WorkBoard at IBM
VP of Enterprise Business Agility
Several business units
Accelerated results, global clarity
We sat down with Nanci Taylor, Vice President of Enterprise Business Agility at IBM, to discuss how she uses her passion for transformation, strategic alignment, and creating a high-performing culture to deliver on IBM’s goal of reaching enterprise-wide business agility.
WorkBoard: Tell us about your role in driving enterprise business agility.
Nanci Taylor, Vice President of Enterprise Business Agility at IBM: This enterprise agility notion started roughly four years ago when we had a deep dive into teaching Agile with our CIO teams. It made sense to embed this culture of Agile and introduce new ways of working within the technical community, and we had some great success.
From there, we decided to shift to our non-IT teams and test Agile out in our middle- and back-office teams — the ones really working with sellers providing support and expertise throughout our quote-to-cash process, procurement process, finance process, et cetera.
We thought we needed to really nail Agile before we could scale it across the rest of the enterprise.
Getting some quick wins and telling those stories built belief for the journey so that when we were out there, we could feel the energy, follow it, and continue to build that belief and produce some incredible outcomes.
We’re working hard to enable all that at scale for the rest of the enterprise, which means taking Agile to the next level of maturity by introducing OKR.
When did you get started with OKRs?
I re-read John Doerr’s book, “Measure What Matters” and started to build some belief that we were ready to go to the next step — although not across the enterprise yet. I was thinking through where we could take that first step.
I really challenged myself to think about how we could deliver the introduction of not only OKR but WorkBoard as well — where we would bring it in and where we would most likely have success. I decided to start right within our own backyard. We needed to learn and figure out if OKRs would make a difference and if we were ready for them — and if they would deliver the transparency and discipline around outcomes that were missing in our current journey. That’s how we got started.
Teaching teams the difference between output and outcome has been a great experience that WorkBoard inspired.
How is the team responding to OKRs and WorkBoard?
I have the most passionate, excited, and energetic team around this. That level of energy and engagement came a lot faster than I thought. I thought it would take the rest of the year for us to really get into this — but my team was all-in within 30 days. They were asking, “How do we get more? Where do we go next? How do we get it across the enterprise?” It was that radical of a change for them.
What were some of the observations and learnings as you navigated that journey?
One was that we weren’t taking the time to be deliberate and thoughtful about creating and stating our objectives for what we wanted our teams to spend time on — we were creating our focused objectives yearly based on the momentum of doing more of what felt good.
When we first started, it was a surprise to go through the process of creating those objectives and read what people thought was a good objective versus what was really a good objective. I’d read them and scratch my head. As a leader, I want everyone to succeed and want to jump in to point out what’s not working. The careful coaching from WorkBoard gave me the direction to let the teams go experiment.
We also learned that you don’t need the full 90 days to realize that you probably didn’t nail it right — you know after one or two weeks. The teams know it probably before you do, and then when they show up in a business review, they’re a little bit reserved about telling you where they are, because they know they haven’t written the best key result or objective. You can learn quickly whether you’ve done something really great, whether it’s okay, or whether you have to sharpen your pencil for the next go-round.
Another learning was that it’s vital to empower people to let go of something if it isn’t delivering. A few weeks in, I had a few conversations where I asked, “Is this the right thing for us to be spending our time and effort on; can you show me how it ties to the strategic objectives?” And there was some anxiety when people realized it didn’t tie, but all I had to say was,” Let’s pause and shift the capacity elsewhere.” — and there was a huge sense of relief. They knew it didn’t tie but weren’t sure if I knew it. Once it’s out in the open that we all know, we can repurpose our capacity and deliver something different.
It’s great to hear your team is learning how to go beyond opinion and think deeply about what they’re pursuing and how to measure it so quickly. Are you also seeing your team getting ambitious about what can be accomplished? Sometimes we see a team realize they set a KR too high after a few weeks and think that’s the process not working when that is the process showing us where we have more room for alignment and focusing on value.
Focusing more on outcomes was an awesome human experiment in challenging our inner competitive muscles. IBMers are super competitive, and we found that some teams were super ambitious — we deemed their OKRs the best impossible. They were definitely flexing that competitive muscle.
Other teams stepped out of their comfort zone with a little nudge and came up with the best possible — they were comfortable with exercising that competitive muscle to get it a little bit stronger and push themselves a little bit more.
There were also teams that just went with the best probable, which is comfortable and fine. We have a human-centered approach, and, since we’re all humans, we had to recognize that not everybody’s ready to lean in and celebrate the red — especially people who grew up learning that being in the red is a bad thing. For some people, shifting their mindset to embracing the red and being positive about learning from it was building a brand new muscle.
That radical transparency — seeing everyone’s key results and objectives and how they flow up and connect to the top of the house — has been a big change for us.
What are some of the cultural dynamics that you saw as people became comfortable leaning into great, not just most probable, results?
The biggest culture shift that I witnessed for this team was coming together and having transparency about the outcomes and the key results. We had talked about it before as peers and colleagues, but to do this in a pretty formal way through the WorkBoard platform allows you to see where you are — it was a little bit nerve-wracking at first.
