What are the usual hurdles when implementing OKRs?
M: Mission, vision, values and strategy - did you work on these topics alone or together with Murakamy?
FW: We described these topics in advance - derived from those of the group, of course. In the introductory workshop with Murakamy, we again discussed these topics intensively. Especially with Marco, who was a wonderful sparring partner because he questioned a lot of things very precisely and we had to sharpen certain things again. What I found very valuable about this process was that all of the colleagues really sat around the table. Because this has helped each individual to develop a deeper understanding of exactly where we at Markel actually want to be.
M: How did you approach the issue of being a regional subsidiary of a US holding company not being able to have a holistic influence on the company's vision, mission and strategy?
FW: The subject is very pleasant in that we follow a basic principle at Markel. It is called “Freedom within a Framework”: We use the guidelines of our parent company, but we have scope for definition for our own local strategy. And we take full advantage of this. That is not at all contradicting itself, it actually makes it easier for us in some places. Certain things are clear; with others we have the freedom to define them according to the respective market.
M: When was the start of the introduction of OKR and how did you go about the rollout?
FW: The starting shot for the implementation was in our German Strang in the second quarter of 2019, directly with all 37 employees. We have a relatively young team and the topic was received very positively. In the introductory session we discussed OKR as a basic principle and sharpened the vision, mission, values and strategy. Then we developed the first company set and the first individual team sets together. That was quite a long and intensive workshop, but absolutely valuable as a preparation for what we are going to do.
We are the first unit in the group to have experience with OKRs.
After a few quarters, I wanted to take the step of introducing the framework at the European level in order to bundle strategies and activities. However, not completely cascaded on the individual team levels as for Germany, but that is currently being considered. I left it up to the European teams, because from my point of view it makes no sense to prescribe OKR. It must be their desire to introduce this completely.
M: How far has the change process progressed at Markel Germany? What optimization potential is there?
FW: We have already become much more secure and have now deeply internalized and understood the framework as a management tool. You have to discipline yourself again and again to actually hold all types of meetings on a regular basis in order to really stick to the topic. And find a way how best to handle the process.
With the formulation of O’s and KR’s, we have also become significantly better over time - so to coordinate these in such a way that it fits well from top-down versus bottom-up. However, questions still arise. For example, how does business as usual differ from project and how do I fit both neatly into OKR? Suddenly we became a little insecure and brought Christian von Murakamy back in to support us.
We are constantly working on this fine line between pure teaching and pragmatic implementation in the company. And I think it will stay that way. I don't think that we will reach a state where we say: “Now everything is perfect and nothing changes!” OKR is something that lives and moves - and that's a good thing!
M: How do you manage to integrate OKRs in the implementation and how do you deal with experiences of frustration?
FW: If we notice that the mood becomes heated in an OKR meeting and a certain dissatisfaction is noticeable, we have now found a way to deal with it. We ask ourselves: What is the core question behind it? Is it an overload? Are we doing too much? This is also one of our learnings: In terms of moonshots and great sets, we were a little over-motivated at first. We either had a low level of fulfillment or the problem that employees thought they were done but still needed to be reworked. We were back to the original problem that there were too many projects that weren't finished ...
It's all a process that you have to find your way into. Filtering out where the problem is is tedious and extensive communication work that has to be done in order to achieve a better result. And you always have to try not to lose anyone on the journey.
M: How much effort do OKRs mean for you in your daily doing?
FW: That is difficult to answer. I couldn't give a percentage of how much of my work time I put into it. It's a combination with the usual leadership work that I did before. This has now taken on a different form and other things have also been omitted.
The fact that it is a process that follows a clear roadmap makes things even easier. Coordination efforts that you otherwise had to do because you did more ad hoc or more detached from each other without sitting down, are significantly reduced by OKR.
At the beginning, of course, the effort is greater, as you have to give it time and think about how to formulate certain things for an O and a KR. However, this hurdle is overcome very quickly and then it is an exchange of an old for a new process. This is now established in our day-to-day business, which is why I cannot say that OKR means additional work in daily doing.
M: What were the most difficult challenges in the context of the OKR introduction?
FW: A difficult challenge is to keep to the individual discussion formats in a disciplined manner and to really focus on the OKRs and the set priorities. Another big challenge for me is coordinating the sets. What is considered the most important point in a team at the moment? What may be considered key point from a top-down version? And how do you ensure that you enter into an honest discussion about prioritization and not seek a compromise in order not to have to make decisions?
