OKR Enablement is key for any OKR program’s success, and by extension OKR Captains are key for successful OKR Enablement. So when we tried to find out what an OKR Captain should be doing, we got a whole list of answers that led to many interesting insights, which we wanted to share with you. We’ve had some amazing conversations as part of this exercise and here is a summary of our recommendations.
We have enumerated the ideal attributes of an OKR Captain, using the job description format. Every job description focuses on two major areas. One is who you are, and the second section is what is expected out of you or what you need to accomplish:
- Who you are. Skills, qualifications and prior experience.
- What do you need to accomplish? What are the responsibilities of the person taking on that job, results and expected business impact.
The OKR Captain job description
In our job description picture, we have two sections – Capabilities & Commitments mimicking traditional job descriptions. The left section focuses primarily on what skills and qualifications are needed to be considered an OKR Captain. The key theme is “capabilities” that you already need to have. The right half talks about what someone needs to accomplish in this role.
We have further subdivided both the halves into two roles each. On the capabilities side, we have the expert and educator roles and on the commitments side, we have the enabler and enforcer roles. Any OKR Captain should be able to play these 4 roles effectively. Now let’s delve deeper into these 4 roles.
An OKR Captain needs to be certified. If they have no background on OKRs, those who are asked to follow the advice of these Captains will find very little reason to trust them. It will be a classic false start. Your OKR program wouldn’t get anywhere close to where you wanted, because you didn’t even get started right. Now, if you don’t have an expert OKR Captain, do get some outside help. Qualified and certified consultants can help you bridge this gap. Let’s understand what we expect the expert to bring to the table.
In general, rolling out your OKR program is a reasonably big change management effort. Understanding expectations will help set, adjust objectives for the OKR program. We’ve seen multiple times within our customer base that different personas within the company have very different expectations.
While persona has been a very important marketing concept, we found this extremely useful to create a very good collection of employee & user expectations. As in marketing, you can’t do this for all the employees in the company. You have to take a representative sample by looking at different functions, titles and try to profile them using the following four areas.
Accountabilities and responsibilities
- What are their job duties?
- What are they accountable for?
- What are they responsible for delivering for the organization?
- What do their managers expect out of them?
- What do their colleagues and team members expect out of them?
Wants and needs
- What are their growth ambitions?
- How do they want their day at the job to be?
- What culture excites them?
- What kind of colleagues do they want to be associated with?
Pain points and frustrations
- How much control do they have in driving their outcomes? Do they have too much dependency on others? How do they reduce or manage those dependencies?
- What problems do they face on their day-to-day job?
- What keeps them up at night?
What questions do they need to answer
- What do they need to answer to their bosses, to their peers, to their counterparts in other departments?
- What kind of information needs that they have from an operational standpoint?
Expanding every persona’s profile into these four areas and cataloging those profiles will help you with an amazing program to start with.
Command employee trust
A Captain needs to be trusted by employees. If I don’t trust the person who is preaching to me or leading me from the front, I won’t follow and there ends the program. A Captain has to earn this trust.
If they are completely new to OKRs, we recommend most of our clients to structure their OKR program into prepare, launch, and scale phases. The prepare phase typically can range from 4 weeks to a couple of quarters, with most companies taking about 8 weeks. Why do we have such a wide variability in duration – 4 weeks to 2 quarters? The key challenge here is that there are several factors that need to be taken into consideration. Sometimes just getting everyone in the room can take 2 weeks. So, it’s not like you can turn on OKRs one fine day. Smaller companies or teams may even finish the “prepare” phase well within four weeks.
With that preface, the company needs to have an expert that employees trust. The OKR Captain needs to create an environment where employees trust. Employees shouldn’t be in two minds. You need them to commit to the program 100%. They should be fully convinced about the idea of OKRs. They should feel very safe to try and fail a few times and finally get it right. And the OKR Captain should be seen as a person that employees believe in and can go to. This should not be based on position or belonging to a certain department or function. They should really trust that this person is a solid expert in the area and that they can rely on his judgment.
