Defining a powerful experience strategy is one challenge. Being able to roll it out is another one. And to do it so that people want to follow and stay committed to it is the most crucial aspect of these two challenges. Only then your strategy becomes the basis for your organizational culture. And the only thing that matters is that you, as an organization, are aligned.
There are a few problems you might be thinking about when it comes to scaling a strategy. The most common one is about communicating the vision and the edges. There is a trap many leaders and managers fall into, namely, “If I understand our vision, everybody else understands it too”. Nothing is farther from the truth. You have spent days discussing why certain choices are made the way they are. You get a deep sense of what it means for your team. But your team hasn’t been there. They didn’t have the experience you had. You need to, in a way, create a similar experience for them to make them as knowledgeable and inspired by your vision as you are. You also need to be clear what you expect from them as a leader, what way you would like to have that vision realized. You need to keep on reinforcing that the vision is alive by talking how you work on it.
The second challenge is the prioritization challenge. I am not able to count the number of times when I heard from the different teams that they have no clue what their priorities are. More often than not priorities keep on changing depending on the latest financial results or the last new thing the executives bumped into. Projects get prioritized with no argumentation why or put on hold or killed with no explanation either. Over time either everything looks important, so that you keep on running in all directions at the same time or you try to prioritize as important the things you already do. Particularly, this second trap is quite deadly for your vision. If you convince yourself to bend your current project line into your vision, I bet nothing will change. Your team not only needs to know what are the next most important things you plan to do but they also need to understand why these activities or projects ended up on the top of their priority list. If this is not the case, their commitment will be only as big as their personal curiosity towards the thing they are currently working on.
The last challenge is about planning your activities. Attaining your vision is a challenge for life. Building your competitive advantage based on your edges will likely take a few years. But you need to start somewhere. And you need to keep on moving in the right direction. You might think that willpower will suffice. But there is a lot of willpower to deal with when it comes to every last person in your team. And what you see as the next step might not be the next step they are thinking of. So, it would be useful to create a plan of action. Something that will help you keep your eyes on the vision and the edges. It is, in fact, a process of building trust and attunement within your team. Your team needs to see that you are willing to take risks and to stay consistent in the face of failure. You could start by taking small risks and when some level of trust is built, you can take bigger ones. And if something goes wrong you together regroup and try again. In that way your plan becomes your motivational tool, the glue for your team.
Perhaps the most widely spread tool for scaling strategy today are the OKRs. The concept has been created by Andy Grove at INTEL and popularized by John Doerr who introduced OKRs to Google. From the start OKRs were meant as a very simple system. There are two elements to it. You need to define your OBJECTIVES (O), which tell WHAT you want to achieve. They should be significant, concrete, action-oriented and inspirational. They help you to avoid being fuzzy about where you want to go. Objectives are meant to be mid to long-term, so you set them up until you agree that the objective was achieved or is for some reason discarded.
One of the examples shared by John Doerr in his book “Measure what Matters” is about using OKRs to execute on the strategy set for their foundation by Melinda and Bill Gates. Back in 2016, the Gates Foundation teamed up with the British government to battle the deadliest animal on the planet, malaria spreading mosquito. Their objective was to eradicate malaria by 2040. Their KRs included:
- prove to the world that a radical cure-based approach can lead to regional elimination,
- prepare for scale-up by creating the necessary tools,
- sustain current global progress to ensure the environment is conducive to eradication push.
These KRs sound specific but open, right? They are ambitious but doable. And they are not just about growth, revenue, customer base or performance (although there is nothing wrong to having such KR in the mix as long as they are not the only ones). But there is a bit of a problem with them, which I will talk about in a moment.
OKRs are powerful in a sense that they focus on priorities, help to align and collaborate, motivate to over rather than under-perform and they support accountability. They help you think about what you want to do and how you want to do it. They promote aspirational and ambitious thinking. They are set up to be public and transparent, and they are typically defined bottom-up or sideways. I still remember the OKR frenzy at Google, when all the teams would stop working and discuss, discuss, discuss. But it did bring great results like the Priority Inbox initiative we designed within the Gmail team and many others. And it was built around a one straightforward question: What is the most important thing we should focus on now?
The dangers of OKRs
A French e-commerce decided to use OKRs as their strategic measurement tool. They’ve defined their vision, announced it to their employees and asked them to develop their OKRs. All was going according to plan until the OKRs were presented to the Management Board. And it turned out that the objectives didn’t have much to do with the vision. Even worse: the KRs were not really linked to the Objectives either. Actually, they were not really KRs, in the first place. It went wrong on three levels.
