A conversation with Adam Luepke. Chief Of Staff at Quantive.

“… that ties back to OKRs because it’s like, what is the one thing that we’re going to work on? And that’s hard to do because if you try to focus on ten things, you’re not focusing on anything. But that’s what’s nice about OKRs and why they can be helpful in meetings or saying no to meetings because, well, that’s not what my OKR is, that’s not what we’re focusing on, or we’re not hitting this objective because we’re failing at these metrics because of these key results one, two, and three. So distilling that down, going into when you’re thinking about annual planning, it can be really helpful too, okay, what is our one objective, and how are we going to measure it? It can be really helpful to really synthesize and boil down what that problem is and how we’re going to measure it going forward.” – Adam Luepke

In this episode of Control the Room, I had the pleasure of speaking with Adam Luepke about his experience supporting change initiatives at Quantive. He begins with reflections on what helped him discover a passion for solving complex business problems.  Later, Adam talks about OKRs and best practices for changing your business.  We also discuss what makes a successful Chief Of Staff.  Listen in for tips on how to synthesize communication.

Show Highlights

[1:50] How Adam Got His Start.

[10:30] How Do You Measure Your OKRs? 

[23:30] How Not To Use OKRs

[37:00] Why OKRs Work So Well

Adam on LinkedIn

About the Guest

Adam Luepke is the Chief of Staff to the COO at Quantive. He’s helped scale Quantive from 25 to 400 people in 3 years while overseeing the delivery of OKR programs at many Fortune 500s. Prior to his time in software, he was a management consultant and loves to talk about strategy execution. He lives in Denver, CO, with a passion for skiing, personal finance, and self-improvement.

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a change agency that helps enterprises sustain innovation and teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings.

Subscribe to Podcast

Engage Control The Room

Voltage Control on the Web
Contact Voltage Control

Full Transcript

Douglas: Welcome to the Control the Room podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures to the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control, and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting.

Thanks for listening. If you’d like to join us live for a session sometime, you can join our weekly Control the Room Facilitation Lab. It’s a free event to meet fellow facilitators and explore new techniques so you can apply the things you learn in the podcast in real-time with other facilitators. Sign up today at voltagecontrol.com/facilitation-lab. If you’d like to learn more about my book, Magical Meetings, you can download the Magical Meetings Quickstart Guide, a free PDF reference with some of the most important pieces of advice from the book. Download a copy today at magicalmeetings.com. 

Today I’m with Adam Luepke at Quantive, where he is the chief of staff to the COO and has helped scale the company from 25 to 400 people in three years. Prior to his time in tech, he was a management consultant and loves to talk strategy execution. Welcome to the show, Adam.

Adam: Thank you very much for having me on, Douglas. It’s great to be here.

Douglas: Absolutely. I’ve been looking forward to this chat. And first of all, let’s just hear a little bit about how you got your start in strategy execution, OKRs, chief of staff. How did you find your way into this work?

Adam: Yes, the good old question about how you got to be a chief of staff, which a lot of people have different unique journeys, and I’m no different. So I’m actually going to go start back in college. I was an engineer in college, a geological engineering, and geophysics major, but doing a couple of internships, I realized I didn’t want to do the actual engineering, like the mechanical pieces. I like the business problems, the bigger pieces. How do I engineer business problems and solve them and taking them into smaller and smaller problems to break them down and then build up into a solution? So I like that part of it, the conceptual part of it, of how businesses flow. And so that’s where I ended up in consulting. 

So I did consulting, a PA consulting for four years as a management consultant. And I really, really liked a lot of the frameworks that I use of how do you solve problems, how do you work with change management, how do you work with executives, how do you enable software that’s going to impact thousands of people? How do you think critically about really complex problems that involve a lot of stakeholders? And I really enjoyed that. It was really, really challenging work and that kind of gave me the tools that I now use today at my chief of staff job. All those building blocks that you get in working with all these different companies and exposing to a lot of different problems, you have a really big toolkit to work with. 

So I transitioned out of management consulting just because it was pretty grueling, as general consulting work is. I wanted to own something fully, because a lot of times what you do is you go and you, any consulting, you solve a problem and then you move on to the next one and then it’s over and over and over. But I wanted to fully own something that was going to be my problem, I’m going to own it and see it all the way through. And I was really intrigued by tech for how fast it moves, the ability to solve problems really, really quickly and to have a far reach of the capability, not just within a company, but organizations that use your software, and to be able to add value. That was really appealing to me. 