An open mind is a great starting point. You don’t want to be seen as someone who comes down with a heavy hand for sure. That is DISASTER. If you are a my way or the highway type of person, you will struggle to be a good OKR Captain. OKR Captains need to be really flexible in understanding where employees are coming from. What are the personas they are dealing with and adjust their approach towards each persona. We talked about personas, their fears, pains and needs. The Captain needs to make sure that they tailor some of the aspects of the OKRs methodology for them, so they will have an easier wall to climb. There are certain things that are rules that we want to follow. There are other areas where you can say, “Hey, we’ll experiment. We’ll give you this deviation. You go do things your way and then come back and we’ll evaluate and see if we can adopt a slightly different process.” That kind of an environment needs to be created where employees trust the Captain.
Master of OKR concepts
For aspiring OKR Captains, it is very important to have a great attitude and learn the various aspects of becoming and being an OKR Captain. It is very difficult to be a Captain without adequate preparation. You will feel like you are at the center of everything. Top management will ask you questions. Middle managers will seek your help and every level of the organization will look up to you. So, if you are going to be an OKR Captain, prepare yourselves. Do not treat this as a part time job.
You may be attending training programs, you may be attending certifications and other things, and again, you can’t become a master of OKR concepts overnight. It’s not that the concepts are all very hard and tough to understand. It’s also not that straightforward where you just read a book and you are an OKR expert. There are a lot of little things you have to get right. It’s not one big thing. Lots of little things have to be taken care of. As you iterate over a few times, you’ll master all the nuances of OKRs. Because there are a lot of little things, it takes some practice to become perfect. And when somebody becomes a master of the OKR concept, they usually help the organization do well.
For businesses considering an OKR journey, remember that empty vessels make the most noise. Considering the criticality of the role, you don’t want an OKR Captain who has no idea. You are setting out to establish a culture of measuring and focusing on the metrics and initiatives that will drive your business in the right direction. You want to clearly separate noise from signals and manage your OKR program well. You cannot manage that with someone who has no idea and more importantly doesn’t have the right capability and/or capacity to learn and be a good Captain. You want experts to tell you what to do, not novices.
But, there are only so many of them that are available who are a great fit for the role. So, if you’re trying to create an internal Captain, it’s totally fine. The organization, as well as the Captain, needs to be aware of where they are in terms of the conceptual understanding of OKRs. If the conceptual understanding is not that great, then being very aware of that and taking active steps to improve conceptual understanding is very important. You need to know the gaps and invest in bridging those gaps.
Culture eats Strategy for breakfast. Why? Strategy defines the framework for an organization’s collective action and decision making. When done right, it provides clarity to all employees on what the mission is and why everyone is rallying behind that mission. Great strategies can be clearly supported by plans that include well defined outcomes across the organization.
Culture on the other hand is a lot harder to define and enforce. There are no clear demarcations between different cultural patterns. You need to hire right, treat the right people right, train everyone on desired behaviors and keep shaping and polishing your culture.
We primarily focus on business performance with OKRs. But we need to understand that business performance equals the sum of all individual performances minus the organizational waste.
And this organizational waste is partly created due to poor strategy and poor planning, but mostly created due to bad culture.
Every organization has its own culture. This is who we are and who we want to be. An OKR Captain needs to leverage those cultural aspects of the business and facilitate a change in the culture where it needs to be changed. The OKR Captain who is in the middle of all of these things should be a culture ambassador and should be seen as a culture ambassador by everybody. Not as someone who is intent on completely throwing everything out of the window and then starting from zero. There are certain things that you need to preserve, there are others that you need to enhance/change and then there are some more that you need to discard/forget while you are on your OKR journey. A good OKR Captain will see that culture is different from strategy and will work towards creating a culture that will support the strategy.
Being an expert in your industry generally helps you in giving a lot more relevant guidance to your team members. If you are in the fintech business, having someone with good fintech exposure as your OKR Captain helps. This is one aspect of an OKR Captain where internal candidates generally have an advantage over external candidates or consultants without industry exposure.
Even if it is not direct, some adjacency might help. While this is not such a big deal breaker, it is an important aspect.
