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How Team Feedback Can Drive OKRs

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Team feedback meetings can help teams to define their own goals. Such meetings increase focus and motivation within teams, and with proper transparency they enable alignment between the teams’ and organizational goals. In his talk at Agile Leadership Day 2019, Michael Sommerhalder presented how Digitec Galaxus combined quarterly team feedback meetings and team missions with OKRs.

Sommerhalder mentioned that because of the annual performance review each team member had with their respective team lead, team members tended to focus on their own further development, as opposed to the development of the team as a whole. They should ideally be working together, instead of performing as a collection of people pursuing their own individual goals.

By moving the goals from a personal to a team level, they hoped to achieve better teamwork and more focus/alignment within the teams. By each team creating their own team goals, they also wanted to increase the autonomy of the teams. Sommerhalder stated that they aimed to increase transparency and alignment on a bigger scale by having team goals be visible across the whole company.

The CEO came up with the idea of giving OKRs a try. Sommerhalder said that they expected OKRs to increase focus and alignment within the teams, give them more autonomy, and at the same time increase transparency and alignment across the company.

At Digitec Galaxus, each team has a meeting at the end of each quarter. In those meetings, the teams assess their performance during the last quarter, and create new goals for the next quarter. The teams in the entire company carry this out, said Sommerhalder:

There are teams that measure their goal achievement in a binary way, others in percentages. The teams decide if they want to pursue a goal not met in the next quarter, or if they want to create completely new goals.

All team goals, including those of the board of directors, are recorded in a confluence space where they can be accessed by everybody within the company. To get long-term alignment throughout the company, they also created team mission statements. The statements are supposed to give the teams a more long-term focus, as opposed to a focus for the quarter, and should not be changed too often.

As a prerequisite to introducing OKRs in their company, they had to establish a feedback culture first. "It was very important for us that everybody in the teams could speak freely and didn’t have to fear repercussions," Sommerhalder said.

"With OKR we chose the right means to our ends," said Sommerhalder. "They helped us a great deal in getting alignment, transparency and motivation throughout the teams."

InfoQ spoke with Michael Sommerhalder, teamleader software engineering at Digitec Galaxus AG, after his talk at Agile Leadership Day 2019.

InfoQ: How do you do team feedback meetings?

Michael Sommerhalder: The whole team gathers in a meeting room for a meeting that takes roughly four hours for an eight-person team. They have to come prepared, which means they took their time to think about the other team members’ contributions the past quarter. We have a template consisting of four questions each team member has to answer for all other team members.

During this meeting, the team goes around in a circle and everybody answers the four questions for themselves first, going on to the next person afterwards, beginning with the team lead. The team leads are meant to set an example on how to make an honest self-assessment and accept feedback gracefully.

Each team member receives the feedback and might ask questions if they don’t understand the feedback. But no discussions or justifications are allowed at this time. And of course, the feedback has to be according to our feedback rules (I-messages, concrete examples, etc.). Each hour we take a break of about 10-15 minutes. Some teams reserve extra time for questions they would like to ask personally after the meeting.

The four questions are:

  • Where did you make a special contribution in achieving goals?
  • Where could you have shown more commitment?
  • What special skills do you have?
  • Where do you still have potential?

InfoQ: What have you done to establish a feedback culture?

Sommerhalder: First, let me say that we are still on our way to achieving a feedback culture in the whole company, as we are very diverse in our fields of activity and maturities of the teams.

As our engineering teams were already familiar with frequent feedback due to the Sprint Retrospectives, it was quite clear that we needed to do pilots of the new feedback process with some of them. But one of the drawbacks of the feedback was that they were usually very general; about the IDE, dependencies to other teams, etc. We had to get the teams to go deeper and give feedback on a more personal level.

Each team had their own way of (trying to) achieve this, but many used a slow introduction to personal feedback and began using every second Retrospective for personal feedback, e.g we had a template of questions and you had to choose two other team members to give feedback to (not the whole team in the beginning). This way, people slowly got used to giving and receiving personal feedback.

In the end, the teams were holding feedback meetings with everybody on the team one to three times a year. Furthermore, all team members have the opportunity to ask other employees about personal feedback using our 360° feedback tool. And finally, our quarterly meeting on how we reached the goals for the last quarter are also a tool for giving and receiving feedback.

There were also several other cultural aspects that were already in place when we introduced OKRs; the teams were already enjoying a certain degree of autonomy and did not have to wait for management’s decisions. So creating their own team goals seemed a logical next step. Information flow in our company was already transparent before the introduction; everything we do can be found in Jira or Confluence and everybody can see what other people are doing.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that teams working in more operational parts of our company might not have been used to the level of transparency OKR required, and needed more time to get acquainted with the increased transparency as well as giving and receiving feedback. Last but not least, there was already a spirit of experimenting in our company. We largely depend on ideas of how to advance in a very competitive market, and therefore we had tried out a lot of ideas already. All three cultural aspects were the foundations of our introduction to OKRs.

InfoQ: Where do OKRs meet your expectations? Where don’t they?

Sommerhalder: In terms of increasing transparency throughout the company, by having employees more committed to company goals and having better alignment between teams, our expectations were certainly met. A three-month horizon is much easier to handle for teams than setting goals for a whole year.

Furthermore, we observed that setting goals on departments that are driven by operational activities can be quite tricky, and setting goals "the wrong way" can lead to frustration. The aforementioned "wrong way" is also a risk we observed with department leaders who use OKR as "just another tool" to set the goals the way they would like. It’s a fine line between giving the teams complete autonomy and nudging them in the direction of company goals while setting their own.

InfoQ: What have you learned on this journey of OKRs and team spirit?

Sommerhalder: We realized that we are still on our journey to being fully OKR-driven, as there are departments still missing their own goal as a kind of "glue" between the company’s goals and the respective team goals. Letting the teams set their own goals in contrast to "just getting the ones from a hierarchy level above" greatly improved the team’s perception of being autonomous, and thus increased the amount of ideas coming from the teams. This, ultimately, leads to more innovation in the whole company.

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