So I jumped out of management consulting and joined a startup that was based around OKRs and it was a perfect fit because OKRs, which is objectives and key results, is basically a way of how you execute strategy, because you have an objective that’s qualitative and then you have your key results, which is how you’re measuring that you’re actually achieving that goal. And so it was a great tie-in to what I was doing as a management consultant, because that’s what you’re effectively doing. You need to have a change management, you need to have a way to measure it to see if you’re succeeding or not, and then ways to improve it or find out why something isn’t working and then iterate on that. OKRs is a great way to do that.

So when I saw how popular OKRs were becoming, the book Measure What Matters by John Doerr came out, I was like, “This looks really, really good and kind of a natural fit that I can go into software but still use my management consulting skills.” So I joined, I basically started my career all over again. I started as a customer success manager and what I was actually doing was basically helping companies implement OKRs, so quite a big of our customers, Lumen and Experian were two of my really big customers that I first started with as a customer success manager, and then I just quickly grew from there.

I grew their OKR programs and then I eventually became chief of staff to the CEO or COO and my boss, Seth. He’s great to work with. Not only do I then help other companies run on our software, but I also help run OKRs internally here, and that’s kind of led me here today, which has been, it’s been an interesting journey, but I love to talk about OKRs and strategy execution. That’s kind of been this whole way of seeing a lot of different problems that has brought me here today and talking to you.

Douglas: Excellent. Yeah, lots of interesting stuff there to unpack. First of all, it’s interesting to me to hear just the kind of diverse background that you’ve had, and I think that speaks to probably what makes for a successful chief of staff from some of the interviews I’ve been having, because as a chief of staff, having to be a boundary spanner and connecting various parts of the organization together and understanding needs and helping the team all work together, projects that span multiple departments, which of course OKRs do as well, but just kind of curious how often you notice that your various… you even mentioned a big toolkit, but how often are you noticing that wow, it’s really coming in handy that I did this and did that? And there’s geo, there’s customer success, there’s management consulting and all these different pieces. How often is that showing up in your work as chief of staff?

Adam: It shows up every day. I mean, there’s always information that needs to be condensed and then presented in a very, basic short way to executives. And a lot of times that’s hard. I love this saying, “I didn’t have time to write a short story, so I wrote a long one.” So how do you synthesize this complex problem or all these things that are happening across different departments and within the market? How do you distill that down into four bullet points in an email of, “This is what the problem is and this is the next step.” How do you be able to do that? That’s a real kind of management consulting skill.

There’s different frameworks to do that. You can think about first principles or TDT, which is top down thinking, so kind of consulting framework blocks, but they’re really, really helpful in the chief of staff role where you’re an integrator among silos and you’re kind of an air traffic controller and leader for the team, especially in being a master of communication.

So how do you break down problems into smaller and smaller pieces and then provide an answer? And the best answer is usually, “Here’s option one and here’s option two, and you have to pick them.” Giving that to a CEO or anyone in the executive team makes their job really easy and even easier it’s just like, “I’m going to go do this unless you say no.” I like cultures and we kind of largely operate this way, where it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, just to go and act, fix stuff and do stuff rather than just kind of the saying of a bad leader, it’s not because they made bad decisions, it’s because they made no decisions. So distilling problems down and then making decisions, being able to do that quickly, kind of 80/20, not trying to get it perfect is really, really helpful. And all these things I’ve talked about is coming from that consulting background, which is really helpful in the chief of staff world, which is what you need to do in the chief of staff to basically drive organizational effectiveness.

Douglas: As a leader who has received long emails and long documents, and I can attest to you that it’s so critical, and I guarantee any leaders listening are nodding their heads. And if any listeners who don’t quite understand it or it seems simple or unimportant, Adam, you’re so right on that. Taking the time to distill it down, synthesize it to what’s really critical because it’s work someone has to do. And if we just give them the whole data dump, then we’re forcing the executive to do that work. Instead, we do it for them so much more easier, right?

