The Core Business Mindset That’s Killing Your OKRs, According To A Leading Strategy Expert

Be prepared to get out of your comfort zone

Each Steve complements the other to create a winning combination. Illustration by Andy McNally.


Great managers stuck in the task-list mindset

I could never figure out why the smartest, most experienced, and capable managers I’ve coached over multiple quarterly business review cycles have had the hardest time setting effective, achievement-oriented Objectives and Key Results.

Currently deep in the OKR creation process for the coming quarter, I’ve continually worked to emphasize the benefits of setting strategic, qualitative Objectives, and associated outcome-focused Key Results. Yet for some reason I couldn’t understand, these professionals continually seemed to revert to laying out their goals as a series of tasks and to-do lists.

A clue to an answer with great potential

I believe I’ve finally unlocked the answer why this is happening through one of the biggest mindset shifts I’ve personally ever encountered, courtesy of Professor Roger Martin, in a recent Medium article titled “Why Planning Over Strategy?” as well as his related Harvard Business Review YouTube video, “A Plan Is Not a Strategy.”

What Objectives and Key Results are NOT

The key appears to lie in a common misconception many experienced business people hold, believing OKRs to be a form of planning.

Instead, it’s far more helpful to think of Objectives and Key Results as the main method for executing strategy.

What kills our ability to think strategically

For Martin, while many people use the terms strategy and planning interchangeably, they are fundamentally different.

The difference? Planning, based on analysis, is…:

“…[a] science-obsessed view [that] favors analysis of the known over any other kind of thought or work. There is an implicit assumption that whatever is will continue to be…”

Roger L. Martin, “Why Planning Over Strategy

Strategy, for Martin, requires a fundamentally different approach:

“Strategy, in contrast, imagines a desirable future and makes a set of choices with the best chance of bringing it about. It is fundamentally not analytical, which causes it to conflict with the analytical bent encouraged in and supported by business.”

Roger L. Martin, “Why Planning Over Strategy

Martin sees analysis and planning as the cornerstones of most MBA programs, the graduates of which go on to take over key management and leadership roles at many leading organizations and consultancies, so the prevalence of analysis and planning becomes a self-reinforcing loop.

What is the core of Strategy?

By contrast, Martin sees strategy as…

“a creative endeavor aimed at shaping a future that does not now exist

Roger L. Martin, “Why Planning Over Strategy

Moonshot, aspirational thinking and goal-setting requires this fundamentally creative mindset.

For Martin, as soon as you shift into analytical thinking and the resulting planning mentality, you’ve switched the brain out of the creative mindset which makes it possible to imagine and shape a different future.

The two main questions of strategy

Martin sees the creative approach to strategy as simple & straightforward, thinking through and thoughtfully answering two key questions:

  • Where To Play? (WTP) (Geographic areas, markets, low-, mid-, or up-market, different customer personas)
  • How To Win? (HTW) (What will you do to win where you have chosen to play?)

While deceptively simple, the answers to these questions must work together as an “integrated set of choices.”

Martin’s client-centric strategy approach

Client-centricity is central to Martin’s view of strategy, another fundamental way in which he separates it from planning.

He sees actual end-user customers as the only customers, and recommends all strategies be informed by the fundamental understanding that you can neither directly control your customer’s actions, nor the revenues that flow from those actions.

In formulating a strategy, you create and lay out a hypothesis of what customer behavior change outcomes could result based on your set of intentional “Where to Play/How to Win” choices.

Strategy is embodied by leadership.

How is Planning different?

By contrast, planning is a fundamentally analytical mental exercise where:

  • You believe you understand and can control costs
  • You see yourself and your company as the customer

Because analysis & planing are what most people in business are trained in and are focused on daily, this kind of analysis provides both familiarity and comfort.

Planning is embodied by management.

Should we abandon planning?

It’s not a question of which mindset — Creativity or Analysis — is better.

It’s about which one is best-suited at the right time to the right kind of activity.

If we accept that Objectives and Key Results are a great way to execute strategy, we need to understand, across the Strategy>>Objectives>>Key Results stack, when creativity and strategy are best suited, and when analysis and planning are most appropriate.

Setting effective OKRs depends on our ability to direct and sustain the right kind of thinking at the right time.

OKRs depend on Strategy

With the recent explosion of interest in Objectives and Key Results, many teams are tempted to jump right in and start setting them.

Remember that OKRs are an effective tool for executing strategy.

