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OKR Improvement: A Case Study

Situation:

The company-wide objectives for the upcoming year are communicated by the executive team in September. Workshops are conducted with leaders from each area of the business to consider various ideas for direction. Eventually, a select few objectives are agreed upon as the primary aims for the business and shared with the entire company. Subsequently, each leader in different business areas must take these company objectives into account while planning their own objectives for the upcoming year.

Every department establishes their own objectives that they believe will contribute to the company’s goals. However, as they say, a “goal without a plan is merely a wish.” Therefore, each department puts in the effort to explore possible paths to achieve their objectives and ultimately selects the best course of action. These department goals and plans are then further communicated to the individual teams within the department, who in turn develop their own goals and plans.

In the case of marketing, a problem arises when these goals are not clearly cascaded down to the lower-level teams and individuals. For instance, if the company goal is “efficient growth,” how does that impact the Project Manager in Marketing? How does the demand gen team establish goals aligned with it? How does Marketing Ops adapt plans to accommodate “efficient growth?”

The second issue with goal setting arises when people overlook the “M” part of SMART goals, which stands for making the goals measurable. The essence of a goal should not be so intangible that it cannot be objectively evaluated using metrics. For example, if the goal is to “be the best CS team,” it should be articulated as “achieving a best-in-class CSAT score of 86% (or a 10% increase YoY).” Remember, that which gets measured, matters.

Furthermore, a third problem with goals is determining where to track them. Should they be stored in a spreadsheet? Are they documented in a PowerPoint deck? Even worse, are they in a dozen different powerpoint decks with no systematic connection to the bigger picture?

Research:

The Marketing operations team ran a pilot of the company’s existing goal tracking system (Betterworks) to test its feasibility for the marketing department. The results were very low adoption, with most department members ignoring them, not setting them or worse even, not even knowing they existed.

Options:

The available paths to solve the 3 problems were.

  1. Use workshop sessions to validate goals as they are presented. They should be co-authored within each team and red-teamed within the department to strengthen the direction. This takes trust and vulnerability to offer feedback along the lines of, “I don’t think accomplishing Team Goal 3 will contribute to Department Goal A, or Company Goal I.”
  2. Decide on a methodology of goal setting. OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results and is a foundational approach to ensuring goals connect throughout the hierarchy of an organization. The problem is, they can be tricky to connect and require careful consideration in order to cascade up and down the food chain.

Choice:

The Marketing Operations team ran a far more successful and satisfying pilot using Asana, the de facto work management system of record for department, team and individual goal setting and tracking.

Results:

The effort led to a fundamental connection between goals and work. Having the work systematically connected helped the triage team prioritize work, and gave visibility into goals and strategies with no projects or tasks.

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