Company cultures that succeed with OKRs
So, you’ve decided to use the OKR framework, but have you taken the time to consider if your current company culture and structure is the correct fit for OKRs?
To make sure you’re prepared, we asked our OKR experts if they know of any common cultural or structural similarities that create the perfect environment for a successful OKR rollout.
Summary of the main cultural and structural similarities:
- An environment that promotes psychological safety
- Teams that are unafraid to fail in service of learning
- A solid foundation of management principles
- A clear and communicated reason for starting with OKRs
- The understanding that implementation will take time and will not be perfect in the first few quarters
- A structure that could already be considered transparent
- A culture of respect, with a clear mission
Read all of the answers from our experts below:
Cansel Sörgens, Business Coach, OKR Coach & Trainer
The one and only similarity I could observe is the strong will and openness for hard work to truly transform into a better version of themselves. We ourselves make the culture in an organisation. In other words, our behaviour defines the culture. This means creating an environment that enables psychological safety, empowerment, and aligned autonomy, for a healthy OKR system is in our hands. All it needs is leadership that is willing to go through that transformation themselves.
Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus Author, OKR Expert, Consultant & Stanford Lecturer
Obviously! Healthy cultures get supercharged by OKRs! Toxic cultures do OKR theatre. Successful companies have psychological safety, a clear mission and strategy, are unafraid of failure in service to learning.
Mukom Tamon, Chief Excellence Officer™️ Academy, OKRs, 4DX & Lean Six Sigma expert (@perfexcellent)
- They’re committed to excellence — OKRs is just a means to excellence
- They have a good track record of measuring things that matter
- The managers already practice effective management principles like 1:1s, feedback, delegation, and coaching
- If an organisation is already process-centric it’s easier for them to make the leap to OKRs
Paul Niven, Global OKR Coach & OKR Author
OKRs can work in virtually any organisational structure. Culturally, a belief in growth through learning and experimentation is definitely helpful. Additionally, there are a few things that best practice OKRs organisations do very well:
- They have a clear and compelling rationale for adopting OKRs, so that people know it’s not a ‘flavour of the month’ idea
- They have an executive sponsor (ideally the CEO) committed to OKRs
- They have an internal Champion who manages the OKRs program, along with a cadre of Ambassadors to coach, mentor, and generate support for OKRs
Monica Batsleer, Senior Partner of OKR Matrix
Every company can implement OKRs, but we notice in the organisations that are doing well, there are some cultural similarities in depth communication, alignment, non-hierarchical structures, and some other competencies which promote an agile environment.
Omid Akhavan, OKR Coach at OKRs.com
Yes and some of those similarities include:
1. Promoting intrinsic motivation vs extrinsic (e.g. bonus & incentives)
2. Creating a safe environment for innovation, risk-taking, and failure
3. Focusing on lessons learned instead of strict scoring or even blaming
4. Making OKRs as well as strategic goals visible for all employees
5. Fostering cross-functional goal setting, collaboration & accountability
6. Engaging teams extensively in setting OKRs (more bottom-up than top-down)
7. Starting key meetings (e.g town hall, leadership, business review) with OKRs
8. Ensuring that teams have the authority & autonomy they need to achieve OKRs
9. Stretching targets at an optimum level to boost growth yet not kill motivation
10. Celebrating wins, sharing success stories, and recognising high performers
Catherine Chen, OKR Coach
Yes. OKRs is a new way of thinking and working. It drives organisation to be more value-driven, instead of task-driven. To some extent, it can be considered as a change program in the organisation. Below are some cultural similarities I saw from companies I worked with.
Start from the top: Start their OKRs initiative from the top management like CEO or chairman. Top management’s support and lead with OKRs help the organisation overcome resistance to new methodology and culture. Win middle-level managers: Middle-level managers can make or break the OKRs program.
Successful OKRs programs depend on middle-level managers' belief and acceptance. If they are against OKRs, everything is more complicated. It is essential for middle-level managers to clearly understand the company’s expectations and how to utilize OKRs to drive new behaviours and results in their team. Training and learning are provided to them, so they are strong advocates of OKRs, and they constantly communicate and help their teams in this journey, not only at the beginning of this initiative.
Engage & Connect: Instead of forcing every employee to adopt OKRs, the OKRs committee utilizes emotional energy to drive behaviour. They explain the “WHY OKRs” to employees from both the company perspective and employees' perspective. They aligned the company objectives with employees' objectives. They share with the employees where OKRs will bring the company in 6-12 months and attract the people's attention.
Allan Kelly, Agile OKR Coach & OKR Author
This is a tough one, if you look at the well-known examples of OKR success - Intel and Google being the usual ones - you will notice OKRs started early. That raises the question: did OKRs create the culture? Or was the company successful with OKRs because of a compatible culture? Chances are, your organisation doesn’t share that “Google” culture so are you setting out to change the culture or use OKRs in a fashion that is compatible with your culture? Right now I haven’t seen enough examples of legacy companies successfully adopting OKRs to know what the common success factors are.