Roger Martin cautions us that OKRs shouldn’t be used as a substitute for strategy.

Trying to set OKRs without starting from a clear strategy will make our chances of succeeding with the OKR framework at best, a question of luck.

Because most often, in the absence of strategy, managers and their teams revert to what they’re most comfortable with: 
Planning

But Martin holds that strategy is a competency every business leader needs to learn

A plan isn’t going to get you what you imagine a strategy will. If you want to make a real difference and be capable of creating futures that do not now exist, you will need to learn the difference between planning and strategy and become competent in the latter.”

Roger L. Martin, “Why Planning Over Strategy

Getting out of Task-Based Thinking

By understanding and staying grounded in the creative mindset and the strategic focus it makes possible, we can stay out of the analysis & planning mindset that wreaks havoc with effective OKR goal-setting.

Get ready to be uncomfortable

Martin understands how leaders accustomed to jumping right into Analysis, Planning, and an Internal Focus will find it extremely uncomfortable to stay in Creativity, Strategy, and Client-Centricity for longer than they’re accustomed to.

Accept angst — as a manager, you’ve been taught to do things you can prove in advance

In strategy, you have to say, “If our theory is right, this will position us well.”

Accept that you can’t know — You’re not being a bad manager, you’re being a great leader.

Roger L. Martin, “A Plan is Not a Strategy

Mapping the Flow from Creativity to Analysis

Parsing Roger Martin’s insights on the pivotal nature of creativity in developing a strategy, together with some of the challenges I’ve encountered coaching leaders over multiple OKR creation cycles, I’ve laid out some thoughts in the flow below:

Staying in the Creative, Strategic & Client-Centric mindset means we’ll be more likely to

Craft inspirational Objectives from our Strategy

Set Outcome-focused Key Results that align to that Strategy

Reverting too quickly to the Analysis, Planning, & Internal-Focus mindset means we’ll be more likely to

Either not start from an effective Strategy in the first place, or ignore it, depriving our OKRs from having an overarching rationale & substance

Set internally-focused, uninspiring Objectives

Set task-list Key Results
Creativity & Strategy lay the foundation for effective Analysis & Planning. They are complements for each other, not substitutes!
Illustration by Andy McNally

Summary: For effective OKRs, stay in creativity longer, even if it’s uncomfortable

Assuming we’ve created an effective Strategy:

Staying in the Creative, Strategic & Client-Centric mindset means we’ll be more likely to

  • Craft inspirational Objectives from our Strategy
  • Set Outcome-focused Key Results that align to that Strategy

Reverting too quickly to the Analysis, Planning, & Internal-Focus mindset means we’ll be more likely to

  • Either not start from an effective Strategy in the first place, or ignore it, depriving our OKRs from having an overarching rationale & substance
  • Set internally-focused, uninspiring Objectives
  • Set task-list Key Results

It does make sense to start analyzing & planning to align our daily & weekly tasks and activities in a way to increase our confidence in delivering our Key Results, as long as they tie back to our overarching Strategy choices.

Christina Wodtke’s “Four Square” offers a great way to do this that you can read about here.

The cautionary tale for those that analyze & plan

Martin believes that moving too soon into analysis and planning, and believing too faithfully in the comfort it generates, can actually guarantee losing.

If you spend all your time planning, says Martin, you’ll

“expose your company to a winning strategy from some upstart that believes in inventing a future that doesn’t include your company in it!”

Roger L. Martin, “Why Planning Over Strategy

For Martin, only sustained creativity and the ability to set meaningful strategy first gives you the best possible chance of winning.


Illustrator’s Note

How do you illustrate strategy and planning in an approachable way?

The article is clear that the process is a collaborative effort between strategy and planning, not a competition. I started thinking about historic duos, Batman and Robin, Lennon and McCartney, and even peanut butter and jelly.

The one duo that stands out in product and business is Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple. They are the perfect pairing of planning and long-term vision. They saw a desirable future that did not exist and created it. The world has changed because of them and their very first Apple Macintosh, not to mention all the things that followed like the iPhone and iPad.
Andy McNally


References

https://rogermartin.medium.com/why-planning-over-strategy-88555015af3c
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuYlGRnC7J8
https://medium.com/@rogermartin/stop-letting-okrs-masquerade-as-strategy-a57fc2cea915
https://rogermartin.medium.com/strategy-vs-planning-complements-not-substitutes-ea08e56809d6
https://rogerlmartin.com/thought-pillars/strategy

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