Act-On Shifts Employee Culture Using Goals and Alignment Software

April 2021


Portland, OR


Computer Software




About Act-On

Act-On is a marketing software solution headquartered in Portland, Oregon that empowers marketers to move beyond the lead and to engage targets at every step of the customer lifecycle.  The company’s human-centric solutions enable all marketers to be growth marketers with the resources to engage customers through great brand experiences. Act-On recently received $20 million in funding to accelerate its product vision. Known as the world’s growth marketing leader, Act-On’s achievement can be attributed to their ability to align as an organization around their mission and goals. 

Identifying the need for structure

Before Act-On began using OKRs, they did not have a goals process that was used consistently across the organization. The company was tracking the typical KPIs that most SaaS startups do, like revenue, growth, and transactional metrics, But different teams across the company were using different goal methodologies including SMART goals and MBO’s. Having various teams exercising different goal processes caused a translation gap around goals between departments, which made organizational transparency and alignment difficult. By not having one clearly articulated and shared goal methodology that spanned all teams, the organization struggled to align on high-level goals as well as to understand what other departments were working on. 

This problem reached an impasse in 2019 after a significant company reorganization when the leadership team realized that they had been so focused on the company's transition at the time that they had not developed any unifying goals. Bill Pierznik, COO of Act-On explained that this realization sparked the need for a consistent organizational goal framework, “We didn’t have a north star and we began receiving requests from the employees asking for goals and an overarching vision. That started to get us thinking about how we could organize our goals in a more holistic way”. The leadership team then began researching goal processes and decided to move forward with OKRs. 

Once Act-On had decided that they were going to give OKRs a shot, they began by piloting their OKR process with their executive and leadership teams before rolling out the process to the rest of the organization. They developed a clear mission and vision, and had set quarterly goals for Q1 2020 which they began tracking in Koan. As a fellow software company also located in Portland, Oregon, the Act-On team related to Koan and understood the value and efficiency of using software solutions. The executive and leadership teams found piloting the OKRs and Koan together to be very useful, as it gave them the opportunity to improve upon their own process before expanding OKRs to the rest of the company. “That gave us a whole quarter to plan what the next quarter’s OKRs should be, and also gave us the opportunity to discover how to use Koan in the most meaningful manner,” noted Pierznik. As the team entered into Q2 2020, they felt prepared as they kicked off implementing OKRs and Koan to the whole company. 

Leveraging software to be proactive and to focus on prioritization

Act-On has now been using OKRs in conjunction with Koan for over a year, and the system has brought order to their previously chaotic goals process, substantially increasing the company’s transparency and alignment. All Act-On employees have visibility into Koan and can see organizational and team-wide goal progress. This has heightened clarity around organizational goals and has also helped teams with their prioritization and quarterly planning. Pierznik expands on this saying “Koan has helped with alignment and prioritization. Whenever there are competing priorities in the company, if one is a key result and the other is not, we immediately know the project that takes precedence”. 

Act-On’s planning process has also benefited from this shift because it has forced the team to clearly articulate their priorities on a quarterly basis and to narrow their priority list. “Like most startups, we were trying to do everything, so Koan has helped us to narrow that down. We now identify our top priorities for each quarter,” stated Pierznik. Rather than creating an all-encompassing goal like each quarter that simply focuses on the next thing, Koan has given the organization a wider lens, enabling them to focus on the long-term strategy and to identify the outcomes they want to achieve for each quarter. Through this process, Act-On is also much more proactive in identifying their quarterly goals before a quarter begins, allowing them to develop goals for various levels of the company before the new quarter even begins. “This process has helped us to think proactively, and to create goals well in advance before the start of a new quarter. Now we start sharing high-level goals with the company multiple weeks before the start of a quarter for teams to give feedback on the goals and to build their own,” Pierznik continued, “This allows us to be proactive, rather than being reactionary. We can focus on what really needs to come next”. 

Transforming company culture with an alignment tool 

Beyond helping the team to track goals, improve planning, and increase organizational transparency and alignment, Koan also instigated a cultural shift throughout Act-On that has changed the way the organization works and communicates. Bill Pierznik shared that Koan’s greatest benefits are outside of the software, and can be seen in the way employees and teams at Act-On interact with one another, “Frankly, using Koan has not only yielded benefits within the product, but also outside of the tool. The real value has been the processes that we have built as a team around the product. We see it in how we talk with one another about our goals, planning, and retrospectives”. 

Act-On has instigated this cultural shift through what Koan calls the Goal-Reflection Loop, the process of creating goals and reflecting on them regularly as a team. Having a structured tool that has required the team to identify, discuss, and track goals has shifted the way the Act-On team addresses work as an organization, and this starts with how goals are created and shared. “Koan has forced us to be crisp and clear with one another about our directives. It is one thing to talk about goals in an allhands, but it is a whole other thing to write them down and clarify them,” shared Pierznik. 

In addition to driving a goal-focused and transparent culture, the process of using Koan has also fostered a more feedback-oriented team dynamic. Before every new planning cycle, teams get together and review and close out their goals in Koan. Teams evaluate and score their goals, then discuss what they could have done better and identify how they will incorporate that learning into future goals and projects. “We always go back to close out our quarterly goals as a team. We are always asking ourselves ‘What did we learn from this?’, ‘What would we do differently?’, and ‘What is there yet to do?’. This gives us the opportunity to learn from our wins and our misses,” Pierznik explained. By practicing retrospectives every quarter as a team, and actively connecting to review and learn from every OKR cycle, Act-On has become more adaptable, efficient and resilient as a team. 

Having been using Koan for over a year now, Act-On has driven strategic and cultural shifts with the support of OKRs and Koan. Although the team has improved their business process through these shifts, OKRs are an ongoing project and Pierznik shared that there is still a lot of work to be done, “We are pushing a cultural shift as well as a platform and it is an iterative process. We have gotten much better but we still have a lot of work to do”.

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