M: What other important benefits have you been able to draw from the introduction so far?
FW: OKRs have significantly improved our communication! The direction in which we want to go is much clearer to all employees. Because of the focus and the discussion of why we are doing what exactly, we have a much higher buy-in. Another good effect is that, thanks to the improved overall communication, at the end of the day not everything is directed towards one person. All employees have transparency about what is actually going on in the company. What does he or she actually do all day? That question still exists, but to a much lesser extent. (Laughs.) The effects that we wanted to achieve with OKR are already clearly visible to us.
M: Who takes on the role of the OKR champion in your company and what relevance do you attach to this?
FW: The OKR champion with us is a very talented employee who has a technical task and is not part of the management team, but whom we trust a lot. He has mastered the topic very well and, of course, primarily has a certain coordination role. But also participates in the discussions that take place and plays the “reminder of the framework principles”, which I find very important.
At the European level, someone from the management team in Germany was named OKR Champion. I also completed the training myself, and so did my colleague Dominik, who dealt with the topic at the beginning. For a relatively small group of 37 employees, I think we have a good quota of trained candidates. (Laughs.) Since several people have a trained basic understanding of the Murakamy framework, in my opinion we are also more stable in use.
M: What effects did the introduction between the region and the individual national companies have on the alignment?
FW: It became even more clear that we are at least walking in the same direction in the different countries. These are things that are done with different nuances - which has to do with the fact that the national companies are not all on the same level and that the basic requirements are sometimes of different nature. But, as I said, it is really nice to know that everyone is heading in the same direction and that they have set the same priorities. With OKR as a management tool, we ensure that we also have a strategy at European level that we follow and in which everyone knows what contributes to our mission and vision.
M: How do you deal internally with those that tend to occur in a sales organizationmonetary goals?
FW: We don't have an incentive culture in the classic sense in which sales employees receive monetary benefits. This is true in many insurance units, but with us the sales department is just as much part of the entire team and participates in the overall success, for which everyone is ultimately jointly responsible.
M: And how does the parent company stand on OKR?
FW: We have of course informed the group, i.e. HR and management, about the implementation of OKR as a management tool - and everyone finds the topic extremely exciting. We also keep our colleagues up to date on developments. There is now a first unit in London that has also decided to introduce an agile target system. The colleagues just want to use a different framework that they think suits them better. In this respect, I believe that we have a fair chance to continue to inspire the group, to deal with OKRs and also to implement them. I would of course be very happy if OKR were to establish itself as a tool for holistic management throughout the entire group, because I firmly believe that it is the right thing for us.
M: When would you advise a company to look at Objectives and Key Results? And what advice would a company give, which is currentlybusy with the consideration of the introduction of?
FW: I am convinced that an intrinsic will is required to establish OKR as a target system. Introducing it because you've heard about it and it sounds exciting is, in my opinion, not the right approach. You have to have the fundamental belief that this will improve yourself and you need the willingness to live OKR. It is difficult to give general advice, because I do not want to rule out that many organizations are successful even without OKRs. I think this is very company-specific, because you also need the right employees who accept such a framework.
M: What does an optimal organization look like for you in the future? What are the basic design principles?
FW: I firmly believe in personal responsibility and self-motivation! For me, these would also be the criteria that I would always put in front when I imagine the perfect organization. OKR leaves a lot of space here to develop precisely in this direction. Because it's about the principle that everyone has to bring their own set to success at the end of the day - and I find that a very pleasant one.
M: What do you promise for the future from the OKR method?
FW: I would be very happy if OKRs lead to the fact that we are a company in which personal responsibility and self-motivation are the two characteristics that are immediately noticeable when you deal with us. I am convinced that this also leads to higher employee satisfaction, as it makes you feel more connected to your employer.
Along with this, I naturally wish that the OKR framework will also bring business success. We don't do all of this purely as self-therapy - after all, OKR is introduced so that an organization works better than before.
M: To bring the term insurance back into play: Do you see OKR as a kind of "success insurance"?
FW: Exactly, you can say that exactly! (Laughs.)
Thank you very much for the very detailed and exciting insight into your experience with the OKR framework at Markel - and good luck for the future, Frederik!
Interview & Text: Anika Keller
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