OKR TALKS
OKR TALKS. INTERVIEW WITH STEFAN ENGELS
foto
by By Kate Devyatkina, CEO of Ahundred
on Febuary 17, 2020

Stefan Engels went from the developer to CTO and moved to the coaching direction. Now he is an Agile Coach and OKR Professional who has hands-on experience in consulting big companies. He can show the real benefits of using OKRs both in working and private lives. It was his passionate belief in the efficiency of OKRs, and the transition from "managing tasks" to "solving problems" model made us take an interview from him.

Stefan Engels
OKR Practitioner,
Coach & Trainer
— According to the information I have, your big way to coaching started on a pretty basic career stage. You began as a developer but raised quickly to the Head of IT and even more. Are you naturally good at managing?

— At the beginning of my career, I thought managing is good, right and important for my employees. Over the years, however, I have found that managing is the wrong approach. Today I can say that I am good at organizing and structuring things and that I have learned to move from "managing tasks" to "solving problems". Therefore I would say that I can perhaps "manage" but definitely do not do it anymore.

When I realized that it is not about "managing" people, but about leading, I understood more and more that leading means "supporting" in the first sense. I learned more and more optimization by learning from what worked well and not so much from the mistakes anymore.

— What were the steps you took to improve yourself up to that point?

— Well, that was like a journey in which I was able and willing to learn a lot. In the beginning, I learned a lot from the fact that "managing" always led to bad situations and problems. That means, in the beginning, I learned a lot about making mistakes.

When I realized that it is not about "managing" people, but about leading, I understood more and more that leading means "supporting" in the first sense. I learned more and more optimization by learning from what worked well and not so much from the mistakes anymore.

— For sure, any manager's main instrument is their brain. However, it's always better to systematize. At some point, you started exploring management systems. How did you come up to that? Was it a decision towards having some structure to rely on?

— Very interesting question! In general, I have learned that managing is the wrong system. Maybe you can manage things, maybe you can manage simple, uncomplex situations. But I am convinced that you cannot manage human beings.

I have therefore decided to say goodbye to management methods and to identify methods with which I can support and develop humans. OKR, for example, is an approach that works best when you stop managing people and start helping them achieve the best possible results!

— So, now you use OKR as your primary methodology, right? How long is it being like that?

— I started working with OKR almost 5 years ago. First as an employee of a company that introduced OKR, later as an OKR coach and trainer. Since then I use OKR in many areas of my work but also in my private life.

There was a high degree of discomfort in the organization and everyone felt like working in a hamster wheel. The achieved results were accordingly also not good. With the introduction of OKR, the whole culture has changed step by step. There was more and more responsibility in the organization, employees were more committed to the realization of their work and everyone involved felt more and more like part of something bigger. As a consequence, the results and ultimately the success of the company became better and better!

— Shortly, what does OKR mean to you? Let's say, what are the 3 points which keep you as its permanent implementor?

— First of all, they enable really powerful objectives in which you believe and which you want to achieve with all your energy. Secondly, OKR is very well suited to create a common and unified understanding in an organization of what is really important (i.e. what goals everyone should pursue). And thirdly, OKR enables organizations to go from "managing" to "enabling" and to transform the manager role into a supporter role. Especially the last point is, in my opinion, the crucial element in working with OKR.

There was a high degree of discomfort in the organization and everyone felt like working in a hamster wheel. The achieved results were accordingly also not good. With the introduction of OKR, the whole culture has changed step by step. There was more and more responsibility in the organization, employees were more committed to the realization of their work and everyone involved felt more and more like part of something bigger. As a consequence, the results and ultimately the success of the company became better and better!

— At which stage did you understand that everything needs to work in that certain way? Was it when you transited your whole company to Agile?