You should not only be an expert, but should excel in teaching how others can become experts. Not necessarily to be expert OKR Captains, but expert managers and expert practitioners. You should have a clear understanding of the personas you are dealing with, their roles and ensure that you educate them appropriately.
The whole reason why we focus so much on educators is because the OKR journey is not just about telling people to do something and then measure later. There’s going to be a lot of coaching and educating as you go through the process. Continuous education is part of the journey.
Isn’t it sufficient to be just a teacher? Probably yes. But if you look at this in conjunction with some of the aspects in the Expert area, you’ll realize that if you can prepare yourselves to captivate your audience, you’ll be a lot more successful in convincing your colleagues that you are an OKR expert. The contrary is true as well – if you are a bad teacher, you will be perceived as an empty vessel.
The OKR Captain should be someone that people would want to listen to. So, how do you become a good or captivating teacher? Prepare, prepare, prepare. The slides you use, the message you convey in each slide should be prepared for the audience (appropriate personas) and delivered with confidence. When you prepare your material well, and rehearse your delivery, anyone can become a captivating teacher.
Great teachers can deliver great training. But great OKR Captains should also be able to create great material. You should be able to design and create courses that are tailored for your company and users. You can certainly get some material as a starting point from Profit.co, but they are just starting points.
The OKR Captain, with their industry knowledge, OKR knowledge, and certainly, with the awareness of the personas they are dealing with, should be able to create a nice course that focuses on OKR methodology in general and how the methodology is deployed as part of your OKR program. In larger businesses there will be multiple Captains (you may need roughly 1 Captain for every 250 employees. Not all of them need to be full time Captains) and these programs will be run multiple times. So, courses need to be designed and produced for repeated use.
OKR Captains should be very comfortable in leveraging case studies that are available outside of the company, as well as sometimes you learn from your own experiences internally. Taking a particular business scenario and showing how you created OKRs for that scenario, how you executed and how you learnt from it would go a long way to reinforce the concepts. In many ways OKR implementations are like management consulting engagements.
As many of you may know, case studies are extremely popular in the management consulting world, as well as in MBA courses that produce amazing management consultants. So using case studies would be very, very helpful in driving the message home. Sometimes even made up case studies or stories (remember the novel “The Goal”) help convey the appropriate message.
Additionally, you can have course participants talk about their relevant experiences which may add a new dimension to the class. Although these are not necessarily case studies, where you have a typical structure of a business problem, analysis, and solution/recommendation, there is still learning. So, the idea here is to use case studies, stories and personal examples to get the message across.
The OKR Captain has to be committed to the methodology to begin with. We talked about them being a master of the OKR concept, but the OKR methodology itself is evolving at a really rapid pace, even though it has been around for 50 years. OKR methodology is almost like the linux movement of management methodologies. If something is good in a competing methodology, OKR consultants are adding that part to their OKR methodology. And once many consultants start talking about that part, it gets added to the OKR vocabulary.
A good OKR Captain is someone who is committed to the methodology by sharing and participating in communities, understanding what’s going on in different places. At a minimum you need to be aware of what is going on. You can then select those parts that make sense and bring them into your OKR program. When you subscribe to thought leadership from open communities as well as you contribute your thought leadership you will continue to stay relevant as an educator.
Any time we have educational sessions, assessments and certifications are a good way to measure the effectiveness of those sessions. Conduct brief surveys with the participants to understand what they have learned. The evaluation should focus on the aspects of the training and should be able to measure the preparedness of course participants to incorporate those learnings into their day to day job.
Assessments need not be individual assessments. They could be group activities as well. A good example for a group activity would be to divide the entire class into 5 groups and have them each come up with OKRs for a fictitious (or real) business that faces a particular challenge, such as “falling demand.”
You should get feedback on the courses as well. You want to be good with your OKRs too so getting that feedback is very useful to measure yourself and improve.
Many times people think that buying an OKR software is equivalent to a successful OKR program. Nothing can be further from the truth. That is almost the same as saying you buy a CRM software and Sales automatically happens.
Enablement is key. Enablement involves:
- Considering several company specific factors
- Learning industry best practices
- Designing your OKR program
- Tailoring the software to ensure that it supports your OKR program in the most optimal manner possible
Needless to say, you need to have an extremely flexible software platform to be able to tailor it to your needs. All in all, you need to play this role effectively so your organization gets prepared well for the OKR program.