Adam: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. And then again, that ties back to OKRs because it’s like what is the one thing that we’re going to work on? And that’s hard to do, because if you try to focus on 10 things, you’re not focusing on anything. But that’s what’s nice about OKRs and why they can be helpful in meetings or saying no to meetings because well, that’s not what my OKR is, that’s not what we’re focusing on, or we’re not hitting this objective because we’re failing at these metrics because of these key results one, two, and three. So distilling that down, going into when you’re thinking about annual planning, it can be really helpful to, okay, what is our one objective and how are we going to measure it? It can be really helpful to really synthesize and boil down what that problem is and how we’re going to measure it going forward.

Douglas: And I think that’s the spot that so many people struggle with, too, right? You said it earlier, OKRs are about strategy execution, and quite often, folks try to use it as a strategy definition or a tool of discovering strategy, right? Because there isn’t one there. So I’m curious what you found, and some of this might have just been from your management consulting days and just building up those capabilities around synthesis and distilling things down, but inside organizations when you’re trying to bring a group along to get to those top three things and to be really clear about what they are, what’s some of the things you’ve found to be successful?

Adam: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think what’s really helpful with meetings and making sure people have distilled down what they need to do is doing pre-work in advance. So a lot of what we do when we instruct our customer success managers who use our software, is before we have this meeting, you need to do this pre-work. You need to write down what are the 10 things that we need to accomplish this year. And just having, writing that down, putting it all into a whiteboard, make sure that all the ideas are there and that’s way the facilitator, whether that’s an OKR champion, one of our success managers or our chief of staff can distill all that information beforehand, and then you can really pick out themes. “Okay, this is what different people are thinking or saying. Now we have someplace where we already know where to start.” And that really helps already boil down to what is going to be our top objective and our two or three supporting objectives for the whole year for annual planning perspectives. That could be really, really helpful. 

And then you can go into much more fun discussions of how do we actually measure that? Which then goes into the execution piece. But doing the pre-work in advance and having someone like a chief of staff or a facilitator or what we call OKR champions do that work is really key and it’s a valuable part of their job.

Douglas: So it sounds like the basic question is a prompt around 10 things that you’re hoping to accomplish in the next 12 months. Are there other prompts or questions that you’re throwing out at them as well in that pre-work?

Adam: Yeah, there’s a whole list of things depending on what kind of company it is, what the market is. A good one to talk about is what’s failed this past year, what didn’t we achieve and why? Because a lot of people, they like to set strategies and talk about the future, but they don’t like to look backwards and be like, “Well, what was our strategy last year and why didn’t it work or why it did work?” And a lot of times we don’t want to do that. It’s always forward, forward, forward. It’s never, “Well, what did we learn from the last year or from the last quarter? What didn’t work and why?” That reflection piece is an important part of the strategy evolution process and the important part of OKRs, we call them retrospectives. So OKR retros, because that’s where the learning piece can come from. It’s like, “Oh, well yeah, well what we did there was complete failure, I don’t want to do that again.” But a lot of times those conversations aren’t being prompted, so they’re just not happening.

Douglas: I’ve seen often the first quarter or the first year, whichever cadence people are on, people who do OKRs often can be quite clunky, but the process of getting through that first cycle and then being able to do the retrospective, super powerful because then they can look and say, “Wait, I totally overestimated this or this wasn’t formulated well,” but I’ve seen people really struggle sticking through when they have that experience of, “Oh, that was clunky.” So I’m curious if you have any advice on either starting out a gate better or sticking through it longer.

Adam: Yes, that’s a good point. So that’s where a chief of staff or an OKR champion is really helpful to facilitate that, and OKRs, it’s just like a muscle, like anything, and it takes training and you’re going to tear and break things, but it goes back stronger. So no one gets OKRs great the first time and it usually takes two or three quarters to really start to get good at it because it’s just like anything else when you’re starting new. It is change management and that’s where a facilitator really helps. But you have to stick with it. Just like you’re going to the gym, you don’t notice anything after a week or so, but then after two months you’re like, “Wow. Now we’re really making progress.” It’s the same thing with OKRs. There is no magic bullet, but OKRs seem to be the best framework to instill change long-term, to really change the business long-term. 

But having the retrospectives and making the sausage, even though it’s not the fun part, people love to talk strategy, but it’s hard to do that reflection piece. It’s mickey, it’s hard. It’s like you’d have to really dig places and you were wrong and it can be nebulous at times, but that’s the work, that’s where the real rubber meets the road and that’s where a facilitator can help go through that process. And also, frankly, having a software to help show, okay, this is where we failed and this is what we can talk about to help run those retrospectives and then apply okay, let’s iterate and then improve for the next quarter. 

