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[This article was first published in the Winter 2019 issue of Project – the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM). For more information on APM, see]

My OKR journey starts in Japan

Japan seems to be an odd choice of location to start my OKR story. I’ve never visited. But an article in the Times back in 2017 about the impact of increased tourism in Japan caught my interest. It started me on a journey through Abenomics, Building Cathedrals, and Silicon Valley start-ups. It is a journey that Larry Page and Sergey Brin went on when they built Google from nothing to a company with an $843bn market cap. And it’s a journey that will help you align your portfolio with your organization’s vision and inspire your project teams to achieve far more than they would dare to think is possible.
The article itself was a piece from The Times’ correspondent Richard Lloyd Parry, based in Tokyo. He was reflecting on the impact tourism was having on the city. But the bit that caught my attention was that the government had set a target of 20 million foreign visitors a year by the time the country hosts the Olympics in 2020. They achieved their goal five years early. But rather than sitting back and celebrating their success, they doubled the 2020 goal to 40 million. Still not satisfied, they went on to set an additional target of 60 million for 2030.
As someone who has delivered projects and managed portfolios, these achievements sounded incredible. When the 20 million goal had first been conceived, Japan had never seen visitor numbers above nine million. Choosing to set a goal of more than double that must have felt almost impossible to those in the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). But those nearly impossible goals are often the ones that inspire true greatness. Andy Grove, former Chairman, and CEO of Intel, certainly thought so when he first coined the term OKR (which is an acronym for Objectives and Key Results). He observed that output is greater when everyone strives for achievements beyond their immediate grasp – even though trying means failure half of the time.
Project Managers are not taught this. They are trained to come up with realistic goals, with safety and contingency built-in. Risk management features heavily, yet opportunity management seldom gets a mention. This conservative approach features in personnel management too. If your annual bonus is linked to you achieving an objective, where is your incentive to set yourself a goal that is stretching, audacious, and ambitious?

The OKR framework sets out to do something about that. It consists of an Objective statement (where we want to go), supported by Key Results (quantitative statements that determine whether our Objective has been achieved). The Objectives are designed to be inspirational and challenging. They are the rallying cry that your portfolio teams will swarm around. The Key Results are designed in such a way that they can be measured on a scale from 0-1. If you don’t move the dial, you remain on zero. But as you move through the period, your team focuses on turning the dial ever closer to that ‘moon-shot’ of 1.0. Moving from 9m to 20m visitors per year meant Japan hit their moon-shot. But teams who consistently hit their moon-shots are probably not stretching themselves far enough. When Japan set their next goal, it was even more audacious than the first – driving themselves ever forwards and competing with their own targets to achieve greatness.

The parable of the stonecutters
The parable of the stonecutters

The parable of the three stonecutters

Ambitious goals are one thing, but there is no point in shooting for the moon if your organization’s mission is to shoot for the planet Venus. Peter Drucker summed this up perfectly in his parable of the three stonecutters. He tells of three stonecutters who were explaining what they were working on. The first replied, ‘I am making a living.’ The second said, ‘I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire country.’ The third said, ‘I am building a cathedral.’ In this parable, it is entirely possible that the second stonecutter may achieve his Objective. But it may not be the right goal for the construction company. He could spend decades doing the best stonecutting in the country, but the job may well require stones to be cut within the week. The third stonecutter, however, is aligned with the vision of the organization. While his focus may be on stonecutting, he is doing so with an eye to the wider goal of building a cathedral and ensures his work contributes to that Objective.

When Google was a start-up, they used the OKR framework to define where they were going, to align the team, and to set themselves ambitious targets. The framework has scaled with them and is still in use today. OKRs are defined at the highest level in the organization and are cascaded down. Everyone understands the vision, which is encapsulated by their Objectives and measured by the associated Key Results. Individuals are granted the flexibility to set their own OKRs, too, so that the top-down objectives are balanced with bottom-up objectives, which serve to prevent silo mentality from building up.

Defining the portfolio with OKR instead of projects

How does this link to Portfolio management? As someone with a projects background, my approach to portfolio management mirrored my approach for projects. Lockdown the scope, lock down the plan, manage risk. The portfolio plan was usually constructed as a sum of the projects that were running within it. The portfolio outcomes were derived from the benefits we expected to see from the projects. If the outcomes broadly aligned with the business plan, then all was good. We had a portfolio plan! If not, we would make changes, swapping projects out, and adding initiatives in – balancing capacity with requirement until we felt that we had it right.