Program design is also called as deployment parameters by some consultants. Understanding the culture of the company and understanding the different personas will help you with the program design. Program design involves a lot of decisions around how you want your OKR program to be. Some examples:
- OKR Calendar
- What is the length of your OKR Cycle? Most common is quarters. Sometimes we have seen people pick 4 months as a cycle with 3 cycles per year. We have also seen half year as cycles.
- How often do you want your check-ins to happen? There can be some standard for the company, but you may want to offer multiple options for your employees. For example, you may set 1st and 3rd Fridays as the check-in dates for most key results, but allow your users to check-in every Friday on the shorter side or once a month on the longer side.
- OKR structure
- How many key result types do you want to support?
- Do you want to capture any additional information as part of your objective or key result definition?
- What KPIs should you enable for employees to use?
- What milestone sequence templates should you offer to your employees?
- Check-in Hygiene
- How do you ensure that employees check-in with appropriate information? What custom information should you capture during the check-in process to ensure that you have good quality check-ins.
Profit.co is a very flexible product and supports all kinds of options, but you probably have to sit and tailor it to your needs. Figuring your organization’s specific needs will help set the right tone for your OKR program.
You have departments and teams established and operating already and we are not really talking about changing that now. We are referring to two things – your organization’s department team structure and the OKR program team.
You may need to refine your teams/departments so that OKRs can be planned and set with clarity. In general OKRs are set at the team level, with Objectives owned by the departments/teams, but KRs are owned by individual employees. You may want to divide a team into sub teams and again further divide them. We have seen large corporations have 7-8 levels of team hierarchy. Sometimes with just one employee, because their philosophy is that OKRs are function centric and employees can move around a lot, which shouldn’t change the team priorities.
The OKR program team should be created with representatives from appropriate departments. You roughly need an OKR Captain for every 100 to 200 employees, depending on which function we are talking about. And you might want to have a representative from every key function in the program team, even if that team/department has 5 employees. Not all functions need representation, but key functions do need.
There are lots of best practices around creating good OKRs, running an OKR program effectively and other aspects of an OKR program. OKR Captains should be able to leverage these – you certainly don’t want to reinvent the wheel – but definitely look at your organization’s maturity level, and culture and customize the playbook as needed. There is no right or wrong answer for many of the questions.
- What makes sense to you?
- What doesn’t make sense to you?
There are many paths to success. You need to design your path and create playbooks that can be leveraged by your team to achieve success.
For example, you may use the PPP approach for reviews, which stands for Progress, Plan and Problems. There are many other approaches:
- Start, Stop, Continue
- Start doing something new
- Stop doing something that you’ve been doing and,
- Continue doing something that you’ve been doing
- What, So What, Now What
- What happened
- How does that matter?
- What are you going to do now?
There are literally hundreds of such methodologies and frameworks that can be adopted into your OKR program to address specific aspects of your OKR program.
Wise people learn from others’ mistakes. How do you create a culture of learning? How do you ensure that people learn from their mistakes as well as others mistakes while they’re going through their work and their OKR journey? As we’ve mentioned earlier, you go through the prepare, launch, and scale phases as part of your OKR journey. In some cases, “prepare” can go for a couple of quarters, and then launch for another couple of quarters. With a good knowledge sharing process/practice, both online and offline you can ensure that your program stays on track and gets to the scaling stage sooner rather than later. This is dependent on the organization’s ability to take up this program in terms of their size and their ability to dedicate some full-time resources to this effort.
Regardless of ability to commit resources, you really need to have knowledge sharing exercises where people are able to simply share information and best practices. During these sessions, when people open up, new insights emerge and many times, these shared experiences help point out general problem areas or where a particular group may be struggling a bit more than the others. You may also get good ideas that might need you to look for newer ways of doing things.
Coming up with that knowledge sharing program/plan is very important for OKR enablement. You can’t simply ask people to share and hope they share their knowledge. You need to set the rhythm. Some regular frequency is important. For example Brown Bag sessions once a month or once in 6 weeks is one approach. Companies should sponsor lunches and the session should be well organized with speakers internal and/or external. These sessions and community portals and several other approaches to share knowledge creates an amazing level of commitment and engagement from employees.