But I’ll just say that OKRs is, it’s a never ending process, just like the business is always changing and evolving, so are OKRS. And as your company changes and grows, so will your OKR process. And that’s kind of really what you have to understand when taking the OKRs in is that you can start small, but you just have to keep iterating and make sure that you have a solid OKR champion who can lead everyone through, or a solid facilitator through those first two or three quarters when you’re trying OKRs. And that’s when you really start to see success and results and where everyone feels empowered because they can see how their work is connected to the largest objective of the company.

Douglas: It reminds me of Drucker’s statement that what gets measured gets managed, but really it comes back to that consistency piece that you mentioned about going to the gym, et cetera, because the measuring, the planting this flag in the ground and saying, “We’re going to go to this,” and then when measuring toward it and checking in and tracking how we’re doing toward it, allows us to keep it top of mind and to get better at it and to go, “Oh wait, that idea for solving this objective was maybe faulty or flawed in some way. Let’s try something else so we can experiment more fluidly if we’ve got this kind of North Start to track to.” So I’m curious if you have any thoughts just on this idea of it provides the scaffolding to allow us to have that consistency and keep our eye on the ball, if you will.

Adam: Yeah, so that’s really the key piece because every, single day there’s so many distractions that come up. We’re always distracted by the next event or the next whatever big thing, the next news piece, the next fire, but that’s what OKRs are really good at because it gives you that scaffolding as you call it, to show, “Hey, this is where we need to go as a business and this is how we’re trying to change the business.” KPIs are a good way to run the business, but they’re lagging. They’re lagging indicators because what’s already given you that, let’s say your revenue metric has already happened in the past, which OKRs can be a leading indicator. So it can be, “Okay, where are we going as a company and are we going to hit the numbers that we want to because of whatever X, Y, Z objective that we’ve chosen?”

It’s definitely more important as the world changes faster and faster. That is something where we like to call the modern operating model, which is really just OKRs change the business and KPIs run the business. And yes, you’re looking at your KPIs, you want to know where your revenue metrics are, but the OKRs is really your map of how you’re going to get where you want to go. How are you going to move and change the business? And it’s a great way because you could have the company objective up top and that’s owned by the CEO or the C-suite, which everyone likes to see because it’s full transparency. And then everyone else sees how their work ties to the largest objective. I mean OKRs, that’s where they really got big at Intel and how they became the biggest chip producer is because everyone knew what their goal was.

And that was kind of the first okay, OKRs really had their foothold in and then they got popular by Google and Amazon, but it’s because of that focus and what are we actually driving toward, and everyone being able to see that. And there’s some people who like to talk about different superpowers that they provide. That framework does give you effectiveness and productivity and competitiveness because you get alignment and empowerment and innovation when people can see how their work is tied to the largest objective of the company. And that’s what creates good alignment is because you can see how your objective aligns to your boss’s objective, which then aligns to the CEO’s. 

An analogy that I like to use is let’s say you’re, you own a building and you tell the janitor, “Hey, I want you to sweep this entire building.” It’s the janitor’s job to figure out what’s the best broom to use to clean that whole building. That’s kind of the same way with OKRs. It’s like having the highest objective that’s owned by the company are usually owned by the CEO. And then it’s okay, then it’s the next layer. How do we achieve that? And then so on and so forth because those people have those domain expertise and that’s where you can get what’s the true superpower of OKRs is this horizontal effectiveness, because a lot of times you have this silos that form that go up and down, but OKRs create this value horizontally because of the way how you can connect key results and who’s contributing to this objective and this OKR. It creates a very agile framework to work off of, which is really, really powerful. But it takes time and that’s why people, they’re like, “Oh, I don’t get it in the first quarter,” and that’s why it’s good to have an OKR champion or a partner to be able to help you through that. And then you’re off to the races.

Douglas: So I’m curious. You bring up a topic that’s somewhat controversial, this idea of cascading the OKRs. And so I’m curious what your thoughts are around how far down to cascade the OKRs, because I agree with you, the alignment power is quite effective as far as people being able to see how things line up and how they can individually make a difference. And so curious just what are your thoughts on the cascading and how far to go, how to go about it?