— For me, the point was crucial when I realized that an organization with management-driven decisions is always in danger of making mistakes! If a single person makes all decisions, then that person must know and understand everything. This is simply not possible so that an organization is always prone to mistakes. If you want to be truly successful as a company, you have to eliminate this "source of error" and that's when I realized that OKR is an optimal tool for this. Organizations become able to make better decisions faster. A real competitive advantage!

There was a high degree of discomfort in the organization and everyone felt like working in a hamster wheel. The achieved results were accordingly also not good. With the introduction of OKR, the whole culture has changed step by step. There was more and more responsibility in the organization, employees were more committed to the realization of their work and everyone involved felt more and more like part of something bigger. As a consequence, the results and ultimately the success of the company became better and better!

If you want to be truly successful as a company, you have to eliminate this "source of error" and that's when I realized that OKR is an optimal tool for this. Organizations become able to make better decisions faster.

— Could you share a case from your background when you could see the bright BEFORE/AFTER effect from implementing OKRs in a company? Tell us about it:)

— Yes, of course. I was able to get to know a good example of a before-and-after effect during the OKR launch at a young digital company. Although they were a young organization, the managers of the company behaved in a very classical way, setting goals top-down and trying to control the employees through micromanagement.

There was a high degree of discomfort in the organization and everyone felt like working in a hamster wheel. The achieved results were accordingly also not good. With the introduction of OKR, the whole culture has changed step by step. There was more and more responsibility in the organization, employees were more committed to the realization of their work and everyone involved felt more and more like part of something bigger. As a consequence, the results and ultimately the success of the company became better and better!

— How soon did the result appear?

— The whole process took 18 months, but the first measurable results were already visible at the start of the first OKR iteration. In this respect, OKRs already rapidly evolve changes, but the full added value only develops after 2-4 cycles.

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— How far it went?

— The organization changed from "command and control" to a company strongly based on agile working. There are still management roles - which is fine - but the way of working together is completely different.

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— How did you feel about it?

— From my point of view, it was very nice to see that corporate culture can change and that this became the basis for the economic success of the company. At the end of the day, it's not just a matter of a comfortable atmosphere, but of everyone being able to successfully do business together.

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— In your LinkedIn profile, you mentioned that your passion is cultivating an agile mindset without dogmatism. Sounds great! But we know that OKR methodology has some basics which make it unique. Do you follow all the fundamental rules of working with OKRs?

— I like to compare agile work with the weather. This follows clear rules like air pressure, humidity, and temperature and these are essential for weather conditions. Besides that, the weather is completely chaotic and unpredictable in many ways. OKR is similar to me. It is essential that you consistently adhere to basic things like the OKR process or the way you formulate objectives or make key results instantly measurable. Therefore I follow the fundamental rules. At the same time, the actual implementation changes according to the requirements, form, and characteristics of an organization. Agile is always Inspect & Adapt!

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— Which are the strictest points for you? Which do you prefer to modify depending on the situation?

— The process of the OKR cycle should always be clear and stable for me. In addition, the way the goal is formulated (e.g. radical focus on the client) and the measurability of key results through lead metrics are very important. The rest is always customizable. For example, the set-up of the OKR teams, the way the OKR review is conducted or the use of OKR masters in a company. Here, many things can be adapted to fit the organization.

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— Do you think it can be useful to have some special software for OKR management? Do you use any tools which help you in setting, tracking - generally, managing your OKRs?

— Yes, of course. The use of an OKR software is always helpful if either the organization is (too) large (>50 employees) or the employees work mainly remotely.

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— If you use any tools, what is the main thing you like working with them for?

— In addition to an optimal user interface that is easy to understand and operate, the software should reflect the OKR process as it is lived in the respective company. This means that the company's workflow determines the process in the software and not vice versa. If the software prevents that certain things cannot be changed, then I would consider this as suboptimal. It is also important to me that the software supports the organization to provide the highest possible transparency and visibility of the current status.

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— How do you integrate your methods into companies that had never used OKRs before?

