Director of Portfolio Programs — Data and AI, IBM

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WorkBoard at IBM

Business unit COO

Business Process Owner:
Director of Portfolio Programs

WorkBoard Scope:
Several business units

Key impacts:
Accelerated results, global clarity

Customer since:

We sat down with Sarah Davis, Director of Portfolio Programs - Data and AI at IBM, to talk about how she’s using OKRs to enable a very global organization to do its best work for customers. Sarah talks about having good alignment conversations, transparency for thousands of people in 16 countries, and accelerating organization impact.

WorkBoard: Tell us about your role and your distributed organization.

Sarah Davis, Director of Portfolio Programs — Data and AI, IBM: I work within the Data and AI business unit in IBM. We're about a $6 billion business with about 8,000 employees, and I am the OKR practice lead. We have teams across 16 countries, and with those time zones, we’re really working around the clock to make sure our clients have the best solutions in the Data and AI space.

You’ve used OKRs to keep the global team aligned. How has that alignment taken shape at the leadership level and for teams across the organization?

Our organization has a number of functions: product management, design, development, services, and all the other functions. I find, from the leadership level to the individual product level, it's really important that everybody has a seat at the table. If everybody on the leadership team is aligned on our top priorities, they are more effective ambassadors for the mission. When questions or diversions come up on their teams, they can point back to what they aligned on already or redirect because it doesn’t align.

It’s key that everybody knows what other leaders’ and teams’ priorities are. The visibility and transparency of OKRs and WorkBoard is crucial, so you don't have to rely on meetings and one-on-one conversations to understand what matters. In really small startups or small organizations, you can have a conversation with teammates on alignment easily. And you can have a daily standup or a weekly team meeting where everybody is talking about the same thing. That doesn’t scale for us (and with COVID-19, it doesn’t work for any company) — we have thousands of people all in different time zones, with their own complex schedules. So it's helpful for everyone to be able to refer to the objectives on their own, in a self-service manner. They can go check it out for themselves, see how their projects tie in, and make a better judgment call on what they should be working on.

More importantly, referring back to the objectives — that is a constant, daily process. A lot of people think alignment is a “one and done” situation, but objectives need to change regularly throughout the year, and there are daily changes and challenges that we need to calibrate on. Being able to communicate and see those changes in real-time in and in one place is crucial for our teams.

Don’t let another quarter pass where you don’t make progress. Just get the expertise you need and start.

Even more crucial now, given the current circumstances. We expect organizations to shift work locations several times over this year — this isn’t one-and-done either.

I think it's more important now than ever. If everyone wasn't intentional about it before, they need to be intentional about it now. I was probably less intentional on being aligned with the people that I was in the same office with because we took it for granted that we could easily have impromptu conversations.

Now that we're all in our home offices across the same city, but are disconnected, we can't just look over our shoulder and say, “Hey, what are you working on?” We have to be really intentional about how we actually stay aligned. What is our source of truth? Where are the facts we should be referencing? How do we check-in? How often? How does all of that work?

How has your OKR practice and perspective evolved over time?

The first shift as we moved to OKRs was simplicity. Making sure that we have a small handful of things that we're focused on, rather than a laundry list of a hundred different metrics. Another shift is transparency. Now we’re “democratizing” our data about the plan and progress so that everybody can understand the levers within our business, and they can have influence. And then, along with that, having real-time data that everyone can access helps them really participate.

The only way to do this is with a platform — there's no way to really amplify and multiply the manual way we used to do things in Excel or PowerPoint or whatever format. So having a way for teams to understand what the strategic priorities are, what should align to another part of the organization, whether that's vertical alignment with their leadership team or horizontal alignment with their cross-functional partners, is great. For teams to really understand the tenets of what makes great OKRs, see across the organization, and the Outcome Mindset shift have, to me, been the most impactful things.

OKRs have helped us prove that spending time in relationships and getting aligned saves us time and yields better outcomes and business results as a unit because we're all focused on and working towards the same goal and helping course correct when we get off track. We can see what's going on in real-time. Where are we off base? Let's get back together. Let's spend our time talking about what's really going to move the needle — and then making sure that when things shift, we can shift our priorities, and we can communicate that clearly to everybody quickly.

If you don’t have clarity on what the team is actually trying to accomplish, you waste a lot of time working on something that is not important.

I think there's a perception that it’s not a good use of time to have a real team conversation on the outcomes we want to drive — that it's going to take too much time to get aligned. Of course, the time wasted is the time we spend working on things that aren’t aligned to company outcomes! Alignment isn’t an accident or luck.

That’s so true. I know a lot of people who think that this is going to take too much time and feel they don't have time for it. They just want to keep running, keep working on activity. If you don't have clarity on what the team is actually trying to accomplish, you waste a lot of time working on something that is not important. And then you're behind by weeks or months.

