OKRs: Strategic planning the Google way

By Allen Swann, Head of Reporting, Wellcome Sanger Institute

At the Wellcome Sanger Institute we’re refreshing the way we do strategic planning, using Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). We’re learning from the big innovators in the technology sector such as Google and Intel, who have achieved world-leading success by applying the OKR method for decades1. A small group of Sanger teams from our operational functions have been trialling the approach to see how setting ambitious goals and being transparent about the outcomes could improve our performance.

As a global leader in scientific discovery, Sanger is used to setting pioneering goals. But talking with teams across the Institute I discovered our planning practices could be inconsistent. We often relied on individual’s knowledge of top-level plans to drive their teams in the right direction. Plans ranged from very long lists, to complicated Gantt charts with no clearly articulated link back to the institute’s strategy. We needed a better approach.

What are OKRs all about?

In theory we all know how it should work. The organisation has a ‘mission’, in our case to improve healthcare, advance understanding of biology and benefit society through the use of genomic science. And that mission cascades down through the institute from senior leaders’ strategy, to team plans and personal objectives. The problem was we had no systematic way to make it happen. That’s where Google’s approach came in.

Objectives and Key Results is not a new idea. Or a complicated one. At Google senior leadership sets around five big, aspirational goals each year (the ‘Objectives’) with measurable targets that define their successful outcome (the ‘Key Results’). These OKRs set the direction for the entire organisation. Each individual team references them and determines their own OKRs, setting out how they will play their part in delivering management’s goals. So a top-level goal of ‘increase active users by 5 per cent’ might be picked up by the web-design team who sets an objective to ‘design an App to attract new users’ with associated key results such as ’10,000 new subscribers per day’. The OKRs are published for everyone to see and monitored each month to show how each team is progressing. Its simplicity is what makes it work. Everyone in the organisation knows the targets they’re aiming for and can see how it will drive success for the whole organisation. Seeing that bigger picture inspires staff on the ground to strive for their goals, and makes sure everyone’s work is aligned to the mission. Google seems to have done ok so far.1

But we’re a science institute not a tech company. Would it work for us? Well BMW are also an OKR practitioner and they know a little about large-scale precision throughput which isn’t a million miles away from our genome sequencing and data pipelines. And in the world of not-for-profit research, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has adopted OKRs as well. There may be something in it. And let’s face it, we could all benefit from taking time every few months to think through our goals and agree together what we’ll commit to getting done. So we’re giving it a try.

Our Chief Operating Officer Martin Dougherty has lent his support to the OKR initiative. Martin set his own objectives to act as frame of reference across the operational teams, and has championed the approach from the start. Martin told us “I’ve tried a number of approaches over the last few years to identify the right tool to ensure everyone is strategically aligned and pulling in the right direction. OKRs might just be it.”

How we’re introducing OKRs at Sanger

As a large organisation it’s not easy to change the way everybody plans. So we’re starting small. Five teams volunteered to trial OKRs for a three month pilot. So far each team has agreed their objectives and validated these goals with other teams to ensure consistency and alignment. For the next three months we’ll track how those teams are progressing.

Even in these early stages we feel we’ve learned a lot. Setting a good Key Result turns out to be harder than you’d think. How do you measure whether a stock management policy is operating effectively? So teams have had to think hard and be creative in setting their targets.

We’ve also discovered how often we assume another team is driving in the same direction as us. We asked each pilot team to share their objectives with other impacted groups. Usually they recognised the goals and were happy to accommodate, but occasionally it came as a surprise and forced us to have a conversation about each team’s priorities. OKRs don’t solve such conflicts but they do bring them into the open and make sure we address them. I’m pleased to say all were resolved amicably.

The heart of our objective setting process is a team workshop, to reflect back on achievements from the last quarter and then agree goals for the coming three months. Having an open discussion about priorities proved a hugely valuable way for our pilot teams to focus minds and align team strategy. There was often disagreement about team priorities, at least at first. But talking it through meant everyone had their say and could make a case for a project or work stream they felt had been overlooked.  Debates were sometimes impassioned, but always constructive. And the final list of OKRs often looked very different to the manager’s initial plans.

Rich Livett who leads the software development team talked about his experiences taking part in the pilot. “We’d been saying for some time we needed to address ticket response times but it just never made it to the top of the to-do list. The OKR structure gave us the opportunity to talk about it and commit as a team to getting it done. It also made sure we had buy-in from the leadership and other teams we work alongside. Focusing on that goal along with our other OKRs means we’ll be much better placed to tackle the challenges facing the team in the coming year.”

Simon Rice from the Health & Safety team, another pilot volunteer, put it even more simply. “We had so many essential things to do in a short period. Agreeing as a team what we could realistically achieve in three months helped us commit to a sensible plan.”

One analogy helped me grasp the power of OKRs. Imagine a glass jar representing your available time, and a pile of stones being the tasks you need to fit in. Some are small pebbles and sand, being the smaller day-to-day jobs we all need to do. And then there’s a few big rocks – those important goals that will really make a difference. If we put the pebbles and sand in first we’ll soon find we can’t fit in the big rocks. Instead put the rocks in first, and then the smaller stones will fit in around them. That’s equivalent to committing to your priority objectives. Of course there’s still a day job to do, but we tend to find that once we’ve planned time for those critical tasks the rest will fall into place around them.

Where do we go from here?

So far we’ve focused on OKRs for the science support teams. I’ve been asked a few times ‘So would this work for scientists?’ I’m not sure. Science by nature needs flexibility to change direction as discoveries evolve, and setting rigid objectives is unlikely to help. But scientists still need to get things done and show results. Setting aspirational targets could propel our ambitions, even if we need to adapt or abandon those goals later. Perhaps a modified OKR approach which allows for rapidly changing priorities is what we need. We’ll see how we get on with the operational teams first.

But we realise we’re beginners at this. We will learn from our experiences and refine the process as we go. We’re also very keen to learn from others who have real-life experience in OKR practices.

If you have used OKRs in a current or previous organisation please get in touch as we’d love to hear your stories and share experiences. It’s been an exciting start to the journey and we’re looking forward to seeing where OKRs can take us.

References and further information

  • 1 – Learn more about the Google story, and many other helpful case studies applying the OKR approach from John Doerr’s defining book on the subject ‘Measure what Matters’.
  • Allen Swann