Pretty much in every place, OKRs are brought in to enable change, transforming the business from one that has significant activity orientation into one that has significant outcome orientation. Thus, the most important aspect of OKR enablement is outcome accountability. Most OKR programs strive to achieve outcome orientation and accountability. You don’t want to be seen as a busy bee all the time, but a busy bee that produces the best honey all the time. Without the honey, all the flying around is useless.
For example, if I am a marketing manager, demand generation is my responsibility, and the number of leads that I generate could be one of my outcomes, but if I’m somebody who’s working for the marketing manager and I am incharge of the digital marketing team, then how many relevant visitors did I bring to the website through my efforts is the outcome that I’m accountable for. So having people to start understanding the different outcomes that they’re responsible for and accountable for is very important. The enablement part needs to accomplish that. This will help people to create good OKRs which is covered in enforcement, later on.
This is probably the most important of the 4 roles that an OKR Captain should be playing. Strong enforcement backed by continuous improvement will ensure that an organization executes its business strategy with very little wastage and far more accuracy.
Program rhythm needs to be good. The program design which is essentially represented in your OKR calendar needs to be adhered to more or less to have a good program rhythm. For example, wrapping up a quarter or period within a week of finishing that quarter is very important. Similarly there are other key dates in a program. Ensuring that they happen with as little deviation as possible is very important.
When your program is off-rhythm, you’ll see a domino effect of downstream dates slipping and eventually create an impression that this program is unsustainable. Many times, companies draw the wrong conclusion that OKR is too fast or OKR is not a good fit for our culture and so on. Nothing is far from the truth. We see adoption and customers across all industries. While OKRs do require a mindset change, they are definitely sustainable in the long run and have a ratchet effect once you get it right. So, once you get it right, you won’t know any other way to run your business.
Good quality OKRs are an essential condition to drive outcome accountability in the organization. So, encouraging your employees to create good quality OKRs will help you show better outcome tracking and consequently better outcome accountability in your organization. This is a very simple, but powerful link.
Writing good OKRs is part art and part science. There are several guidelines on this. Coming up with good KRs individually and collectively as a group needs to be thought through carefully.
A problem that is well defined is 50% solved. Would this work for OKRs? Absolutely. We know that getting your OKRs crafted well requires a lot of thought and experimentation. In one of our examples, we realized that we had the wrong KRs after 3 weeks. So, an OKR, once well crafted, is definitely half solved.
Until you reach the well crafted part, you may have to keep searching and iterating to get that right. This search could be considered a waste of time, but what used to happen before was that we would just let those wasteful initiatives continue and get completed. In the “new way” of working, once you realize that what you are doing is not that useful, you should cut your losses, fail fast and move on. This helps you to avoid large scale waste in the organization.
If you don’t pay attention to quality, you may create some OKRs which are not that great, and even if you accomplish them, it’s pretty useless for the company. So, the value of the program will be questioned. So ensuring that you have a good process to improve the quality of your OKRs as you iterate through several quarters is very important from an enforcement standpoint.
Once the OKRs are well defined, you need to ensure that check-ins happen on time. Check-ins are supposed to happen on time at different layers of the organization. If you do not have good check-in discipline, you will see tension at higher levels of the organization that they are not able to finish their check-ins since they depend on several lower level or cross team key results.
People have different reasons to not check in on time – some genuine and many that could’ve been handled. This is our most favorite excuse– “Oh, I got a reminder, but forgot to get back to it” – but the Captain needs to just put their foot down and say, “Guys. Fridays, you just need to check in at the end of the day, okay? If you can’t check in, you better have an explanation for it.” Obviously, being on vacation is obviously an acceptable explanation, but as long as you’re working, getting check-ins done and done on time is important.
While people say different things, check-ins are supposed to be simple. You act on the notification to just check-in regularly and that’s all you need to do. It really is a matter of commitment to the “new” way of doing things.
