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Implement OKR, they said. The whole company will love it, they said.

If you’re gonna implement OKR, then make sure employees know how they’ll benefit from it

Henrik-Jan van der Pol
Story by
Henrik-Jan van der Pol

Founder & CEO, PerdooHenrik-Jan is a well-known thought leader in the OKR space, and previously consulted for companies like Heineken. He has accompanied several hundred OKR implementations at companies worldwide, just la… (show all) Henrik-Jan is a well-known thought leader in the OKR space, and previously consulted for companies like Heineken. He has accompanied several hundred OKR implementations at companies worldwide, just launched a fully free OKR software at Perdoo, published multiple e-books (which have been downloaded close to 50K times) and videos (which have been watched close to 200K times) on the topic of OKR.

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OKR has gained popularity as the secret sauce behind Google’s unparalleled success. Many companies and startups around the world choose to implement OKR to help accelerate their business growth. In a nutshell, the goal management method OKR stands for “Objectives” and “Key Results.” The Objective tells you where your company wants to go, the Key Results are the results that employees need to achieve in order for the company to get there. 

When you read about OKR, you often read about the advantages that it has for a business, such as becoming better aligned or becoming more results-driven — but the effect on employees is rarely mentioned.

I have accompanied hundreds of OKR implementations at companies worldwide and even trained Google on how to build OKR. From my experience it’s not fully clear across organizations if employees also benefit from OKR. So let’s take a closer look at that.

[Read: How to be a digital disrupter at your company — without getting fired]

Popular complaints from employees

You don’t have to search long to find research and statistics that expose everything that — according to employees — is wrong with today’s workplaces. There’s also tons of research available that highlights everything that today’s employees want from their work:

  • According to management expert Dave Ulrich and psychologist Wendy Ulrich, employees are happier and thrive when their work has a clear purpose, and has meaning. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Work management platform Wrike found that employees need purpose even more than pay to be happy and productive.
  • Facebook examined hundreds of thousands of answers from their employee surveys, concluding that purpose is one of three things that employees value most. 
  • Gallup found that employees want frequent conversations with their managers about their responsibilities and progress. Furthermore, clarity of expectations (i.e. having clear goals) is perhaps the most basic of employee needs.
  • The People Management Survey 2018 discovered that 58 percent of workers said that a boss’s worst trait is not setting clear goals.
  • According to American economist Linda Hill, currently the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, employees are motivated when the goals they’re working on are connected to larger company goals.
  • Apparently, employees hate micromanagement. Author Harry Chambers reveals in his book My Way or the Highway that 79 percent of workers had experienced micromanagement. Approximately 69 percent said they considered changing jobs because of micromanagement and another 36 percent actually changed jobs.
  • Staffing agency Robert Half found that 12 percent of employees who want to leave their job, are looking for an organization with a higher purpose/stronger mission. Another 12 percent because they feel unchallenged.

When you go through such research, you’d expect employees to fully embrace OKR because if implemented well, OKR has the potential to tackle most, if not all, of the problems reported above.

How OKR can improve life for employees

OKR’s effect on employee’s sense of purpose depends entirely on the implementation. But there are certain key benefits that I believe employees do get from OKR:

  • OKR usually starts with the mission and vision of the company, connecting employees’ work to a higher purpose.
  • OKR promotes alignment: A good OKR implementation connects quarterly goals that employees work on to the higher-level goals of the company.
  • By making employees responsible for results — instead of tasks — they are naturally protected against micromanagement.
  • OKRs are clear, specific, and measurable, so that everyone knows exactly what he or she is responsible for.
  • OKRs and their progress are discussed in a weekly or bi-weekly 1-on-1 between a manager and his/her direct report.

Sounds great? Well, like I said it all depends on implementation. So let’s take a look on how that’s likely to happen within your organization.

How your organization will embrace OKR

Despite the clear benefits that OKR offers to employees, here’s what often happens when organizations rollout OKR:

  • 20 percent of employees are promoters: They immediately get it, and embrace it from the start. 
  • 60 percent of employees are passives: They’re a bit skeptical, and perhaps they have every right to be so. They may have seen similar initiatives fail, so they first need to see that the organization is serious about it. Once they see that this ‘thing called OKR is here to stay,’ and they’ve seen what it can do, the majority of them become promoters as well.
  • 20 percent of employees are detractors: Often because they simply oppose change. But also because, to them, OKR means “just extra work.”

Obviously, judging by this, the most important thing for implementing OKR the right way is how you get ‘detractors’ onboard.

How to deal with detractors

After the decision to implement OKR in your organization, to make it successful, you should offer your employees everything it takes to make them understand how OKR works and what the benefits of working with OKR will bring.

Still, there will be employees who either don’t see, or don’t care about, the problems that OKR can solve for the organization. They need to understand that OKR is an important tool for the organization, it’s a means to an end.

The organization has ambitions that it wants to realize. To realize those ambitions, it needs a strategy. And to deliver that strategy it needs goals (such as OKRs, but also KPIs), and those goals needs to be achieved. Whether or not employees like those goals, they were hired to work on them. The implementation of OKR can therefore also help you to identify which employees are truly interested in helping the company to succeed and — which are not.

So if you’re looking to successfully implement OKR, make sure to convey what employees get out it — both to improve your company, and to make their jobs more fulfilling.

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Published February 7, 2020 — 13:04 UTC

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