Madeleine Silva, OKR Coach & Trainer
I think it might depend, but in my experience, if the company fosters a psychological safety environment, where people can explain their point of view, without fear of being punished, or making mistakes in order to learn fast, this kind of environment can help. Also, be persistent with the process, because we need to understand that we try to develop a new habit in the teams.
Christina Lange, OKR Coach & Speaker
An open and curious mindset, true servant leadership, and a culture of how to handle failure.
Carsten Ley, OKR Goal-Setting Coach
Most companies who are doing well with OKRs already have a medium or high level of agility, openness, result orientation, and transparency. Especially companies switching from top-down and siloed KPI environments to OKRs struggle with the change management needed to adopt OKRs. As OKRs empower employees, we see that the resistance comes more from senior or middle managers rather than staff level as managers lose authority and power due to a transparent and measurable performance process that focuses on cross-functional teams and outcomes.
Saba Ghafari, OKR Coach & Organisational Development Professional
- Being result-oriented
- Have knowledge sharing culture
- Innovative mindset
- Strive for excellence
- Being Agile
- Being collaborative
Richard Russell, OKR & Leadership Coach
Once they start doing well, yes! Doing well involves decentralising many decisions, empowering employees, creating clarity about strategy, and usually fits well with a customer or mission-centered organisation. These tend to reinforce each other, and OKRs tie everything together. If companies try to maintain centralised command and control, or aren’t willing to make the hard strategy decisions, or aren’t focused on their customers, they won’t reap the benefits.
Bart Den Haak, Consultant & OKR Author
Yes for sure. They are all mission-driven companies, people in these organisations truly trust people to do the right thing for their company. They all have high-performing agile teams that can deliver high-value software multiple times in production with the highest quality and they understand the power of experimentation.
Paul Barker, OKR & Strategy Coach
Absolutely. Well, it depends on the reason for deploying OKRs:
- If OKRs are being used as a methodology to rank and rate individuals and subsequently incentivize and reward them, then no
- If OKRs is a mechanical way to organise teams and cascade goals down from the top, then no
- Both of these reasons, we would argue, will lead to a lousy deployment and friction within teams, leaving a bad taste in the room when OKRs are mentioned
- If, however, it’s used to help teams work together and to create organic conversations, there is a cultural similarity required
- OKRs is an outcomes-based goal management methodology. Outcomes-based management isn’t possible without trust, and with trust comes vulnerability, psychological safety, and increased communication. This is the culture required for doing OKRs well
Kenneth Paul Lewis, Co-Founder, and Director at OKR International, Angel Investor, and Leadership Coach
Yes! Most importantly there is a sense of:
- Pride in the organisation and its purpose
- A set of shared values and beliefs that promotes collaboration, autonomy, transparency, ambition, and result orientation
- Authentic and Servant leadership practices
- Structures that promote quick decision making, and open communication
- Practices centered around learning, individual development, psychological safety, cadence discipline, and challenging the status quo
Mike Burrows, Lean, Agile, and Kanban Pioneer
Culturally, respect for individuals and teams, coupled with the expectation that they will make the breakthroughs they need when given the opportunity. Structurally, enough flexibility for structures to find their own balance as needs change. Happily, both of those attributes are also attributes of organisations that are good at developing people, and that’s probably not a coincidence.
Brad Dunn, Chief Product Officer & OKR book Author
I’d say so. It seems that companies who use OKRs well are often good at acknowledging something they’ve been working on for a while isn’t working, and it’s okay to change course in order to hit the goals. Sometimes this is called the plan continuation bias, and companies who suffer from it tend to be a bit more allergic to OKRs.
Mark Richard, OKR Coach
Openness, agile mindset, safe spaces for discussion, not obsessed with bonuses. Prepared to learn from failure, do not have a blame culture, and will take risks.
Khalil Medina, CEO & OKR Coach
The use OKRs for at least 5 quarters (this is the learning curve).
Jean-Luc Koning, OKR & Systemic Coach, Founder of OkrConsulting.fr
Our observation at In Excelsis is that both mid-sized companies and large corporations are interested in implementing OKRs. It seems that OKRs are now gaining the same level of interest on both sides. However, one notices a difference between them in the way they approach OKRs. With the first category (SMEs), once the approach is discovered, their initial reaction is to launch directly into an internal deployment attempt after having read one or two books on the subject.
Very often, they then realise that even if the concept of OKRs is simple to understand it is more difficult to install and have them work properly than expected. Thus, in a second phase, these same companies are often inclined to seek support following a first semi-failure. On the other hand, companies of the second category (large groups) tend to call upon external expertise right away. Typically, they first launch a pilot in a sub-part of the company and then spread the practice across the entire company.