With OKRs, there’s no more “under-promising and over-delivering.” Instead, everyone’s commitments and key results are there for all to see — not just you. You can’t fudge your way around that.
That radical transparency — seeing everyone’s key results and objectives and how they flow up and connect to the top of the house — has been a big change for us. I think it fits in well with where we’re going and where we need to be. But that was probably the biggest culture change for me.
As people became comfortable with that change, they started asking, “Can you tell me more about how you think you’re going to achieve this objective? Whom are you partnered with; how’s that going to turn out?” Learning more from each other started there.
At the same time, we also had transparency on overlapping outcomes or objectives, so everyone could reframe their thinking around how they could join forces and take their capacity and apply it for the greater good of the enterprise rather than competing with someone. People are realizing they can make the best use of that capacity and employ it in a very positive way. That’s a great shift.
One of the epic shifts for companies that want to work with higher agility and velocity is a shift from vertical alignment, which is a private conversation between a leader and their manager and their employees, to lateral alignment, which maximizes the leverage that the organization has for its customers. Transparency is the prerequisite to exercising lateral alignment to its fullest.
Yes. Lateral alignment is so critical — it’s practically a superpower. If you enable all your team members to really understand the aspirational objectives, give them that true clarity of purpose, and the transparency that the platform provides, you help them ask different questions and execute in the right direction. Cross-collaborating laterally on objectives strengthens team bonds, heightens ambitions, and improves skills.
One of our biggest strengths at IBM is how large an organization we are, but it can also be a hurdle in getting speed to market when someone doesn’t know whom to talk to or where to go to answer questions such as, “Did somebody solve this problem before? Is somebody else working on this?”
It’s very fulfilling to see some of the conversations that are happening now with the OKR framework’s transparency in place — lateral alignment is starting to really take off. As we’re looking at how work flows throughout our enterprise and are starting to have that work flow laterally, we’re removing duplication and identifying where major blockers are holding us back — it’s been an incredible lift to the entire team and their performance.
Lateral alignment is so critical — it’s practically a superpower.
What can you tell us about driving the shift from an activity mindset to an outcome mindset and making alignment an area of great strength for IBM?
It’s easy to get caught up in activity when not anchored to a set of defined outcomes. People feel really good about doing large quantities of work, even though the value they think they’re adding might actually create work for others.
That shift is one of the first things my team pointed out and called me on when we started this process. They would question me, “You want us to go do that, but it’s not in my objectives for this quarter — what do you mean we have to do it?” It’s the same situation as when people write their job descriptions and then get assigned other duties. They call out, in their Agile language, “Where does that fall in my backlog? I don’t see it. Now you’re putting into my funnel. How do you want me to prioritize that?” By asking these questions, they’re helping to hold me accountable for how they spend their time.
They’re also helping to hold their colleagues accountable when they come and ask for help. IBM is a large and complex organization, and we’ve got a finite set of teams that have embraced OKR and are learning it and applying it right now. When someone outside that circle comes in, it’s hard to have that conversation. I hear them pushing back and saying, “That’s just activity — you want me to participate in output, and I’m focused on outcomes.”
There’s a proud moment when I hear those conversations, and, at the same time, I can understand what they’re asking for and why they’re asking for it. So, the question becomes, “How do we help shift their mindset to understand what we’re doing, where we are on the journey and get them excited so that they want to go on that journey with us?” Even with the early adopters we can pull in, it’s tricky when the whole organization isn’t operating in unison.
My team has a loud opinion on activity versus outcome — they don’t even start with the objective question; they go right to the punchline, “So if we were to do that, what would success look like and for whom?
That’s a productive way to frame the response when someone innocently asks for help, and it’s a quick way to sift through new requests or requirements. Helping to teach the teams the difference between output and outcomes has been a great experience that WorkBoard has spurred.
IBM just named a new CEO (Arvind Krishna), who is on a fantastic and very transformative mission. Tell us about his three imperatives and how the work you’re doing is helping to drive them.
Arvind and his mission have been such a lift in spirit. His three new imperatives are growth mindset, radical candor, and entrepreneurial spirit.
Growth mindset, for me, is all about unlearning past behaviors, processes, and ideals, and leaning in with a constant curiosity, as well as a willingness to lean in and learn every day what better looks like and knowing that what got us to this point is good, but it isn’t necessarily going to get us to where we want to be.
Having that radical transparency I mentioned — along with that radical candor about where we are and what we need to do to improve — shows up by us celebrating the red.
We’re working to spread a data-driven culture that will fuel dramatic change to our management system and tie it to his strategic vision. Doing that and aligning everyone to it will deliver impact on top-line growth and profit improvement. We’ve been yearning for this level of transparency for years, and it’s definitely going to ignite this what Arvin calls the “entrepreneurial spirit” in all of us —I think being focused and driven in a new way will help bring out some of this entrepreneurial spirit, and we’re definitely going to win in the market.
The ambition isn’t going to change. What is going to change is taking full advantage of the red and learning where the shifts have to happen to speed up the progress toward that ambition.