Adam: So what’s great about OKRs is that they can be arranged in any way that’s effective for the company. So you have the basic framework of an objective and the key results, but how you organize them and who owns them, it doesn’t have to be in a cascading way at all because your objective could be we want to release this product just to squash X competitor, and the first key result can be owned by product, the second can be owned by product marketing, the third can be owned by sales. That’s not cascading at all. That’s something very, very different. But when I’m talking about aligning an objective to another objective, it’s not really cascading because cascading is a direct one-to-one, versus the sub-teams can decide, “Well, this is our best way of how we think we can make that objective and this is how we’re going to measure it.”

So it’s not strictly cascading. There are ways that… so sometimes it just makes sense to cascade and that’s what’s cool about OKRs is you can make it fit to your company and how it works best and you can always adopt it, but I wouldn’t say it’s cascading at all because that’s too rigid and that’s what kind of the power of OKRs is. You can have one OKR that has five different teams tied to it and that’s not cascading at all. And it really depends how companies work. Some people want to see that alignment, they want to see how the individual contributor’s objective reaches the CEO, but sometimes larger corporations, it really just makes sense to narrow that down to the division or the function. But again, it can be scaled up so that you can have this all-encompassing. 

But a good way to think about starting it is you start at the exec level and then everyone sees, “Okay, now I know what an OKR is because the exec team is doing it,” and then kind of scale it down from there. That’s usually a way that OKR rollout is usually done. You start at the exec level because everyone sees, “Okay, this is how the exec team is working and measuring work. That seems really interesting. I know how to tie my work to it and I can measure it.” And then all of a sudden you can have a whole OKR framework and a whole OKR program for a whole team, function, division and then a company. So usually if you kind of start that way, which you could think cascading in that sense, but OKRs don’t have to be cascaded directly at all. You can do it, but it doesn’t have to be done that way.

Douglas: So more specific question, do you all inside of Quantive take the OKRs down to the individual levels? Do individuals have OKRs?

Adam: Yes, but we’re growing so fast that we actually don’t demand it. Currently right now is if you, every team has to own an OKR currently right now, but we leave it up to the individuals to have an OKR or not. But if you’re a team and a team manager, you have to have an OKR. Partly we’re doing it just because we’re growing, we’re growing so fast, we’re adding new people, but it’s also just a way to have a little bit of freedom. And also, people are focused on their teams. Largely with companies that we’ve worked with that are bigger scale, that have the large enterprises, they like to have that team and individual ownership, but their businesses also aren’t moving as fast as more as the startup level. We’re a series C company, just for your listeners to understand where we are, so we’re still growing quite rapidly.

But it really depends on what is the current situation of your company and how mature you are in your OKR process. Most everyone at Quantive does have their own OKR, but not everyone. There’s some new joiners who join right away and they’ll wait until the next quarter before creating their OKR, but they know exactly what their team is and how they’re being measured against to reach their objective for their team and then their department, then how that ties into our three overall objectives for the company.

Douglas: So I’m curious, if some individuals have OKRs, how much does that play a part in the performance review process or even just growth tracking with managers and whatnot?

Adam: Oh, yes. This is a very debated topic of performance management. So, our view is largely that if you try to combine with performance managing and OKRs, you gain neither because what happens is people will sandbag their OKRs. So if I know that I’m… if my bonus is tied to this outcome, I’m going to make sure it’s an outcome that’s something that I can attain. And so then you actually stifle all creativity. It just doesn’t work. 

The best work that’s done is when people feel like they have a meaningful contribution to the company, of how the business is adding value to whatever market that they’re in. And so if you say that this is tied to your bonus, you basically stifle all that creativity. It doesn’t work. It seems like a really good way to like, “Oh yeah, we can just do OKRs and if you make your OKR then we can give you a good bonus.” It’s the easy way out. It’s the easy, short road that doesn’t work and that’s not where creativity is, either. Those two things need to be separated and the reason why we largely take that position is because if you look at a lot of the experts that are out there, OKR experts, they’ll say the exact same thing.

Douglas: Yeah, it makes sense. The incentives get a little bit muddied, right, because they’re kind of blending two kind of intentions?

Adam: Yes, exactly. Because the idea is that if you get 70% of your OKR, that’s a win. They should really be stretch goals. To change the business is tough and it’s not like, “Oh, we need to get a hundred percent on this.” So failing is good and it’s good to learn from that. Failure is a huge component of that and that’s what’s great about OKRs is it creates a space. We actually have badges in our software that a lot of our companies love to use and it’s like failure badges, awarding the most failure and the most learned objective because it’s like, “Why did this happen?” So it’s a great learning piece in that regard. And if you all also tie that to compensation, then all of a sudden no one’s failing. So just to add in that tidbit there.

