Case Study: How to banish ambiguity, break down silos and get more sleep!
Gary Keogh, Marketing Director EMEA at William Grant and Sons, talks to Helen Trevaskis how inspiration during Wavelength Connect in 2019 saw him and his team revolutionise goal setting and business planning using OKRs.
OKRs is a goal-setting framework for defining and tracking objectives and outcomes made famous in John Doerr’s 2018 book, Measure What Matters. OKRs have two components: Objectives - short, memorable and inspirational descriptions of what you want to achieve; Key Results - a set of (2-5) metrics to measure progress towards each Objective.
The Business Challenge
I took on the role of Marketing Director EMEA early in 2018. There are 116 countries, we’ve got people spread all around the region and because we’ve had such a fantastic growth agenda the complexity of the business has increased. There was good action planning in pockets in our region but less good in others – everyone had a different template, some had none at all.
Where on Wavelength Connect did you find inspiration?
It was actually the last day of the programme when I was with my boss. David Pemsel (former CEO of The Guardian Media Group) was on stage speaking and said, "To get alignment we use OKRs". Then he must have caught someone’s eye because he stopped and asked people to put their hands up if they knew what OKRs were - only five or six people had heard of them. Then he said, "John Doerr, you all need to read his book", and carried on - it was almost like a parent-child moment!
I bought the book and started to read it and thought, ‘vaccine to ambiguity’, ‘transparency’, ‘power of alignment’ – this sounds right for us. Then, I dialled in on a Wavelength webinar with David Pemsel and I asked more about OKRs and it's drive to alignment and focus.
What were the steps you took to introduce OKRs at William Grant?
So I first heard David in May last year and in June I wrote a two-three page paper for my boss. She said, ‘This is great’, particularly as we were trying to join up the strategy for brands across regions to ensure consistency and focus, so everyone knows what they’re doing. Last September we shared it with the leadership team.
This year we’ve done a five-year strategy using OKRs. This was hard. It was also different to what Doerr suggests (in Measure what Matters) and to what David did at The Guardian where it was about quarterly tracking, but we’ve done both. We modified the template so it includes next step alongside objective, how the objective will be achieved and key results - to help demonstrate momentum.
Market teams have built their OKRs bottom up with commercial, marketing, HR… It’s brilliant now to hear people in the region talk about strategy and how to deliver through OKRs – it makes me smile, but it’s been a massive leap.
What were the biggest barriers you faced and how did you tackle them?
When we started, 50% of people were interested and the other 50% were, "Oh, Gary’s read another book"! My boss got it and my team were on board straight away plus two-three of my peers. The others got brought along by seeing the benefits.
To get alignment on an objective you have to write it really well. OKRs force you to say what you’re going to do and what results you’re expecting. You have to make sure your targets are credible so that if you don’t hit them you know you need to put more resource there. For some it feels like semantics but if you spend 45 minutes getting the sentence right it will save money, conversations, and confusion in the longer term. People who love a road map and love planning love this. Some worry its bureaucracy, that it will reduce empowerment, but it’s not – if I am looking after EMEA and I understand what you’re doing in France I can fight your corner, it’s all about transparency.
Implementing OKRs increased workloads to start with, categorically. There were a couple of weeks at the start where you feel you’re not doing any of the work you’re writing about but when you come out of the other side it’s brilliant. It reduces ambiguity and increases empowerment. When I wrote them with my team I found it liberating – I could actually sleep better at night, it was clearer what we all needed to do. Of course when you start to do it in several regions, then it’s hard trying to get the balance right as you need the local teams to own them and I can’t check every single one of 116 countries each writing 10 OKRs, so you need the standards and principles to be cascaded down in the countries.
In Measure What Matters, Doerr says OKRs don’t substitute for "sound judgement, strong leadership or a creative workplace culture"…
We are a company with a long-term view; the family ownership is a massive asset. Where other big companies are reducing costs-base and making redundancies we’re not immune but we’re in a different position. We also have a can-do culture with lots of people who won’t say no if the workload increases and increases, now OKRs help us filter and prioritise better. Our values – integrity, transparency, professionalism are also really aligned with the philosophy of the book; OKRs play to the things we hold dear.
What results have been delivered and what have you learned that might be useful for those interested in following a similar path?
We are working on two innovation opportunities in Eastern Europe that we’ll launch next year and I don’t believe we’d be so far down the track without the focus and energy constructing clear OKRs around these provided. OKRs help us prioritise where we spend to make the biggest difference, they show more clearly the size of the prize and there’s no debating once an OKR has been set!
You’ve got to be resilient though. David Pemsel said it takes a year to embed – I can testify to that; you’ve got to stay the course. It helps to be really clear up front that it will be hard work to construct but worth it in the long run. And some people won’t want to do it so getting a sponsor is important: my boss also did Wavelength 12 years ago, she was the wind in my sails.