I love your words about constant curiosity and leaning in — that defines what entrepreneurs do. At a large organization such as IBM, there’s a lot of capacity but without alignment on outcomes, ambition is fuzzy. Having an abundance of capacity, but fuzziness on the ambition creates a gap that is difficult to manage — people can’t do everything but also don’t know how to make really smart trade-offs, so they end up competing against ambition partially because they haven’t crystallized outcomes.
It’s an interesting concept. Before I came to IBM, I was with a privately-owned company where you could walk down the hallway, lock yourself in a conference room, make a decision, walk out, and go execute. It’s a little bit tougher to do that at IBM. We might seem to have unlimited capacity, but the way that we’re structured doesn’t feel that way — some of our more strategic front-line type organizations have very limited capacity.
Arvind’s ambition and the challenge he set forth allows us the opportunity to think about the ambition-capacity gap and how we apply that capacity to achieve his ambitions. He’s been doing great work in memorializing this with our employees across the company regularly — having meetings with us and sharing in a very transparent way where the company is going, where are we now, and what steps we need to take to continue to move forward. We we don’t have that fully plumbed through the entire system using OKR yet, but it’s our desire to get there.
People are shifting their conversations around the narrative of where we’re headed, so that fuzziness feels like it’s starting to go away, but I do love this concept. I need to take it back and share it with my team because if I can get them in the spirit of embracing what Arvind has called out in terms of growth mindset, radical candor, and entrepreneurial spirit, I can help them understand this ambition-capacity gap and I think they will be much more tenacious in their embracing of that lateral alignment, as well as the strategic alignment — even more so than they are today.
With OKRs, because you try and achieve best possible, you end up in the red a lot. There’s learning there that may include the realization that someone had less capacity than they thought. That gap between capacity and ambition often shows up as red KRs. The goal isn’t to lower ambition to be comfortable in the green — it’s to make smarter trade-offs. If you’re surrounded by a community of people with entrepreneurial spirit, ambition is relatable. It’s forward-moving, not backward-moving.
We’re not going to dial back on our ambition. No one on the core team we set up and started this journey with has taken a step back, not even the ones that I called out as the most impossible, which is what I love about them. They’re fully embracing this, and the ambition isn’t going to change. What is going to change is taking full advantage of the red and learning where the shifts have to happen to speed up the progress toward that ambition. We’re getting there — last week, 50% of our KRs were in the red, but we had great conversations about it.
No one wants to dial back ambition and retreat into what’s comfortable. The team is realizing there’s untapped potential and looking in the mirror in a new way — they want to do more and get better. We have the roadmap, but there’s more we can do, and we can get better with this.
Happier employees who understand where the company is going and are aligned to its strategic intent will absolutely build better outcomes.
Awesome. That’s the process working as it should — not a broken process. What are some of the aha moments as you look back on this quarter that you’ll take into next quarter?
One aha moment happened when we realized we had written a really bad key result and we couldn’t measure it — we thought we were measuring the right thing but, as we unpacked it, we found that we weren’t.
Another aha moment was around our full-year planning — it seemed we were always looking in the rearview mirror. Having some leading indicators to give the teams just-in-time feedback on whether they’re making progress and moving in the right direction — as opposed to waiting, looking back, and then having no shot at all at making the commitments put forward — was a huge aha moment, not just for me but also for the team.
There was also an aha moment around time. You’d be amazed at how much time we spend during the week just talking to people — but are we spending that time talking to the right people about the right things to deliver the right outcomes? OKRs and WorkBoard have given us all some time back on our calendars to be more thoughtful about how we spend it, especially in the current environment — we now can take time to prepare and ensure that the time we’re spending with teammates supports where we want to go as a business.
What are some of your favorite Workboard features?
I love the self-servicing of data. I also love the business reviews because when the teams come to me, I can see where my team needs help quickly with the hotbox. We now spend more of our time removing blockers that are getting in the way, which enables my team to pick up speed and productivity.
Some of my team is doing all of their reviews in WorkBoard now — not PowerPoint or Excel charts — which I think is awesome.
And the other favorite piece I love is the ability to give feedback on a meeting. It’s such a simple gesture to choose between those three little faces, but it helps me give immediate feedback. More importantly, it allows me to have developmental discussions with my leaders around communicating for impact and where they’re focusing their time with their people. It gives me the opportunity — while the information is fresh in everyone’s mind — to guide focus so the team can continue to build in the spirit of continuous improvement.
What advice would you give transformational leaders as they think about driving higher agility and driving higher and faster alignment on outcomes in their organizations?
OKRs are the magic sauce to strategic alignment, transparency, and accountability — all of that is key to our transformation and, frankly, the foundation of a healthy culture and corporation. While taken individually, I think those qualities are all important — but if you think about them holistically, they’ll give you a much better yield and help you find some passionate first followers. If they want to really deliver with impact, they’ll want to join your change revolution and help further the belief that happier employees who understand where the company is going and are aligned to its strategic intent will absolutely build better outcomes.