Once the plan was agreed, we could track progress against key milestones. Indeed, these milestones were communicated widely. We celebrated when we hit them and doubled down with renewed enthusiasm when we missed them.

This approach is replicated across many organizations. And it is an approach that is fraught with difficulty. When focus on milestones intensifies, we take our eye off the dials we are aiming to turn. And when the list of projects is locked down, we reduce our ability to seize opportunities when they arise. Above all, we stop people thinking about how to achieve our audacious objectives, and we focus them on delivering on competing project plans.

Applying the OKR framework to portfolios increases joint accountability, alignment, and focus. Rather than starting with projects, we begin with the OKRs. Defining the right 3-5 OKRs for the portfolio is vital. More than that, and you simply aren’t focused enough. The Key Results need to be stretching and inspiring. It is essential to balance these out, so you avoid perverse incentives: increasing sales volumes is easy if there is no corresponding target that ensures those sales are profitable. The process of agreeing the OKRs could warrant an article in its own right. There are passionate debates and pitches as people debate what matters – not how we layer projects, but what direction we should be heading in.

Trusting teams to define their OKRs

With the portfolio OKRs defined, communication is critical. Teams are encouraged to set their own OKRs, which align with the portfolio Objectives. The mappings don’t have to be precise. Still, teams should be able to explain how their KR of increasing the number of corporate applications running in the cloud by 34% is going to support the overall objectives of the portfolio. With OKRs drafted, teams go through an exercise of horizontal and vertical alignment. In large organizations, it is almost impossible for a single team to deliver an OKR without aligning with other groups and other departments. The portfolio level OKRs help break away from silo-thinking. Rather than focusing on projects that compete with each other, people work together to align around the portfolio OKRs. Priority calls – when they arise – are made based on which action is most likely to turn the dials the fastest and furthest.

The OKR approach puts business metrics at the heart of our portfolio. Projects become the ‘temporary endeavors’ that they were always supposed to be, instead of the cornerstones of our portfolios that they so often end up becoming. With an OKR approach, I have found it becomes easier to swap projects out and kill those that have passed their useful shelf-life. Portfolios become more fluid, and pivoting becomes easier – while never losing sight of the overarching objectives and key results.

OKR - Objectives and Key Results
OKR – Objectives and Key Results

Switching to an OKR driven portfolio

Switching to an OKR driven portfolio approach takes time. It is a system, like agile, that can be described as ‘deceptively easy.’ The concept is simple, but it can take four or five quarters to implement and bed in. So, to help you on your OKR journey, I’d like to leave you with three pieces of advice that will serve you well when planning to incorporate OKRs into your portfolio management strategy.

1.       Data must flow two-ways. You may have a PMO in your organization that is used to gathering information from project teams and sharing this with the business. With an OKR driven portfolio, we expect teams to track progress against KRs, which means data needs to flow in the opposite direction too. For your portfolio team to turn dials, they need to have fast feedback loops so they can see business metrics changing as project teams deliver. Challenge your PMO to think about how they can provide information into teams, to drive effective decision making within projects.

2.       Encourage thin-slice delivery approaches. When you adopt OKRs, you should be able to see the numbers against your KRs steadily rising throughout the cycle. If your projects only deliver at the end of a period (or beyond), then you risk numbers staying flat. This can sap energy and belief in the system. Challenge your teams to adopt more incremental delivery approaches that see small packets of value being delivered frequently. This will allow everyone to see how their efforts are affecting the portfolio OKRs in real-time.

3.       You won’t always hit your goals – and that’s okay. One of your significant challenges will be mindset. People are reluctant to commit to objectives when there is a risk that they will not achieve them fully. Maybe they have been penalized for this in the past. As a portfolio manager, you will need to work closely with the leadership team to promote a culture where it is safe to take such risks, and it is okay not to hit moon-shots all the time. With OKRs, we know that hitting our 1.0 targets on every KR may be almost impossible, but we know that striving for our audacious objectives will drive us further forwards than conservative and safe goals ever will.

Ready to start with OKR?

If you want to learn more about applying Objectives and Key Results (OKR) in the PMO and Portfolio management space, take a look at our guide to OKRs in our guide to some of the most Important Management Models for PMOs >>

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