Douglas: Yeah, no, it’s super helpful when the insights that are gained from failures, mistakes or course corrections, because no one wants to fail. I mean, that never feels great, but I think a lot of times people miss that opportunity to acknowledge the wins that came out, because a lot of times there’s an adjacent win. “Oh, we discovered a lot about how cloud migrations work and now we know,” or whatever it is, right?

Adam: Yes, exactly.

Douglas: So I really love this framing around change the business versus run the business. And because, you’re right, the KPIs, even if they’re leading KPIs, leading indicators, they’re still measuring a thing that is happening, not setting aspirations, not thinking about how we might change what we’re doing today versus what we’re doing tomorrow. So it’s like I love that framing and it’s new to me. So I appreciate that. And especially as an organization that helps other organizations with change, I’m just really curious, when you think about that framing of change in the business, what sorts of patterns have you noticed around changes that companies are going through? How are they using Quantive to change their businesses? Are there any patterns that you’ve noticed over the past year or so?

Adam: So actually what’s pretty interesting is, so as the market started changing this year, a lot of people… what’s great about OKRs is that they started to… they actually abandoned some of their OKRs and created new ones. This change that the market is going to is so great, we have to move the business now and you can do that with OKRs. You can change that direction. That’s something you can’t do with KPIs because they’re so lagging.

So when this talk of resilience and how, “All right, we’re going to go through this change, how are we prepared for it? What do we want to be? What can we capitalize on from our competitors because we have this strengths, we have these weaknesses.” So we had a lot of people who are going back to the drawing boards or the whiteboards of, “What do we need to do now in response to the market changes? How are we going to be resilient through this?”

And so we had a lot of different companies doing their annual planning early this year because of what they knew was coming this year. I mean, everyone kind of knows 2023 could be a blood bath and a recession or not a recession and now we’re just in a tech correction and the recession’s coming later. But what do we do? There’s turmoil in the markets, everything’s being dialed back. So we’ve noticed a lot in the last six months is consolidation of how many objectives people have, particularly at the highest level and basically, are we resilient and how can we take advantage of this? And that’s what’s great about OKRs is it gives you this framework to think about, “Okay, so we know the market’s going to be terrible, but what does that mean for us? Okay, yes, we need to reduce costs and need to do the obvious things. Maybe we need to limit this and cut that, but how can we take advantage of it? Is there a company that we can go and buy?”

There’s a whole list of things that you can potentially think of and it depends on what market that you’re in, but that’s a great way OKRs can basically help plan and then measure against what you can do next in this kind of changing market. So that shift and being able to do that quickly is a really big proponent of I guess how OKRs could be a proponent of doing that pretty quickly. It’s something that we’ve seen in the last six months or so.

Douglas: One thing that I’ve seen folks struggle with, and this is across the board, whether it’s a young startup or even an established company, when they start to adopt OKRs, the objectives tend to be maybe milestones instead of objectives. It’s like 500 million in revenue or whatever. And so I’m curious if you have any tips. One of the things you talked about was pre or just sending on a survey to folks and pulling together these themes and patterns and letting that drive some of the definition, but just kind of curious if folks are… if they’re grain size is off or if they’re not really hitting on what would make for a purposeful objective, what are some of your tricks or some of your methods of getting people on the right track?

Adam: Well, so just going back to OKR basics, an objective should be qualitative. So just describing in plain English what the entire company can understand. So if you’re in engineering, you should be writing it in a way that sales understands. It should be qualitative what the outcome is supposed to be. So OKR is all about outcomes. We’re in the knowledge based economy now, so you need to be thinking in terms of outcomes. It’s not about outputs and widgets. That’s yesterday’s economy, but what are the three to five ways you’re going to measure that?

When you come up with those, then you should ask, you do the so what test? And basically asking so what five times, but having three to five metrics and then asking yourself, “Are these the right metrics to measure that?” That’s a really, really good exercise because setting the objective is kind of the easy part. Like, “Oh yeah, we want to do this,” but how are you actually going to measure that you’re being effective and coming up with three to five different ways you’re going to measure it? That’s not a milestone. That’s a “Wow, okay, this is a really big objective. How are we going to change the business in an X, Y, Z way?” Well, it’s all because of these metrics and these metrics are going to be really, really tough, but that’s what the whole company can rally around is that these are the metrics that if we move these metrics, move the needle on these three to five things, we’ll then achieve our objective or at least be on the way to achieving our objective. And we can check on that quarterly, for example. 

