Wednesday 19 July 2023

Data-Driven OKR Success 

Power BI and lessons from Google

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are appealing to any company wanting to focus their people on achieving meaningful objectives. However, not everyone who sets out to implement OKRs does so effectively. As one of the original OKR success stories, Google abounds with insightful lessons, including that OKRs are driven by data.

What are OKRs?

OKR stands for objectives and key results: the objective being the big, aspirational thing to be achieved, and key results being the measurable steppingstones to get there. 

One of the most famous objectives ever set was by John F Kennedy:

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth." 

As big, hairy, audacious goals go, this was right up there. Kennedy made his speech in May 1961, putting NASA behind schedule before they got started. But NASA defined their key results in a specific, measurable, and time bound way. They put data at the heart of every step, analysing every success and failure to provide the understanding they needed to progress. In 1969, with the world watching, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, before being returned safely to earth. 

Not all objectives are as huge as putting a man on the moon, but using data to measure success and failure, is relevant to any goal.

OKRs at Google

In his book, "Measure What Matters," John Doerr explains the OKR system, and how he introduced it to Google. There was already a data culture at Google, so OKRs made a lot of sense to them. What OKRs added, was a framework to enhance Google’s performance.

Data Isn’t Useful without Communication

Data, analysis, and effective communication lie at the heart of successful OKRs. Merely setting an objective isn’t enough; leaders need reliable data and a robust way to communicate it. Otherwise, there’s no ability to learn from failure, and no motivation to improve. 

And as remote work becomes more prevalent, creating a culture of improvement becomes even more important. Rigorous and intentional data-driven communication becomes essential, as John Doerr points out.

Leveraging Microsoft Power BI

Fortunately, modern data technologies make data management easier. Microsoft Power BI, with its ability to connect to various data sources and powerful visuals, helps leaders monitor and communicate key results efficiently. Its versatility makes it suitable for addressing both simple and complex problems. The fact that Power BI Desktop is freely downloadable empowers leaders with a tool that can kickstart their data journey. While it might not mark the end of their data exploration, it allows proof of concept projects to get everyone started. 

Empowering More Leaders

The success of OKRs at Google demonstrates that data is an integral part of the OKR system. By harnessing the power of data and effective communication, companies can unlock their full potential. Microsoft Power BI offers a robust solution to support this process, as well as being accessible to a broader range of leaders.

Sunday 16 July 2023

Making OKRs Actually Work

As a goal setting methodology, Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) have increased in popularity. Super successful companies like Intel and Google have credited OKRs as being central to their growth. Whilst these companies were certainly in the right place at the right time, there were other companies with similar ideas who did not do so well. Both Intel and Google excelled at using OKRs to focus their staff’s efforts on their most important objectives. Which I guess makes the idea worth a try.

But now that OKRs are relatively well known, why do some companies still struggle to make them work? To quote John Doerr, “Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.”

Just like ideas, the objective is only half the work. Key results, that is the execution half of the OKR, is all about figuring out how to measure progress, and putting effective communication tools in place. It’s arguably the more powerful half of the OKR. 

John Doerr also says that when Andy Grove used OKRs at Intel, he “demanded rigor, commitment, clear thinking, and intentional communication.” Of course, not every manager can be an Andy Grove or Sergey Brin. What John Doerr is telling us is that any manager can follow the OKR recipe to improve results. That recipe is something like:

  • Apply rigor in figuring out what data you need to get the best results.
  • Be committed to use that data to measure, monitor, and analyse what’s happening.
  • Find a way to intentionally communicate. Make the results and analysis highly visible, and allow everyone to have input into why things are going well or going badly.

Clear thinking sounds trickier, but actually improves by following the other steps.

I can think of many companies where managers play lip service to whatever goal-setting framework they are using. They set objectives, then forget about them almost as quickly. “Set and forget” is the very opposite of what OKRs require to actually work in practice. 

Are you using OKRs? Or another goal setting framework? Is your company guilty of “setting and forgetting”? Or are you benefitting from intentional communication?

Saturday 1 July 2023

Do Highly Effective Managers set Goals?

In theory, goal setting is an important part of business management. That’s what the management books say. Indeed, that’s what research says.

In practice, it’s a hit and miss ideal that is too often done by sleep walking through the process. 

Annika, a manager in a large global company told me:

“Yes, we set goals, but they tend to be reactive rather than strategic. There’s no formal reporting, they are just discussed one to one in meetings.” 

Patrick, who has worked in a (different) large global company for many years said:

“Yes, we have goals. But they don’t last long. They get forgotten and new goals are set. No one explains why the goals changed, and no one notices whether the original goal was met or not.”

Sally works in a (very) large public sector organisation, and she told me: 

“Yes, we have annual goals, but they don’t really matter.”

Is this typical? Or are there managers out there using goals in an intelligent and effective way?

In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is. Apart from this being one of my favourite quotes, when it comes to goal setting the gap seems wide and deep. 

