Masters of Strategy: Jason Johnston, Genetec

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Wednesday, September 13, 2023

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7 min read
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Welcome to Masters of Strategy, our community spotlight series. Join us for candid conversations with accomplished strategy execution leaders who share their firsthand knowledge, success strategies, and hard-won lessons learned from the field. 

In this conversation, we speak with Jason Johnston, OKR Practice Lead at Genetec. Discover how Jason advocates for aligning strategy initiatives with organizational culture, the importance of the "trust but verify" approach, and the crucial role of transparency at all levels in ensuring the success of OKR implementations.

You can check out the highlights from our conversation in this short video. 

What is your OKR 'origin story'?

So the company I work for, we have a large incubation zone.  I was on an incubation team, and one of my managers had said, I wanna start doing OKRs. 

And we said, “Cool. That was my first introduction to it. That was probably 2016 or 2017, somewhere in there.  I started reading and learning about OKRs. He then got promoted into transformation, and I got left behind and took on other roles. 

And a little while later, my new boss said, I wanna do OKRs.  I just raised my hand and said, I'll champion this. I'll take this on. I got this.” And I dove in headfirst. 

What were some initial challenges to getting started with OKRs?

I had to change my mindset.  The military doesn't really deal with outcomes, right? We deal with activities and things that have to be done to reach goals. 

I'm sure, at some level, they deal with outcomes, but not at my level. And in my jobs, it was always activity-based. I had to change the way that I thought about things. I had to move to an outcome-based method of thinking. And I'm not gonna say it was hard, it was just a lot of learning in how I looked at the world. 

But once I made my internal shift, it was very easy. And I do it naturally now because it's a better way of doing business. You have to live and breathe it, right? If I coach somebody in OKRs, I have to get them down that road, so I have to lead by example. 

That's probably the biggest challenge I run into when coaching or championing OKRs. We spend more time converting objectives and KRs to outcomes or guiding people down that path than many other things. 

What advice would you give someone who wants to introduce OKRs to their organization?

Take a hard look at the culture. Look at the culture of your teams, and how your teams interact.  It's going to matter. The culture of the company is going to lay out your map for you. In my company, we went bottom up. 

My team started it. There was no executive involved. We started doing it, spreading like wildfire through the development teams. And then, before long, an executive asked me, “Can you come talk to me? We need to get our heads wrapped around this.” And boom, a position is born. 

Understanding the culture and what will be effective, I won't say that was planned. That's just how it rolled out. But that was a good way to roll out in my company and its culture. Not easy, but it was the right way to do it because it wasn't forced down from the top. 

And in many places, that's a good way to get some things done. But just like I said, understand the culture. That's the first thing you need to do.  

What strong opinion do you have about how OKRs should or should not be used?  

I believe in transparency with OKRs and strategy in a company. Some companies like to keep it secret, but if the person at the bottom doing whatever job doesn't understand how their work fills that strategy, what purpose do they have? 

So, I believe in transparency up and down. If an executive needs to know where something's at, they should be able to access that data quickly. I believe in the outcome-based methodology. And that has to be somewhat flexible in the OKR program.  

Some sections or some verticals lend themselves to metrics very easily. Some don't. For instance, creating a new product. It's never existed before. How do I put a metric around that, right? But I can certainly get to the outcome of that effort. What am I hoping to achieve here? There has to be some flexibility in it, but it has to be unwavering in its outcome-based methodology. 

OKRs can be a very powerful tool, but can also be used for micromanagement. How do you ensure that OKRs aren’t weaponized?

You have to be in sync with an executive sponsor. I'm in charge of OKR governance and the practice and viewed as a subject matter expert. I need executive buy-in and that power behind me to enforce accountability. 

But as you said, they can be weaponized. I like to say trust but verify. I train a champion for a team, and I train a team. I'm going to trust them to do it. I'm going to give them the tools, for instance, open communication channels with the champions so that when they see something going on, they can say, Hey Jason, can you help me with this? 

And then I step in and help them with this. But I'm also looking and seeing what they're doing, and I'm paying attention to not only just the OKRs and that team, I'm paying attention to the other things going on. Interactions between the teams and cross-functional teams' goal setting, things like that. 

Bad actions always have a butterfly effect. So being sensitive to that lets you nip those things in the bud early and steer people down the right path to prevent some of that.   

Can you share a specific example of how OKRs have had a transformative impact on your organization's performance or culture?

My team specifically, focused us in a way I can't put words around. Suddenly, we could sort out the daily from what we needed to accomplish. I was the champion helping them through this, and I saw some interactions that I was like, whoa, okay. 

We had a dependency on another team. It was a cross-functional goal, and the other team just couldn't get what they needed done. They just didn't have the bandwidth. So they told us no, and I watched our development lead just shift the schedule and say, okay, we're not doing this. 

We're pushing it to the next quarter. Now I can get this done. But it was all clear and smooth.  It was a very quick discussion, and I saw an efficiency. Our development teams that I had not seen to quite that level before. And a clarity that we started to see developers start to say, 'should I be doing this? It's not in our OKRs.'

And when somebody, a developer, responds to that level and with a goal that they know the team has, that's valuable because it keeps the noise at a minimum. And that's what I'm using as a gauge for how we should be working, is knowing what we're focused on. That's what I'm hoping to change, company-wide.  

What would you say is unique about how OKRs are run in your organization?

 We have not moved far enough down that path yet to develop some of those unique things. I have ideas in my head. My ask is to create an OKR community. I don't think it works any other way. You need a community of OKR people. It has to become part of your culture. 

If you introduce OKRs to your organization, it is nothing short of a culture change. Some of those unique things have to match that culture. I was reading something, and it was talking about a company. The OKR reviews and things were functioning around football, and in the middle of the year, they did an OKR Super Bowl where all the teams presented what they did to each other so they could see what everybody was doing. 

That's the place I want to get to. But we're just not there yet.   

What is one resource that has helped you level up?

 The Quantive Whitepaper section has great links to things in it. I read the article on Coke becoming a learning company. Some of that is about big companies being able to switch the way that they work and the way that they operate. 

I can't say I have a favorite.  I read Measure What Matters and check the What Matters website all the time, I pay attention to their articles. 

But I also believe OKRs is a relatively newer business method, and I believe there's an evolution going on. I subscribe to the Radical Focus method of OKRs with some other things you can do to make it easier for people to pick it up and measure what's happening. 

Know an exceptional strategy execution leader? Nominate them at [email protected] for a chance to be featured in our Masters of Strategy series. 

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