So what are the three to five measurements to get to that objective? And that’s very different than a milestone, but a lot of people don’t like to do that work, and that’s where the hard part of OKRs comes in. That’s where it helps having a facilitator because it’s hard to come up with those three to five different ways that you are going to measure whether you’ve been successful or not. 

And the whole purpose of OKRs and having three to five different measurements is because sometimes you can only really think of like two, but you need to come up with that third one or, okay, now we have five key results. I don’t really think three of these are going to matter, but all of a sudden you get to the end of the quarter and it’s like, well, actually the one you didn’t think was going to be the measurement of success was actually the one that was actually driving that success and moving your whole objective forward. And that’s where the three to five measurements to move that objective comes in. And that’s what’s different than a milestones, versus milestone’s just like a gate, “Okay, we’re moving on to the next piece of the next epic whatever.” 

Douglas: Yeah.

Adam: So that’s the difference there and the advice I’d give.

Douglas: I love the so what test. It’s kind of getting down to deeper purpose and deeper impact. And so you’re running the so what test on the key results?

Adam: Yeah, running on the key results because you can do it on the objective, but most people, they don’t struggle with the objective. It’s the key results that are the hard part, and coming up with good metrics. And another thing to think about about the metrics and why some people struggle is that they try to be like, “Oh, what is the data that we have,” versus, “What is the data that I know is going to drive it?” And so sometimes that’s half the battle is just, okay.

So when we try to tell our customers, and this is in our writings and help articles that we have, is don’t just think of the data that you have. Just think of what would be the best way to measure it. And sometimes those things can be proxy, they don’t have to be the exact, and sometimes you might have to go, “Well, we have to actually find someone who knows where this data is,” and that uncovers a whole problem that you didn’t know you had, because if you’re not measuring it, then how the heck do you know if you’re in the right direction or not? You don’t know. So that’s where the magic of the key results in why the so what test on the key results can be so effective, because you want to make sure you’re measuring the right thing and what gets measured gets managed, to quote Peter Drucker.

Douglas: Yeah, that’s super cool. And to your point, it’s not only if you’re not measuring it, you don’t know if it’s improving or getting worse, but if you’re not measuring it or you don’t know how to measure it, there might be lots of adjacent things that you don’t understand about what you’re trying to do. Because even getting into that componentry might lead to insights that might actually help solve the problem.

Adam: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of it should be data in real time. And that’s the best way. And for example, our software have 180 different integrations that could be measured in real time, those key results, but sometimes it’s a little bit more nuanced. So this story comes from Paul Niven and he talks about, but U2, when they would release a new song and they were touring, their metric for if a song was good or not, was actually looking at the shadows of people leaving the stadiums or not. And they knew if there was a lot of shadows, it was a bad song because that’s when people were going out and going to the bathroom or getting water or whatever versus if there are no shadows, they knew that that was going to be a good song because no one was leaving, everyone was in the stadium, because that’s what they could see.

And that’s an example of a proxy metric can be relatable of like, are we having success or not? That’s usually a different sort of case, I guess. We try to push people to have hard data that connect to whatever systems. But in some cases like that, that’s what you use for your measuring stick and it’s being able to think like that. And that’s how you’re solving problems of, okay, how are we going to measure that? Well, this is going to require a new case. That’s just I think a cool example to share about how OKRs can really, and that’s what the so what test can be helpful.

Douglas: Yeah, super cool. My data science buddies to refer to data exhaust, what data’s getting spit out we can sniff up and learn from because sometimes we can’t hook into the real supply. Heard a similar story about if a restaurant isn’t tracking how many banana splits they make, you can always count the banana peels.

Adam: Yes. I’ve never heard that. That’s good. I like that. 

Douglas: Yeah.

Adam: Nice.

Douglas: So as we’re coming to an end here, I’m curious if companies start to get more sophisticated around the OKRs or start using them in the first place, to your point, they are starting to change their businesses versus run them, what do you think that creates? How does that change the world?