— Again it depends a lot on the size of the company, but in case of doubt, I start in a smaller area (department, team) with a pilot. Beforehand, all those involved will be trained sufficiently in-depth in the OKR procedure and a roll-out plan will be discussed with the leadership in particular. An OKR-Rollout always takes place in iterative steps and then expands more and more.

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— Maybe, you have some advice for those who are newbies?

— Three points are crucial for me: 1. OKRs are not a better tool for working on targets. They are rather a new, agile operating system for a company. 2. working with OKR has an impact on the behavior and work of managers. They must be willing to facilitate and support the change. 3. it takes patience for OKR to work well, as it is a very long cyclical process. At least 12-18 months should be planned until OKR can be used optimally.

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— After figuring out the OKR-implementing process, let's take a look into the future. What can a company expect from using OKR? Which specific needs it may cover?

— If you live in a fast-moving world, OKR will help you remain successful as a company in the future. This is certainly the greatest added value of OKR! This is based on the fact that you as an organization remain flexible enough, can make quick decisions and work measurably successful on the really important things. Ultimately, the use of OKR gives you a competitive advantage over inflexible (non-agile) competitors!

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— In the tool developed by my team, we don't limit users with their OKR count. We share the information about how is it supposed to be, however, we don't limit them. To your opinion, is it a must not have more than - let's say - 3 Os and 5 KRs? Why or why not?

— Every company has limited resources (time, money). If you had unlimited resources you would be able to do anything you want! However, since this is not the case, it is essential to be limited. I'm not dogmatic about the number of Objectives and Key Results, but I would recommend everyone to question very strongly why they need more than 3 Os and 5KRs. Often this is not necessary or "politically" motivated in a company.

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— What details are you focused on for reaching a good result with OKR? Formulating goals perfectly, checking progress regularly, or what else?

1. gradually and directly measurable, meaningful key results 2. collaborative creation of OKR across silo boundaries 3. powerful and short weekly check-in meetings, which give the OKR team a real added value 4. regular review of the confidence level of the OKR teams to achieve the objectives 5. adapted role of management, shifting from "managing" to "enabling

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— You are leading a coaching and consulting agency. What is your main mission with it?

— Supporting organizations in developing a healthy (agile) culture in order to remain successful in a rapidly changing world!

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

I would recommend everyone to question very strongly why they need more than 3 Os and 5KRs. Often this is not necessary or "politically" motivated in a company.

— Who are your clients and how they usually come up to using your services?

— My clients are often companies from SMEs to corporate groups that are either already active in the digital industry (Internet) or need to develop into it. Both groups realize that working in complex environments such as software development no longer works with previous methods (such as classical management). They know this, but they often do not know what they have to change. Here I support them to find the right way for them!

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— Are there any kind of companies where using the OKR method is not a case? How do you deal with those, if there are some?

— Unfortunately and fortunately at the same time, there are a few of these companies. Some of them do not want to implement OKR, because they are not motivated to change their leadership behavior.

Here I try to support them by coaching the management in particular and help them to understand the added value behind OKR. On the other hand, there are companies that already use different agile methods and may not need OKR at all. Here I am happy to support the further way without using OKR. However, it often turns out well that these companies also recognize the added value in OKR later on and would like to use the approach after all.

— Finally, your opinion about when it is better to switch to OKR goal-management. From the very beginning or when the company becomes big enough; on January, 1st/Monday/mid-September? Are there any frames?

— It is not important for me when you start with OKR. For me, it is much more relevant why you want to start with OKR! The question about the goal you want to achieve with OKR is crucial. If you want to introduce an agile operating system for your organization with OKR, you should and can start as early as possible. Even small companies with few employees achieve great success with OKR. However, if you only want to use a "modern" MbO (Management by Objectives), then you will fail. No matter how big or small, how young or old the company is.

We, at Ahundred, are happy to meet a like-minded person who is so into OKRs as we are. It was a pleasure to learn the out-of-the-box view on management. Thanks for the exciting experience.