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How the OKR model helps association teams stay aligned, focused, and productive

Emily Herrington
June 28, 2021
How the OKR model helps association teams stay aligned, focused, and productive

It’s a natural occurrence: in an annual meeting, the board of directors sets ambitious, big-picture goals for what their association should accomplish in the next year. 

The meeting wraps, and everyone goes back to their day-to-day. 

When it’s time to review those goals the next year, they haven’t been ushered forward, and the cycle repeats. 

So how can we break this pattern and ensure goals aren’t just lofty but are actionable? How can we measure progress and success? What can we do to align the implementers and the strategists? 

Debra BenAvram, CEO of AABB, and Alex Bartholomaus, president and CEO of People Stretch Solutions, advocate for using the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) framework to accelerate progress and value. 

What is OKR? 

OKR is a goal-setting framework that helps create and align team goals. Using this structured goal framework, organizations are able to translate their strategic plans into commitments that align teams and drive execution. The purpose of OKRs is to push leaders out of their comfort zones and to clearly articulate what needs to be accomplished every quarter.

OKRs consist of Objectives and Key Results. 

Objectives are significant, concrete, and inspirational goals. Objectives should be ambitious yet realistic, Bartholomaus said. 

Key results, on the other hand, are specific, time-bound and measurable. These are the outcomes that quantify how close you are to accomplishing the objective. 

How OKR works

BenAvram and Bartholomaus recommend setting OKRs on a quarterly basis. Leadership teams should set top-level objectives that are then cascaded down to the front lines.

Strategic planning should happen in the first two weeks of the quarter. After that, the focus shifts to execution for weeks 3-12. OKRs should be discussed in team meetings and one-to-ones to consistently reiterate the goals and measure progress made toward achieving them. 

“By driving focus in those two places, all of a sudden, organizations and associations can start getting momentum and velocity on their biggest priorities,” Bartholomaus said. 

The final week of the quarter, week 13, is the retrospective. This is when the whole team looks back on the past quarter to celebrate their accomplishments and learn from what didn’t go right. 

How do you write Objectives and Key Results?

Each quarter, there should be 4-5 objectives set by the executive team that answer what you want to accomplish and why it’s important. These should be exciting and ambitious, and it’s important to remember that an objective is not the same as a project, like launching a new content series for the knowledge library. An objective is something bolder, like “Amplify the organization’s leadership in the field.”  

BenAvram recommended not to create objectives along product lines — instead, they should tug at the why and usher in cross-departmental collaboration. 

Every objective should be accompanied by 2-3 key results. Because key results should always be quantifiable, it can be difficult to know what number to choose as your KR. But BenAvram said not to worry — your first go at writing KRs is your baseline. From there, you will get continuously better at knowing what to measure. Perfection is not the goal when getting started with OKRs. 

“Put a number, decide whether or not you can live with that number, and then shoot for the stars and see what happens,” she said.

Still stumped? If you're looking for some extra inspiration, Align offers a handy template for writing OKRs.

OKR disrupts common patterns association teams fall into 

When the board sets big goals on a quarterly or annual basis, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the breadth of the goals, or worse, to fail to communicate these goals down to the frontlines who are responsible for executing the tactical work that clocks progress towards those goals. Sometimes, it’s hard for an individual staffer to understand the role they play in advancing these goals. 

“We have to value the strategy work and the tactical work. Without that, the strategy won’t happen,” Bartholomaus said.

Here are a few ways Objectives and Key Results help organization leaders overcome strategy execution challenges.

Intimidatingly broad strategies: By breaking big-picture strategic plans into bite-size chunks, objectives become attainable and easy to see how the needle is moving in the right direction. 

Not knowing who is responsible for what: The OKR model is built on transparency and accountability, so it cuts out the lack of clarity that can come from not knowing who is responsible. “If everyone is accountable, no one is accountable,” BenAvram said. With OKRs, it’s easy to see how an individual’s work is interwoven with their colleagues. 

Lack of buy-in from implementation teams: The conversations that OKR facilitates show individual staff members how they have a direct impact on major organizational goals and objectives. They can see how their work impacts the big picture, which is essential for driving engagement and motivation. 

Competing priorities: OKRs help drive focus and inspiration and highlight the work that really matters. 

“If association leaders want accountability, they first have to get alignment,” Bartholomaus said. 

Motivate your team with Objectives and Key Results

OKR lets you celebrate wins as an organization together, on a more regular basis. It’s a lot easier to get motivated and feel connected when everyone has a clear role in helping achieve a top-level goal.

Teams have more engagement, accountability, clarity, and ownership when they adopt OKR. Investing more time and getting more people involved pays quarterly dividends. 

“You have to be very thoughtful about how you’re engaging in your team meetings and reviewing performance versus one-on-ones,” Bartholomaus said. “An OKR gives you a more structured way to do that in order to inspire great performances and help your team live their mission.”

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Emily Herrington

Emily Herrington is a New Orleans-based digital marketer specializing in SEO, content, and pay-per-click advertising. She can usually be found at her desk obsessing over data and rankings, or in the kitchen covered in flour.

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