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12 Revealing Questions to Discuss as a Team Every Time You Review OKRs

Do you use OKRs (Objectives and Key Results)? They’re a great way to focus effort within a business. When life is busy, it’s easy to get lost in ‘noisy work’ that ceases to take your business forward.  A tool that can help you drill down to the things that matter is beneficial. OKRs provide this framework to keep you on track.

There’s an art to writing a good OKR, which we’ve discussed in previous blogs.  But there’s also an art to their execution. Central to success are quarterly retrospectives where each OKR is RAG rated.  We help our clients through this process, looking at any objective that isn’t green.  The purpose isn’t to blame anyone.  Instead, we ask what we can learn from not getting to where we wanted. Then we take that learning into objective-setting for the next quarter. The OKRs become more meaningful.

As well as unsuccessful OKRs, we look at any that have been met.  Is there anything about how the OKR was achieved that wasn’t right?  Was it a lousy objective? Did someone sandbag something they knew was going to be achieved anyway? OKRs are always about change and not business as usual. Was this the case?  Perhaps the key results were too easy to achieve.

You’re aiming to create a culture of honesty and candour. People will always have excuses. It starts young. Conversations with my eight and six-year-old daughters spring to mind. They’ll come up with twenty creative reasons why they haven’t cleared up the playroom!  Adults are no better.  Fibs, outright lies, deflecting blame, and unwillingness to take responsibility are all usual behaviours.   But you want to get to a place where there’s nowhere to hide. You’re striving to sort out any underlying issues that might be getting in the way. 

So what are the best questions to ask in your quarterly OKR retrospectives? 

1. Was the strategy bad?

An excellent place to start. Was the strategy behind the OKR not quite right? Here’s an example.  One of our clients thought Cisco would be a great partner for them.  Because their current Account Manager was so good, they assumed they could leverage more Cisco reps.  So they set an OKR to speak to all 25 of them.  Guess what?  They weren’t of the same calibre. Their assumption was wrong. Back to the drawing board!  They had to change their approach.

2. Was there a problem with execution?

Maybe the strategy was right, but the way you planned to execute it was wrong. My challenge here would be why wasn’t this adjusted sooner. OKRs should be reviewed every week. There should be plenty of opportunities to refine execution before you hit the end of the quarter. This tells me you weren’t reviewing OKRs weekly.  So often, this doesn’t happen.  When we first start dealing with clients, there’s no process or mechanism.  A regular rhythm of daily and weekly meetings is vital to effective execution. 

3.   Is every member of the team fully accountable?

Ah, yes – the thorny issue of accountability.  A clue that you have a problem with this will be if people don’t attend meetings. They’re avoiding being found out. 

A useful tool is the ‘Say to Do Ratio’. Pretty simple. Every team member commits to one thing every week. The team agrees on the most important thing, and the person promises to deliver it in public. Each week in the management meeting, the leader asks them to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Have they done the one agreed thing the previous week? No ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’.  A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is required. Then you update the chart (see above). You’re looking for a genuine sense of effort. You’re also creating a culture where there’s nowhere to hide.   Every week, you agree to the things that will make the most impact over the next seven days, and you end up with a set of commitments.  And the weekly repetitive rhythm will start to turn the flywheel in the right direction. 

4. Was leadership weak?

A tricky one is this.  It can be challenging for team members to pick weak leadership as a reason for their failure.  Remember, this exercise isn’t about apportioning blame. It’s about getting better. But if a leader feels they haven’t been clear, they should have the psychological safety in the team to admit this. With proper accountability comes a collective sense of ownership for direction. If there are communication, time management or conflict issues, the team must commit to fixing them.

    5. Is there a lack of commitment? 

    This links with accountability.  Saying you will do something but not believing in your heart that you will.  Read Patrick Lencioni’s ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’.  It will tell you all you need to know about fake harmony in an executive team. Artificial harmony means there’s no healthy conflict. And if you don’t have conflict, you won’t commit. Your organisation probably has a culture of allowing failure.  So your team know they will get away with a lack of commitment.

    6. Does the team lack skills?

    Again, I would say here, why are you getting to the end of the quarter before you realise you lack skills?  You could have pivoted on this earlier and found the right resources. But it’s conceivable that you may end the quarter and realise you need to hire someone.  The OKR might roll on whilst you try and plug the gaps.

    7. Is there a lack of knowledge?

    Maybe when you started with the OKR, you thought you knew something, but that’s changed.  The things you thought were true of your team, the market, the product, or the customers were different.  Perhaps you must set a new key result around gaining this knowledge before going further with the objective.

    8. Do you have the wrong people on the OKR?

    This links to a lack of skills and poor leadership above.  We see this all the time.  The wrong people are put on strategic objectives.  Patrick Lencioni’s tool, Working Genius, says strategic people need ‘Wonder’, ‘Invention’ and ‘Discernment’.  You can’t expect them to succeed if they don’t have these.  And they’re unlikely to ask for help, so you need to spot this early on. 

    9. Does your culture tolerate mediocrity?

    It may sound harsh, but if you tolerate mediocrity, you’ll unlikely make much progress. Maybe there’s a lack of passion or a culture allowing things to be a bit shit. It’s common for people to think they’re better than they are. 

    Research into C and D Player perceptions has shown this.  McKinsey studied drug development teams in pharma companies globally, and 75% of them thought they were above average.  They found the top 1% were 10x better than average.  This lack of self-awareness can spread like a disease.  To counter it, you need to look at external benchmarks and strive to improve the quality of your team.

    10. Is there a lack of urgency?

    Yes – people are busy.  This is why you need to prioritise. Use the Say to Do Ratio that I mentioned in question 3.  The word ‘priority’ used to be singular – it’s only recently that people talk about plural priorities. 

    When people lack urgency, they’re entirely unfocused.  They spend their time on ‘busy work’ like incessant emailing, taking your business backwards rather than forwards. Identify the one thing that has to be done and stick at it, even if it’s hard, unpleasant or challenging.

    11. Is there a lack of discipline?

    This is knowing there’s a lack of urgency but doing nothing about it. Dieting is a good analogy.  You recognise you’re overweight but don’t have the willpower to stick to a diet. It’s hard – I get it.  But to succeed, you must change your habits, which takes effort.

    Having a purpose is essential here.  If you work for a company where you know your impact will matter, it will give you the strength to keep going when things get tough.  You want to be drawn towards something.  If you fixate on losing weight, your motivation will drop the same as your weight.  But if you decide you want to lose weight so you can play with your children, there’s a real incentive. 

    12. Did you lose out to a superior opponent?

    This is more applicable to sales-related OKRs.  Years ago, when I was the MD of a CRM consultancy business, I told our client sales directors that in their win/lose drop-down menu, there was a field missing. ‘Outsold’. All the usual options of price or product were there as reasons for losing the deal.  But never an option that they weren’t the best salesperson on the day.  Salespeople will always influence a deal, and there will be times when the opposition’s salespeople are better than yours.  This might also apply to OKRs around new product launches.  Too often, Executive teams are unaware of their competitors’ abilities.

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    We advise putting all these fields on a board and then getting each team member to identify why the OKR failed. Post-it notes can be useful here.  It will enable you to agree together where there are fundamental issues. And what you can do to improve your OKR success rate.

    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here.

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