Firstly, the vision was so abstract and under-defined that each manager interpreted it in a way that was inconsistent with any other manager. They simply bended the vision to what fitted their area (which is not necessarily bad) without consideration on how their perspective connects to all the other perspectives (which was quite a bummer). It resulted in a set of Objectives that were inconsistent, contradictory and even cannibalizing each other. In that way they created Level One of defining the local optimum.
This local optimisation was further taken by their employees who were tasked with proposing Key Results for these Objectives. Instead of analyzing what the Objective really meant for their work, they simply looked at what they do and created a measure of success that reflected that work. In that way they were sealing the chances for their success when the yearly evaluation would come. This was Level Two of defining the local optimum.
The final realization of the Management Board was this. Some of the KRs were not measures at all. They were, in fact, solutions. A design team proposed to deliver four new features in order to bring more customers on board. The sales team declared to purchase a system that monitors the conversion rate. And so on. In other words, the teams have listed the projects they were working on and made them into their Key Results. This was Level Three of defining the local optimum. Very convenient for the person who leads a given initiative. Not that good for the overall alignment and focus.
What went wrong? The process of creating the OKRs was set up well. Did it mean that the managers and employees were acting against the well-being of the company? Not at all. They simply gave in to the natural human tendency of thinking in terms of solutions rather than in terms of measures. In fact, if you look at the metrics defined for the Gates Foundation, they are also high level solutions rather than the actual measures of success. If you were to rephrase them to sound like the actual KRs, they might have been formulated like that:
- after going through our documents 60% of `regional leaders` are willing to talk about next steps necessary to implement our approach on the regional scale,
- it is possible that a willing organization that never worked with can start implementation of our approach in less than 100 days from the moment we agree on collaboration and and it costs less than $100.000 to conclude the first local trial,
- at least 60% of governments of countries from the “top deaths by malaria” list are ready to commit to malaria eradication programme.
I am not sure whether this is exactly what Bill and Melinda Gates meant but you might notice that these Key Results are on the one hand concrete but on the other hand allow for different takes on how they can be executed. The thing is that we are not good in thinking in such terms. Instead, we love thinking in terms of solutions.
Thinking in solutions
This need for thinking in solutions comes from the times our ancestors were hunting on the savanna. If there was a sable-teeth tiger potentially lurking in the bushes, there was little time to think of it in terms of a problem. Much more viable reaction was to assume there was danger coming and run away or hide. So, those who thought: “Might this be a tiger or perhaps a nice stone? Shall I go and check?” were eaten up and their genes didn’t survive to help us with thinking in terms of either problems or measures of success.
Thinking in terms of success measures is abstract. It is uncomfortable. Solutions make the abstract concrete and provide specific answers to the questions at hand, even if they are just guesses. Solutions make us feel good. This is why most of us love to think in terms of solutions. So, if I ask you, what would be then a measure of success for your vision or your edges, you will be naturally inclined to lay a bunch of solutions in front of me. This is why it is so difficult for so many of us to define good Objectives and good Key Results. And if we are to blame anything for it, we can blame it on evolution.
The trouble with using solutions as the unit of discussion for your strategy is that they quickly miss the link to the vision. Someone hearing the solution for the first time will have to reverse engineer what it is this solution it is trying to achieve. And they will do it wrongly. They will come up with their own reasons for the why this is important and what the criteria for success is. Each person will fill in the blanks differently. As a result, people will start running in different directions. As time goes on you’ll struggle to agree on the priorities because you do not have the same context for why any of this more important than other. It will quickly start to feel as if you are not speaking the same language. And the tendency for local optimization will kick in.
Measure what matters
Do you remember the video by Simon Sinek about how great companies define their strategy? They start with the WHY, then then explain the HOW and only then tell you WHAT they do. Sinek uses the example of Apple, which is still relatable, I hope. Apple is driven by the mission to think differently, to challenge the status quo (their WHY). This is why they strive to deliver products that are beautifully designed and smoothly working (their HOW). And it happens that they are in the personal electronics business so they offer computers, and phones, and more (their WHAT). So, what you need is to define what stories represent your vision and make them your measurement and assessment tool together with other metrics such a as financial and business metrics. In that way your organization will be able to focus on the experience you want to deliver to your customers.