OKR Leadership: A safe culture of learning

Posted on April 25, 2022.
Make your teams comfortable learning

So far we’ve talked about trust for your teams and support for product discovery as two key behavior changes required in leaders hoping for a successful transition to objectives and key results. The next leadership behavior change required to make OKRs successful is building a culture of learning.

While I could write a book (and many have) about building a culture of learning (ok, I did write a book about it) I want to focus on two specific activities you can practice as a leader: psychological safety and celebrating learning.

Psychological safety

OKRs inject doubt into our product development process. This is a good thing because there is always uncertainty in digital product development. One of the ways OKRs inject doubt in our teams’ ways of working is by not explicitly demanding a specific solution. As we discussed in last week’s post, teams must go out and discover how to best achieve their desired behavior changes. Some of their guesses will inevitably be wrong. Your teams will need to feel comfortable (i.e., safe) coming to you and saying, “Hey boss, we got this wrong. We thought it was going to work. It didn’t. Here’s what we learned and here’s what we’re planning on doing next.”

If teams fear getting reprimanded, yelled at, belittled or even fired for these types of conversations, the innovation and creativity we demand of them will be stifled. They’ll always choose the safe option, building the thing least likely to get them yelled at. Teams need to see that it’s ok to be wrong. They need to believe that what they learned is as valuable as what they build.

Celebrating learning

In his TED talk from 2016, head of moonshots at Google’s X laboratory, Astro Teller talks about how he builds a culture that celebrates learning. He does that by making learning the path of least resistance. The teams he works with build learning into every development cycle. And when they learn something that contradicts their hypothesis, even if it forces them to abandon an entire initiative, he gives them “hugs and high-fives.” Why?

Teller wants to make sure his teams are always spending their time on the ideas most likely to succeed. As soon as they realize they’re headed down a wrong path, they correct their course. These pivots are held up as winning examples of good work. They are shared across the company rather than buried under the rug. They’re viewed as a cost savings rather than a lost expenditure. As much as they get excited about launching a successful idea, they’re equally as excited about killing an idea that isn’t going to work.

If we build a psychologically safe culture of learning our teams believe that learning is a part of their work and valued as much as delivery work. They explore options eagerly knowing that pivoting away from them is viewed as progress.

OKRs demand this type of culture to succeed. In fact, this is one of their biggest values. They force our teams to learn and pivot based on their learning. Evidence-based course correction is Agile. OKRs can give us that if we, as leaders, ensure our teams feel safe to experiment, learn and pivot.

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