Understanding OKR confidence and how to leverage employee scores to hit your goals
One of the great ironies of goal-setting is that goals—the quintessential expression of future vision—are invariably defined in terms of lagging, retrospective measures. Effort and impact may be separated by weeks or even months, delaying positive recognition and depriving leaders of the insight they need to take corrective action. The important question, then, is: what leading indicators of OKR achievement can help leaders proactively detect problems and better navigate uncertainty?
The answer is confidence: the subjective sense of the people closest to the work predicting whether or not their goals will be achieved. In many organizations, “pulse-checks” on project health serve to capture these insights, albeit only informally, and only between a manager and their direct reports. By the time that senior leaders receive these updates, they’re garbled or diluted—if they’re even shared at all. While gauging employee confidence is easy (just ask!), packaging it up for use in informing strategy is somewhat more involved.
Two major challenges keep most organizations from acting on the forward-looking insight wrapped up in employee confidence:
Collecting the confidence of employees across disparate teams, functions, and business units
Making it actionable
Assessing employee confidence
While some managers may already be assessing confidence in their own forms and forums, collecting this data across an entire organization is a daunting task. Even after an organization extracts such actionable insight, the data must be normalized and collated into a consistent, understandable form.
Establishing this form up front can save considerable clerical energy for an already-harried team manager. It may be a simple “thumbs up or down,” or may get at the answer through qualitative answers to relevant prompts:
My team’s objective has been clearly communicated
My team has the resources, support, and time we need to deliver our objective
Regardless of the format, it’s important to remember what confidence is and what it isn’t. Even when it appears as a number, an employee’s confidence is a totally subjective assessment—and that’s exactly what you want.As confidence is merged and distilled across an organization, outliers will be leveled out and the clearest picture possible will emerge.
Finally, regardless of the scale itself, it’s always a good idea to leave space for comments to provide context. Textual explanations won’t scale nicely across multiple lines of business, but creating opportunities for employees to expand on their ratings will only enrich the picture presented to managers.
Understanding confidence data
Confidence data can be used both to understand the present state of the organization and how that state is likely to change over time. Some of the most important questions that confidence data can answer include:
Where is attention and resources most needed? Which teams or business units have the lowest confidence scores?
Where are new blockers emerging? Where is confidence falling fastest week-to-week?
Where is the magic happening? Where is confidence highest?
Answering these questions requires identifying interesting “signals” within the web of confidence scores and filtering them out of the surrounding noise. For instance:
A sharp drop in team confidence likely corresponds to a change in workload or information
Low confidence across a team or business unit may reveal low morale, inadequate resources, or unrealistic expectations
High confidence may indicate standout performances—or a lack of ambition
However, it’s important to note that confidence is rarely the whole story. Rather than yielding direct conclusions, confidence is better used like the “check engine” light on a car, helping managers focus where their attention is needed the most. Falling confidence is a clear call to action; managers can move to address blockers and morale before they bubble over into a crisis. High confidence likely leads to recognition for a job well done. Tracking and understanding these trends can help focus conversations and save time.
Using confidence data at scale
Confidence data is incredibly valuable, but collecting and using it effectively is a significant project. Without the help, reminders, shoulder-taps, and data entry needed to keep a confidence spreadsheet up to date, collecting confidence can become a full time job. And when OKR data is only tracked in a spreadsheet, it can lead to some bad habits of only collecting confidence scores from one person and discourage cross-functionality. This type of behavior can mask the ‘real’ value because a single person may feel pressured to report only on the positive results, and less likely to call out problem areas.
The good news is that all of the steps involved—collecting and aggregating data, and presenting it in an actionable form—are the sort of well-defined, repetitive tasks that can be easily automated by a dedicated software platform.
In platforms like Koan, confidence scores are collected regularly from every level of the organization. Once per week, employees share their confidence that each of their key results (KRs) will be achieved using a normalized 10-point scale. These data are shared directly with other members of the employee’s project team, but are also aggregated into easily-consumable “confidence indexes” summarizing individual confidence in a given team or objective. Bubbling these indices up to the company’s goals provides leadership with an at-a-glance summary of where things are headed—a stark contrast to the KPI dashboard reporting only where they’ve been.
Translating individual data into an accurate summary of confidence involves several factors.
Hierarchy of information. A goal set high up on the org chart should consider the efforts it depends on—but the confidence of the senior leader accountable for delivering it reflects a broader perspective than any confidence collected from the contributing teams.
Scope and impact. While a single, troubled effort on the front lines certainly needs attention, it shouldn’t crush the confidence of the organization as a whole. On the other hand, a previously-unrecognized issue affecting an entire department may significantly impact the organization’s chances of success.
Recency of information. Milestones are reached, obstacles rear their ugly heads, and confidence shifts accordingly. Stale confidence scores still carry meaning, but carry a significant discount against scores based on more recent information.
Expectations and norms. Employees’ perspective and experience shape their sense of how projects are going. The confidence of a grizzled operations team may be less optimistic than their counterparts in PR, and normalizing scores across time and function is an important part of arriving at a reliable aggregate score.
Big, cross-functional goals depend on many smaller efforts. Some contributors will be very confident and others less so; the odds of achieving their common OKR are likely somewhere in the middle. While a simple average can provide a reasonable picture of how things are going across a single team, assessing goals with complicated dependencies is somewhat more involved.
Koan simplifies this problem by automatically aggregating individual confidence scores into a single number, the “Confidence Index.” This aggregation allows anyone in the organization to easily understand the confidence of a team, business unit, or their entire organization from a single, simple number, with no emails, shoulder-taps or administrative overhead. Employees simply report confidence when providing status updates, and the software platform takes care of the rest.
Ultimately, confidence is about improving execution. By increasing transparency and focusing attention on fast-changing situations within the business, confidence provides managers with a powerful supplement to simply track progress. And with dedicated software automating collection and aggregation, it’s easier than ever for managers to be proactive and adapt quickly within fast-paced environments.
If you want to talk about anything we’ve covered in this post, or learn how software can help you manage your goals better, just let us know.