So, what’s the reason? Have managers been scarred by trying to set goals that no one will get behind? Have they worked hard to create goals that at best don’t produce the desired results, and at worst actively harm the organisation? Or do goals seem to be easy, but in practice are complicated little beasts?

I suspect there are some good reasons why people find goal setting – and goal achievement – difficult in an organizational setting.

First, let’s just review what research tells us is a “good” goal:

The goal is important. Oddly, people don’t like making an effort for goals that don’t matter. 

The goal is difficult. What is commonly referred to as a stretch goal. However, it also has to be achievable. People don’t go above and beyond for something they don’t believe is possible. 

The goal is measurable. Which implies you have a way to measure it. This isn’t always easy.

In the context of a busy division or department, when people are trying to work smart to get routine work done, you can see how goal setting doesn’t get done. Or if it does, it doesn’t get done well and everyone loses heart. 

Whether you are setting KPIs, or it's modern cousin the OKR, careful thought and work is needed to both create the goal and follow through with a good measurement sysem. 

So, is the reason that managers don’t set goals is that the process is difficult? And risky?

Would managers be more effective if they could set important goals, and follow through with accurate  reporting that allows everyone to see where they are, and what they need to do to be successful?

What do you think? Do you manage a team? Do you regularly set goals for your team? If so, how well does the process work? And how often do you follow through so that everyone can learn from the process?

Thursday 29 June 2023

Why didn't I achieve my goal?

“No one can hit their target with their eyes closed.”

- Paulo Coelho

At the beginning of the month, I set myself a goal. 

The goal was to finish a certain number of Pomodoros during the month. The details of how many, doesn’t really matter. For a long time now, I’ve measured the number of Pomodoros I complete in a day, a week, a month, etc. 

I set off with good intentions and a quiet confidence that I'll achieve my target. 

As I near the end of the month, it becomes obvious that things are not going well. By the end of the month, I’d completely failed to achieve it. In fact, I’ve achieved less than half the number I set as a goal.

So what? It happens. But does it have to? 

All data is good data, and perhaps this is just the stepping-stone I need. I attempt to figure out what went wrong. It’s a lot more fun to be successful than unsuccessful, at whatever it is you is trying to accomplish. 

Was the goal even achievable? Stretch goals are good, impossible goals are less motivating. 

Had I kept it in front of me during the month? Well, yes and no. I’d measured my Pomodoros every day, but if the information had been compelling enough, I would have reacted much earlier. By the time I’d realised I wasn’t completing enough Pomodoros, it was too late - I couldn’t get back on track.

What had gone wrong with my reporting? Why didn’t my data persuade me to act sooner?

The answer lies in the type of analytics I was looking at. I was reporting on how many Pomodoros I had done in a day, and week, or a month. I could compare to previous days, or weeks, months, and even years. I could look at trends and make comparisons. 

But none of my data told me WHY these things were happening. Why could I achieve more on one day than other?

The report I was using was descriptive, that is it reported faithfully what had happened. It might have had trends and comparisons, but it was still just descriptive.

What I need is diagnostic reporting. I need some insight into why some days are better than others. What factors make it more likely that my day will go well, and what are the danger signs that things are going off the rails. Diagnostic analytics reports on the factors that affect the outcome.

How do we know whether our analytics are descriptive, or diagnostic?

Descriptive analytics aggregates and compares data to understand trends and relationships. Achieving 15 Pomodoros in a day is descriptive. As is achieving 4 Pomodoros in a day (it happens).

Diagnostic analytics uses additional data to understand why it happened. An urgent deadline, and no appointments might be the explanation for completing 15 Pomodoros in a day. Back-to-back meetings and starting work late might explain 4 or less Pomodoros in a day.

Descriptive and diagnostic analytics can be used together or separately, and it’s worth knowing the difference between them. 

Monday 10 April 2023

Think twice before setting objectives

I’ve worked with some exceptional business coaches: people who are committed to helping others achieve more. I've learned new ideas, and become more effective in the way I work. But, there's one area of coaching that I'm far from convinced about - and that's objective setting. 

Coaches often encourage the person being coached to set objectives - ideally to be accomplished by the next session. You decide on what’s most important, and then commit to one or more tasks. It’s a worthy idea, but one that can go wrong unless handled with care. 

Don't misunderstand - concrete objectives are the life-blood of getting important stuff done. BUT - and that was a big but - it has to be done properly.

Here's my take on problems to avoid: 

1. Don't set objectives too quickly. Coaching sessions are often an hour in duration, which is mostly not long enough to devise meaningful objectives. What might sound like a good goal, can have problems that further thought would uncover. Such as finding data to support the objective, considering how the objective could be “gamed”, or thinking through the full implications of achieving it. Business books are scattered with examples of worthy objectives that have unfortunate consequences. Taking the time to consider what you are really trying to achieve, and what objective would best move you forward, isn’t time wasted. It’s time that’s needed to set good objectives. 

