Riversands Incubation Hub Achieves Innovation and Alignment

April 2020


Fourways, South Africa





“We’re quite entrepreneurial, it's one of our specific values, and their ability to make decisions fast and quickly kick things into action, was what made us feel like Koan had the right ethos.”

Jenny Retief

Director, Riversands Incubation Hub

Riversands Incubation Hub is a South Africa-based nonprofit organization focused on developing small businesses founded by entrepreneurs from previously disadvantaged communities. 

“South Africa has a massive legacy problem with huge parts of the population that were excluded from the economy. So we desperately need both growth and transformation of our economy for greater inclusivity,” says Retief. 

Riversands opened only four and a half years ago and has grown rapidly ever since. The organization manages a large-scale facility, with 40 staff members supporting the 168 mini-factories, workshops and small businesses across the campus. 

Achieving Proper Alignment

Riversands wanted to professionalize its service offerings and track their impact. This required pursuing alignment across the various parts of the organization, while also pursuing fairly aggressive expansion targets.

Before partnering with Koan Retief says, “we were probably doing bits and pieces of KPIs and the more typical types of objective setting and performance management. And then I read Measure What Matters, and learned about various organizations that implemented the OKR approach, which was linked to the kind of continuous performance management we were trying to achieve.”

Conventional Performance Management Was Too Slow 

Riversands needed to professionalize their support, track progress and manage their chaotic growth, but Retief found conventional performance management strategies too slow and reactive.

“In any kind of high growth establishment or startup, people try to create new things, become pioneers, and establish new ground. So it’s particularly important to keep alignment while enabling all the individuals on a team to independently exercise their full creativity and keep moving as fast as the leadership is striving to move,” said Retief.

Conventional performance management relies on quarterly performance reviews, where staff look back across a set of KPIs and metrics. There's discussion around what's going well and what needs work to improve. But Riversands knew this type of feedback wasn’t sustainable with the fast-paced growth, and Retief knew spreadsheets weren’t going to work. When Retief started looking for tools, Koan was repeatedly recommended. 

“With Koan, the tool is a huge enabler,” Retief says, “but building the rest of the OKR setting and management processes outside of the tool wasn’t easy. We’re managing performance across the entire organization. We aspire to performance management as a continual, enabling activity:  constantly communicating, giving feedback, recognizing what has been achieved and where help is needed.  This is much healthier than performance discussions linked only to bonuses or financial year-end cycles.”

Building and Implementing Systems

One of the biggest objectives Riversands pursued was around system-building in support of the entrepreneurs they serve, then measuring the impact. This required a redesign of the process by which entrepreneurs requested support, how Riversands decided which requests to accept, and the specific services they would provide in response. It also called for collecting quality metrics at each stage of the process.

Riversands’ first attempt to define their Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) fell flat. They tried to capture too much information and created too many kinds of qualitative objectives. Further, there was a fair amount of change and growth across different divisions. Riversands’ leadership first needed to  understand these moving pieces before dramatic changes to what the organization was trying to achieve. 

Using the Reflections Tool

Riversands found Koan’s Reflections tool was especially helpful in shaping this process. Before they had access to Reflections, people sometimes had the feeling that they couldn't comment on an OKR because there was a misalignment between what the OKR said and what the contributors were trying to do. 

“I found the Reflections incredibly valuable,” Retief says. “It allowed me to sit and read through everyone’s status and find out about how much fabulous stuff the staff was doing, especially people who I don't have a lot of direct exposure to. I could also add feedback, which I may not do when I’m not part of the direct line management of that particular unit. The Reflection process fosters communication and understanding across teams, and identifies if people are encountering obstacles or barriers.”

Innovation and Purpose

Ultimately for Riversands, innovation needs to have a purpose and there has to be a goal. Riversands wants to be responsive when they find that something isn’t working, but they also want to allow for fresh thinking. Using the Koan platform anchors Riversands in their strategy and OKRs give them a clear way of articulating what they’re trying to accomplish, and a way to check where they are in the process of achieving that.

As Retief says, “we’re in a constant cycle of piloting and so using the approach of OKRs and applying objectives, focusing on the key results and having a way of tracking all that allows us to assess what may have sounded quite easy as an idea and whether we can take it to the next level of adoption or put it aside.”

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