Using OKRs for Holacracy strategy and targets

Strategy is of course a keystone of management, so it’s also important in the organisational operating system Holacracy. Even more so, since teams and people manage themselves, you need very clear strategy to make sure you all go in the same direction. At Springest we adopted the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) method to help roles prioritize work. I’ll explain why and how in a short FAQ and will expand this article when questions come in.

I won’t explain what OKRs are. Christina Wodkte is the best source for that in both her book and blog.

Why we adopted OKRs after trying the “normal” Holacracy strategy

Strategy “may be” defined by the Lead Link, according to the Holacracy constitution.

How you define and communicate strategy is not clearly defined in the Holacracy constitution. The Lead Link is accountable for “Establishing priorities and Strategies for the Circle”, so while it’s optional from the constitution’s point of view, you may expect the Lead Link to do so.

The word strategy is mentioned only once in the entire constitution. Holacracy does have several other constructs that help people choose direction within their roles, such as metrics, accountabilities and especially purpose as defined in its governance process. Strategy is defined as:

…heuristics that guide the Circle’s Roles in self-identifying priorities…

The form that is used in many Holacracy running companies is:

Emphasize X over Y (where both should be something valuable fitting the purpose of the circle, to make it a real choice)

After using this syntax for 2 years, we learned about OKRs. They felt like a more data driven and concrete way to push ourselves to achieve our purpose. We decided to try it and have now been using OKRs for over 2 years. I will not explain OKRs in detail, but unless mentioned otherwise we follow their definition religiously.

FAQ about how we use OKRs:

  1. We only use OKRs at circle level, not at personal or role level. Some people have defined role based OKRs but we’ve noticed that that comes very close to projects that should have clear outcomes that contribute to a circle-level OKR.
  2. The Lead Link of the circle defines the OKRs (as he/she is accountable for defining relative priorities and strategy), often gathering input from circle members.
  3. The Lead Link of our GCC (General Company Circle, which we call “Alignment”) sets the OKRs for the entire company, after which each circle’s Lead Link interprets that into OKRs for their circle.
  4. We change OKRs at least every quarter, sometimes even for 1 or 2 months periods.
  5. OKRs are graded between 0,0 and 1,0 every other week based on progress made towards the Key Result. This is done in a short discussion during the Metrics part of the Tactical meeting and documented by the Secretary. The Lead Link calls the final grade if needed.
  6. OKRs are often Metrics we keep track of in our regular weekly and monthly metric review in the Tactical meetings. Sometimes they are split up in several more specific metrics. We review about 20 metrics in each circle, with many more being tracked by individual roles in deeper Google Sheets.
  7. OKRs are not targets, they’re more like Big Hairy Audacious Goals, so we don’t couple things like compensation or even employee reviews to them. They are merely the starting point for discussion and to force ourselves to be very clear on where we’re going and what is most important NOW. Read more about common OKR pitfalls in this article.
  8. OKRs of our Alignment circle (in effect the entire company) are graded in an all hands meeting to involve everyone and trigger discussions.
  9. OKRs are added in Asana in the circle’s Tactical meeting overview, as well as an overview of all OKRs for findability and transparency.
  10. To correctly ratify our use of OKRs, I as Lead Link have added a policy on GCC level that Lead Links should define strategy with using the OKR format.
  11. There’s a role in our Smooth Operations circle called “OKR Master” that acts as OKR expert, spreading knowledge and giving feedback on badly formulated OKRs (I don’t hold that role by the way).
  12. Key Results are not projects, but projects are often derived from them. If they do converge, you have probably made your project too much like a metric / measurable outcome instead of a project that will end successfully on completion regardless of a metric it influences.
  13. If priorities change mid-OKR we change the OKRs or keep them on a bit longer. It’s not recommended to do this often but it has allowed us to dynamically steer while still having clarity on where we want to go.