2. Don't forget to consult with colleagues. Coaching sessions are often one-to-one, so the whole issue of consultation often doesn’t get dealt with as thoroughly as it should be. And let’s face it, consulting can be a nuisance. It slows things down, and other people have different ideas, and differences of opinion aren't always resolved quickly. But consultation is vital in setting good business objectives - no matter how long it takes. 

3. Don't inadvertently set useless objectives. This busy work seems important, but actually has no value. The low hanging fruit is often easy, and quick to identify. But it doesn’t always move things forward. Too often it results in a warm glow of satisfaction and little in the way of real-world change. Tough, stretching objectives that change the world are more likely to emerge from the fire of heated debate, a bit of mind-changing, and enough thinking time to get them right. 

4. It's no use unless you can measure it. Sometimes the measure is obvious, but not always, And sometimes figuring out the right measure goes to the heart of the objective. And sometimes measuring the objective is a project in itself, which can also be awkward when everyone is keen just to get to the results. But unless the measure is clear, you are not going to know how to improve and how to hit the target. Unless you count that warm glow as a measure. 

Figuring out the important things, rather than the easy things, is hard work. It often takes research, deep thought, and lots of discussion with people who are not afraid to challenge your thinking. But having great (not just good )objectives makes a massive difference to a team’s effectiveness. It just has to be done carefully.

What do you think? Have you worked with a great business coach who has helped you devise great goals? Are you a coach who struggles with figuring out the right goals for the businesses you work with? What's your top tip for creating great objectives that really make a difference?

Leave a comment and let me know!

Monday 18 May 2020

The Language of Time

Stop and think. When were you last free from the worry of time passing? If you spend an hour daydreaming, you are wasting time. If your order takes too long in a restaurant, they are wasting your time. Did you sleep in? You have wasted the day! 
We also have a concept of who owns time, such as “do that in your own time!” Or doing things in “free time”.  
Even the idea that we have to stop in order to think gives us a clue. We are trying to live our lives at a speed which is too fast to even think.
The pressure of time is all around us. From an early age we have to be on time – nursery, school, lectures, and then work. Our language, and our culture, reinforces those beliefs all the time. 
What if we lived in a world without that pressure? What if our language did not reinforce the belief that time is well spent, or badly spent? What if ….
It turns out that there is a language that does express life as if everything is done to the beat of a drum. The Amondawa language[i], spoken by tribes in the Amazonian forest in Brazil, does not slice time into units, like hours or minutes, but into events. Instead of noon, there is the time to eat the mid-day meal. There is also something similar in the Chinese language – the time it takes to drink a cup of tea. 
I once read about ancient Aztecs using the cooking time of a potato[ii] as a unit of time measurement. They certainly ate potatoes, but their potatoes, in common with ours, would have varied in size. And the time they take to cook will vary with altitude. But maybe the time period was accurate enough for their needs. Or maybe the story is plain wrong. I don’t know but using time periods that are “accurate enough” is an interesting philosophical idea.
This argument does not just apply to ancient civilisations. Consider the time period used to measure sales in business. Measure sales monthly, and you shorten the sales cycle because salespeople are trying to close sales and get the credit before month end. Measure sales quarterly and the sales cycle is lengthened, for the same reason.
But how much influence does a salesperson have over the customer? Do they make their minds up at the speed that suits their business, not the seller’s? If you increase the pressure with a shorter sales cycle, you might risk more people cancelling after they have agreed. At the very least it is worth measuring.
What if you want a sales period that is not a month and is not a quarter? That is, we have no ready-made language for it, and no ready-made time unit, but it suits your business. This is not an esoteric point. Managing the sales cycle, giving enough time for each stage, and booking only solid business is beneficial to buyer and seller. 
The language of time has more influence over our actions than we are necessarily conscious of. Making our lives, and our businesses, fit within constructs that do not necessarily work for us may be more detrimental than we realise. 
We are living through strange times. Many notions that seemed immovable have moved. Like going into the office every day. Like putting up with the daily commute. Questioning our actions and questioning our language, could result in some interesting answers.

[i] Da Silva Sinha, Vera – Event-based Time in Three Indigenous Amazonian and Xinguan Cultures and Languages – 18 March 2019

Friday 9 December 2016

She's back!

Inspired by a quote from Seth Godin, Getting to Excellent is back. My intention was always to think and blog about how people create extraordinary businesses; cathedrals in their field. Seth Godin, who thinks deeply about such things said “You’re either remarkable or invisible.” He is not far off. Huge numbers visit Notre Dame when they are in Paris, relatively few see La Madeleine despite its fascinating history and Parthenon-like fa├žade.

It’s almost eight years since Getting to Excellent first appeared, and over a year since I last posted. Despite my absence (or perhaps because of it) hundreds of people read Getting to Excellent posts.

So in spite of the risk of reducing readership, I'm back ....