Adam: Oh, there’s a lot of potential and it brings a lot of clarity. So there’s information and there’s kind of noise everywhere, but the OKRs really bring the clarity and focus and alignment and really transparency, and that’s what’s really brilliant. And that’s why OKRs was really successful in Google. I mean, John Doerr wrote the whole book Measure what Matters, and it really talks about how Google instigated OKRs and how that really brought them to where they are today. And other companies are coming onto that. And the reason being is because you can have this… if you know what the top three objectives are of the company, that’s really, really powerful, because at any one time, it’s not that people are doing bad work, they’re just maybe working on the wrong things. And we’ve had lots of executives that tell us that is that, is that, “I know people are doing good work, but they’re working on the wrong things. I don’t know what they are. I don’t have a place to go and see that.”

That’s where OKRs, if it ties to your work and you can see how everyone else’s ties to, that’s a really, really powerful motivator and mover for the company because a lot of times you could imagine a rowboat, you’ve got three people who are rowing really hard forward. You’ve got five people in the middle who don’t know what they’re going, and then you got two people rowing the other way, just because they don’t know where they’re going. I mean, I bet there’s so many people who work for large corporations and they actually don’t know what the top three objectives are of the company. They may know what the mission statement is, they may not talk about their culture, but they have no way of what is the actual objectives are.

And so you can start to solve real complex problems. And that’s where people, the real ingenuity comes from is solving problems, figuring out and seeing how my work ties to the CEO, it ties to the rest of the company. So you can start to tackle really big problems and it can be a really big motivator and it can be really transparent. It’s a great way to work, cross-functioning horizontal in a company and breaks down silos. I mean, it’s just a new way. It’s basically a new way of working in a knowledge-based economy.

I mean, the old ways of working, this traditional management style was really good when we were just producing widgets on the assembly line, but now everything’s about outcomes. It’s like, “I don’t care how many X you delivered, I care, were you effective? Did you create the outcome that you wanted?” And that’s what really OKRs are about and why they’re becoming more and more popular. And pretty soon, in my opinion, they’ll probably be everywhere and it’ll just be standard in probably the next five years or so as they continue to grow. So sky’s the limit.

Douglas: The rowboat analogy is one that I love to use, as well. And always think about this image of if everyone’s heads down on their task and maybe looking at the person next to them, we all might be rowing in this quote unquote the same direction, but we’re all rowing on the same side of the boat. So basically the boat’s going in a circle, and if we don’t have proper measures and we’re not lifting our head up and looking at the bigger picture, then we’ll never notice that we’re just going in circles. And I think that’s a great metaphor for what OKRs can help provide us, that broader picture, to your point the alignment, and we can make sure we’re headed on the right horizon versus just doing the task relative to the person next to us or whatever.

Adam: Yes, absolutely.

Douglas: So always love to end with just giving you an opportunity to leave our listeners with a final thought.

Adam: Oh yeah. So we’re heading into 2023, so people are thinking about their annual planning, their budgeting, all of that. So I would say create a list of the top 10 things that are most important for 2023 and then write an OKR about number one.

Douglas: Nice. And someone might be listening to this halfway through 2023. You can do that at the beginning of any quarter or any moment of transition. I think sit down and just write it down, to your point. So often we just don’t reserve time to do that. So I think it’s solid advice.

Adam: Yeah, it’s amazing what happens when you just put stuff down in a whiteboard and just create a list, because it’s the process of having to do that. It sounds easy, “Well, it’s just a list.” Well, actually think through the problems that you’re having in your day or in your market, in your job, whatever. The process of actually creating and writing that down is where the real magic happens. And that’s the same thing of what I was talking about earlier, how I started about before you get the executive team together, have them do the pre-work and write down what those 10 things are. And that’s where you can go a long way to create more effective meetings and have an awesome start to your 2023 planning or whatever quarter that you’re in.

Douglas: Excellent. Well, Adam, I really appreciate it and highly encourage listeners to check out Quantive. I know you’ve got a free offering that allows people to track OKRs and have some visibility on the strategy and how it’s rolling out and how everyone’s aligned. So it’s super awesome that that’s available, and as a freemium model, so very cool. Hey, it was just a pleasure chatting today. Really enjoyed having you on and hopefully we can stay in touch.

Adam: All right. Thanks, Douglas. It’s been a pleasure. 

Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control the Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want to know more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about radical inclusion, team health, and working better. Voltagecontrol.com.