It's been so interesting to watch people’s attitudes about alignment change on this journey! Now that we've taught OKRs, people see it's not just a leadership thing — it's an everybody practice. And now that everybody's in these conversations and understands what outcome alignment really looks like, they're asking better questions: “Is this really the top priority? Is this really what we want to focus on because our team is spending 80% of their time on something that's not in our KRs. How do we reconcile that? Does it mean that the thing we're working on is not important?” After that first meeting and when people see where everything is, it's such a relief to have all the cards on the table, have it all out there, and then be able to move forward together.

The conversation to clearly define — really clarify — the upstream and downstream outcomes we want to achieve together is actually the best use of time! The ROI is huge: I spend 3 hours to align on outcomes so I can spend the 500 hours this quarter doing the right work to really deliver those outcomes.

Giving people the information to understand OKRs and priorities and how everything aligns, rolls up, and works together has been so effective. It sparked so many conversations — some that were about misaligned efforts that I'm sure were uncomfortable at first. But what’s been so interesting and exciting is that the people participating in these conversations are 150% bought into the results they align on because they felt like they had a voice in the process. They know what it means; it has a more personal connection for them.

Once they get that alignment, you have this progress acceleration because the team is all working in the right direction. So you see things just shoot forward — that clarity is huge. Most of us didn’t realize how little clarity we've had in the past, and we all thought it was normal to work with ambiguity but somehow be able to thrive. What you realize after doing OKRs is just how important and powerful it is to have that clarity upfront — you fast forward a month or a quarter.

You make massive progress in a short period of time just because you took the time to get aligned.

Those conversations and localizing OKRs to each team is where the magic happens — the translation of organization objectives to the nouns, verbs, and numbers of each team. In top-down companies, this is a new but really powerful motion.

It’s all about localization! I've seen a lot of leaders do these big mandates — this is where we shall go, and this is what we shall do. “It shall be done.” And then there are hundreds of people listening to that message on a townhall that are thinking, “Okay, I heard you, but that has nothing to do with what I'm doing every single day.” So they either ignore it, or they just say “Fine, I heard you” and go right back to doing what they do. The problem is maybe they’re working on something they don't need to or shouldn’t be working on anymore.

Using the OKR framework, localizing OKRs to teams, and making sure that everybody understands what it is and how it works gives everyone a method to discuss some things that may never have been discussed before. And the conversations that happen are brilliant because you have leaders saying, “No, no, no, no, that's not what I meant at all. This really means X.” But they're so far removed from the details and the day to day that they didn't even realize the words they were using meant something totally different to the people that were actually doing the work!

All these little conversations are happening, and it's hard to quantify that in terms of alignment. But if you can see all those conversations happening monthly or quarterly, you can look quarter over quarter and see huge leaps in progress because every level of the organization really understands the objectives and their impact. And then they make massive progress in a short period of time just because they took the time to get aligned. So their progress may end up looking like a hockey stick line of growth.

Authorship really does create ownership of those objectives and results! Most leaders want their organizations to be more accountable, but you can’t have it without clarity and alignment — and people really can’t read your mind. The process and platform transparency create a culture of trust and achievement, don’t they?

Totally! And it gets back to being intentional, right? What if we always talked about the good and the bad at the end of the quarter, so we learn from what actually happened? A lot of people don't question things when the numbers are good. Whereas we can learn if it's good, why? Is it accidental, coincidental, or is it something specific? Can we replicate it?

The more routinely teams have these conversations, the more trust they have. Then when you have tough troubleshooting conversations, people are much more willing to be honest and creative.

What you realize after doing OKRs is just how important and powerful it is to have that clarity upfront — you fast forward a month or a quarter.

What is your advice to other teams that want to build results speed and stronger alignment?

Two pieces of advice: First, I strongly recommend diving deep with experts that have real field experience. I've seen so many people read a book and think they’re now the OKR expert! Partnering with an expert is going to provide the deep expertise that you need, and you won’t have to acquire that through your own trial and error (and wasted time). Make sure you trust your partner and go deep enough to really understand what the stumbling blocks will be.

Second, don't wait! Don’t let another quarter pass where you don’t make progress. Make sure you get the expertise that you need, but then start and measure. Take it one bite at a time and just start.

  Download the PDF of this conversation.

About Sarah Davis
Sarah is Director of Portfolio Programs - Data and AI at IBM. After completing her MBA at Barcelona’s IESE Business School, she relocated to Austin, TX, to run the Innovation Labs at IBM Watson. Sarah has held roles of increasing scope in the Artificial Intelligence Product Management organization. Sarah has been working in Enterprise IT Software Implementations since 2004. She also runs her own start-up, has chartered local chapters for global excellence in Business Analysis, and leads Boards of Directors in professional and academic organizations.

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