The COVID-19 pandemic forced organizations to transform their operations during the first six months of 2020, with lockdowns and social distancing rules driving a massive shift from centralized office working to remote working, affecting teams across all departments and putting many projects on hold.
Moving into the second half of the year, the pressure is on to get these projects back on track and project management teams back to work, and in the new post-pandemic, ‘normal’ many organizations are adopting an OKR, objectives and key results-based approach to help them achieve those goals in challenging times.
OKR is a goal-setting framework for defining and tracking objectives and their outcomes, with improved focus, transparency, and alignment that are achieved by organizing team members and their work around the pursuit of common objectives. Developed by former Intel boss Andy Grove in the 1980s, OKRs remained fairly obscure until a fledgling Google adopted them some 20 years later. Today many of the world’s largest organizations are using them.
A fundamental principle of OKRs is that output is greater when people strive for achievements that are beyond their grasp, even though it could lead to failure. This may seem at odds with the way that project managers typically approach goal-setting; factoring in safety and risk management, but rarely opportunity management. Given the demand for organizations to set and meet more ambitious goals, a more aspirational approach to project management could be a welcome move.
OKRs are not a project management tool, but a valuable addition to the toolkit, an interface between project and strategy that can be used in conjunction with other project management software and online tools, such as LiquidPlanner.
For the project management team OKRs offer a number of benefits:
Increased focus and productivity
It is the scale and focus of OKRs that can give them the edge over other goal-setting methodologies, such as KPIs (key performance indicators). By design, OKRs attribute quantitative goals to qualitative objectives, enabling teams to focus on numeric deliverables while working toward broader aspirations. And by putting the emphasis on effort and progress OKRs indirectly have a positive impact on productivity.
Closer team alignment
For a project to succeed, everyone involved must be aligned, and clear about the end goal and how it will be achieved. By keeping the vision, goals, and objectives front and center for every member of the team, OKRs can support more effective collaboration and agreement on priorities and outcomes.
OKRs not only define qualitative objectives but also key results that make it quantitatively measurable, whether or not the goals have been achieved. The key results element of OKRs effectively become the project yardstick. Project managers can check-in at shorter intervals to ensure that an initiative is running strategically in the right direction, and has a clear result. Where this is not the case, they can intervene and make the necessary changes to get things back on track, which can lead to long term savings on resources.
Boosting team motivation
Effective teams know why they work together and which goals they want to achieve. OKRs help to make goals transparent by defining not just the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, via key results, but most importantly the ‘why’, through the clear objectives. With a deeper understanding of the vision and the goals, project management teams are more motivated and engaged.
Creating a culture of ambition
OKRs encourage companies and their teams to set the bar higher. Where KPIs are often set around a project that is already in place, OKRs push team members beyond their comfort zones and encourage them to strive for goals that are otherwise thought to be impossible.
In a post-pandemic world, OKRs are becoming one of the most valuable tools in the company or project toolkit, providing a comprehensive framework for establishing and tracking goals with greater clarity, focus and agility. The benefits of well-defined OKRs are clear, however, there are challenges in implementing them correctly; poorly set, OKRs can hinder progress rather than enhancing it.
The purpose of creating OKRs is to motivate individuals to aim for ambitious goals, however, those goals need to be realistic to avoid people becoming disengaged by unachievable goals. They also need to be set with the buy-in of everyone in the team or organization, not just the senior management.
OKRs should focus on outcomes rather than outputs. They are not are checklists of every single task that the team is required to do, but lists that describe what needs to be done to achieve a certain goal.
Clarity around how OKRs will be tracked is also important. They are only effective when they are created with specific goals and qualifiable numbers that are regularly and closely monitored by a designated member of the team.
Industries and markets are changing rapidly as they adapt to new ways of working after COVID-19. Factors such as agility and adaptability will play a vital role in the successful outcome of any project or initiative, and the presence of OKRs in the project management tool bag will enable organizations and their teams to be agile and adaptable.
Andy Grove’s uncanny 1994 insight into unprecedented times still rings true today: ‘Bad companies are destroyed by a crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.’ The same can be said for project management teams.