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This is why we prefer working with OKRs instead of KPIs at Mediahuis

Mediahuis Belgium has reorganized its product team and, in that process, changed its way of working with objectives and key results (OKRs). In this article, you will learn more about the hurdles, approaches, and learnings we encountered during this 1-year journey.

What are OKRs?

The assumption is that when you write your company's KPIs into inspirational objectives, people will be more motivated to reach those objectives effectively. These objectives should not be about mere output (tasks) but what you want to achieve. That is also why an objective should be ambitious and qualitative.

To obtain this objective, you determine a couple of key results. These should be measurable, time-bound, and value-based. The value part is crucial because it explains why you should reach this key result.

For example, with summer approaching, many people want to lose weight to look better in their summer clothes. An obvious KPI is: "I want to lose five kilos." But, if you translate it into "I want to be the fittest version of myself," you tell a different story. You want to feel better, and many key results (making healthy food choices, sleeping more hours, etc.) can help with that, not only losing weight.

Why OKRs?

The initial reasoning behind OKRs for Mediahuis is that we needed to measure our progress more transparently and establish an actionable framework across the broad organization.

We also observed the framework we used; KPIs did not put people in motion or create the focus we needed to progress.

So, why not try using a framework that returns ownership over output and outcome to the people who make it happen? OKRs should be the perfect solution to this, but are they?

Our hurdles

In our OKR transformation journey, we encountered some hurdles.

OKRs are typically managed quarterly, but our objectives turned out to have a longer lifespan, which conflicted with the quarterly cycle. As a result, we got stuck with the same OKRs endlessly coming back every quarter. We somehow had to balance OKRs with KPIs, which remained the most used framework of many management teams.

We felt some change fatigue in the product management team after reorganizing a lot during the last couple of years. We appreciated the OKRs, but did we benefit from them? Where was the speed in action? Where was the focus? What results could we show the leadership team?

The challenge

How can we make OKRs work for Mediahuis and not vice versa?

We started our OKR journey enthusiastically: We read some theories and talked to people with experience in the field. Our first steps were promising, but after a few iterations, we felt the team was losing its appetite for the project. There seemed to be no room for improvement.

We still believed we should proceed, and there was a growing awareness that we didn't need to force our organization into the theoretical model of OKRs, but instead, turn it around: What was already in place and how could we build on that to create more focus and speed of action?

In the next step, we liberated ourselves from an all-too-dogmatic way of thinking about OKRs. Instead, we now see the OKRs as a framework from which we choose the best tools for Mediahuis and its product teams.

Our approach

The critical insight was that we needed to avoid forced quarterly targets. In OKR theory, the idea is to formulate an achievable quarterly objective. But if it's not in line with how you run your company's business, you should adjust this.

Make the objectives work for you and not the other way around. This meant working with annual objectives and key results, which we match quarterly to achievable outcome-oriented initiatives.

To do this, we created a vast paper poster hanging on the wall during our stakeholder workshops. At the top, we drew the strategic trajectories of Mediahuis Group, and so we worked both top-down and bottom-up with our outcomes and initiatives.

You might think, "A retro poster on paper? In a 'digital' company?" We go by the creed, use what you need, and a physical poster does the trick in a real-life, in-person workshop! The poster also stays up now, so we reinforce this message a little bit every day.

This new way of working results in a better discussion about priorities: Discussing outcomes is easier because you are discussing what brings value to your customer and your company. That is a lot more tangible than discussing "cold" KPIs.

Our main learnings

We have learned that OKRs are a means to an end: Make them work for you, not vice versa.

Stop forcing the team into a quarterly OKR setting, and allow longer-term objectives. Also, translate KPIs into actionable OKRs that show value and inspire your team.

Work both from the top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top in your strategic framework. From top to bottom, ask how the main strategic trajectories translate into concrete initiatives with a desired outcome. And from the bottom up, ask whether you can map each initiative to a more significant strategic trajectory.

Start small in your measuring ambitions with stakeholders involved. Not everyone is a data expert (yet). And if not all of your stakeholders know or support the overall strategy, clarify it.

Our improvement journey

We now have workable OKRs with quarterly outcomes. However, we find we are not yet measuring them very well. Therefore, a logical next step is to look at how to make these results more measurable.

We also need to establish a point where we measure them. Many initiatives do not reach cruising speed until a quarter or two after implementation. That is unsurprising since our business is human-driven, and human behavior typically does not change overnight.

In addition, we should look at how and when we communicate the results of all this hard work to all our stakeholders. In that same spirit, we also should learn to celebrate our successes and stop what doesn't work.

This article was first featured in the International News Media Association (INMA) blog here and was written by Stijn Vercamer, data & product director at Mediahuis Belgium and Sarah Faict, organization developer and owner at Buildr.