You need to invest in check-ins becoming a habit. There must be positive reinforcement. We must reward those who have an impeccable record of check-ins. We have seen companies set aside a % of the variable pay or incentives to check-in discipline.
So, if you manage to get check-ins happening on time, it will be a very good, clean indicator of a successful OKR program in the making. Even if you have bad quality OKRs to begin with, if you check in regularly, you will realize pretty soon that, “Hey, I have made some mistakes with the way I framed this Objective or Key Result. On the flip side, even if you have really good OKRs that you’ve begun with, if you don’t check in often, it’s pretty useless. The program will fail. We know that through our experience with multiple clients.
If you ask us what is the single most important item out of these 20 impact areas we started off with, this will be it. As long as you ensure that your managers review their teams’ OKRs as well as their team members’ OKRs regularly, you can rest assured that the other bubbles will automatically happen. And this is something that the OKR Captain needs to enforce. Are people conducting reviews regularly with their team members and making sure that employees get appropriate feedback on progress and feedback+help if there is significant lack of progress.
When you review regularly, your employees have to check-in regularly, ensuring check-in discipline, which ensures good quality OKRs in subsequent iterations thereby ensuring that you are working your way towards a great OKR program.
And the reverse is true. If a manager doesn’t review regularly, check-in discipline will deteriorate and you’ll end up with bad quality OKRs through your system which will ultimately lead to a failed OKR program. In the example that we were referring to earlier, the SEO analyst may check-in regularly on his OKRs, saying that he generated X new visits and provides updates on the initiatives he/she is taking to improve this outcome as planned. But if the manager is not sitting and reviewing that regularly, then check-in discipline deteriorates automatically.
If you have check-in discipline, bad quality OKRs become good quality OKRs in due course. As an employee checks in regularly, they’ll recognize when their OKR needs to be refined and as they continuously improve, the quality of their OKRs start improving in due course.
And these three – Review discipline, check-in discipline and good OKR quality – will ensure that your OKR program is alive and thriving.
OKR program audits
In regular intervals OKR Captains should audit the program either by themselves or use an external auditor. It could be once in six months, or a quarter, but conducting those audits will reveal areas of improvement, which will enable the business to do even better.
Most teams set out with a plan, but end up accomplishing somewhere in between 0 to 100%. Sometimes even negative progress – we’ve heard the famous “one step forward and two steps backwards” phrase. These outcome gaps should be analyzed and understood. The key focus of these audits is to avoid OKRs becoming yet another checkbox to check.
An audit should cover many aspects to produce the full picture and implement course corrections before the next iteration. For example, when you look at check-in discipline and how managers enforced them, you can get some insights as to why some managers have a bigger gap than others, when it comes to accomplishing their objectives and key results. When you look at several key aspects and thoroughly analyze you’ll get amazing insights that will help you drive your OKR program in a very scientific way.
Becoming an OKR Captain
We’ve got tons of experience with hundreds of clients and summarized our learnings here. We’ve used this to teach prospective OKR Captains and have helped create many OKR Captains through our program. We’ve analyzed the different roles OKR Captains need to play and five areas that they need to excel in, within each of those roles.
The big idea here is to provide a roadmap for such a person, answering questions like:
- Okay, so I’m an aspiring OKR Captain. What do I need to do?
- Where am I today?
- What am I missing?
You can easily assess yourselves by looking at these 20 items. And then prepare your journey to become a complete OKR Captain. This catalog can help all the future OKR Captains to prepare themselves for an exciting journey in the OKR field going forward.
Making or assembling an OKR Captain
It’s very hard to get somebody who checks all these 20 items and so, it’s important to understand this need not necessarily be a single person. It could be a package of people. So if you are deciding on your OKR Captain, you have a couple of options:
- Find the best fit and nurture them into the role through training and community learning. With the right attitude, people can always pick up and we’ve seen that happen multiple times.
- Assemble an OKR Captain team where you can get multiple people to play the appropriate roles. It could be a couple playing two roles each or four people playing four different roles
Armed with this perspective and knowledge about the role and responsibilities of an OKR Captain, organizations can choose the right Captain or the right group of people and nurture them through training and community learning to experience the power of OKRs.