to the question “Where do we want to go?”. The Key Results answer the question “How will we know when we have gotten there?”. Lean OKRs thrive on one single, overarching OKR that is decided upon by senior leaders evaluating the strategy and hashing out which Objective is the best one to proceed with. Based on the company-level OKR, teams and leaders then swarm around it and craft their own OKRs that will impact the company OKR. Leadership needs to bring the strategic context to their teams and collaborate with them on defining Key Results (measurable outcomes) and challenge them on their ambition level.
An example of an effective OKR: Objective: Customers choose us over [competitor]
OKRs: Increase the percentage of customers that prefer our product to the competitors in a blind test from 30 to 75% & increase the average order rating from 3.1 to 5.0
Lean OKRs require a fresh mindset to radically focus on one goal, learn, experiment, make tough decisions, fight over priorities (and compromise), achieve consensus, change behaviours, build strong data literacy, and hire strong leaders that can coach people and empower teams. When a company is hyperfocused on one strategic goal, they can expect to say “no” to proposals that fall outside of their vision; our “yes” culture and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) produce plenty of distraction and can lead companies off course.
To pivot on a dime, do what the competitors aren’t doing
The companies that experience exponential growth are not necessarily the ones that are working the fastest or hardest, but they are hyperfocused on one strategic OKR, one that places continually meeting and exceeding customer value at the forefront of all they do. They have done so by applying some basic strategies to their company culture. Here are three easy Lean OKR strategies that you can start implementing today:
- Focus on one single OKR per team at a time. Use strategic thinking. Focus on behaviour change. Battle it out! Pick one high-performing team to start with.
- Install a lightweight process to achieve your OKRs based on Plan, Do, Check, Act. Study and try scientific thinking with your team. Toyota Kata is a great resource to start.
- Lean Mindset. Learning and continuous experimentation are used to achieve moonshots with as little excess as possible.
When a company, be it a small start-up or large enterprise, hyperfocusses on one bold goal, radical change occurs. To execute an ambitious growth strategy, you need to hyperfocus on one overarching, visionary goal that all employees within the company, regardless of function or job title, can participate in achieving. Lean OKRs can position a company to do just this and finally see the results that their competitors are chasing.
About the author: Bart den Haak is CEO of goal-setting consultancy Moving the Needle and author of the new book Moving the Needle with Lean OKRs: setting objectives & key results to achieve your most ambitious goal.