WorkBoard at Secureworks
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Tony Merritt, Director of Global Professional Services at Dell Secureworks, discusses how his company uses OKRs to increase alignment, empower employees and make better decisions across teams.
Workboard: You’ve had a long career in the technology business and know a good deal about the use of OKRs and managing by objective. How has that changed through the years?
Tony Merritt, Director of Global Professional Services at Dell Secureworks Because of technology and globalization, business is much, much faster than it used to be. When we all were working with faxes and phones that weren’t smartphones and just doing business in one time zone, a misalignment of objectives could be caught pretty easily and the damage limited. If you’re riding a horse, you’re not going to get too far off the path if you head in the wrong direction for a while. But today, I can do significant damage if I don’t have a speedometer or a GPS in my car that can do 140 miles an hour. The opportunity to get far off course and do work that’s not productive is huge.
At Novell, for instance, people would do things because the technology was cool. But just because it’s cool that didn’t mean there was a target market for it. People didn’t have a set of common objectives and didn’t have the opportunity to align their ideas with the company’s objectives and strategy. They’d get excited, tell other people about it, and start to burn cycles. It was productivity in the wrong direction. It dampened morale too; once people start down a trail they don’t want to come back.
It sounds like there was little sense of priorities at that company.
Exactly. I can’t get people to do 30 different key things and you can’t have 50 things that are high priority because as the saying goes if everything’s high priority then nothing is. That’s where OKRs come in. Managers at Intel started talking about measuring by objective and it was picked up by Google. Then Kevin Hanes, our COO, and I read “Measure What Matters” by John Doerr and we realized that OKRs provide clarity on goals and alignments.
It was an epiphany, but we weren’t there yet.
A task list is like a game of solitaire while setting priorities within our WorkBoard platform is much more like a spider web — everything is connected.
Once you realized that OKRs were a key, did you implement them digitally?
No, and that was a mistake. OKRs at my present company, Dell Secureworks, were initially recorded on paper and spreadsheets. Tools that are not real-time create a gap or latency and give your organization the opportunity to go in the wrong direction until you update the spreadsheet.
How did you correct that?
In late 2018, WorkBoard became a strategic partner in establishing and maximizing the value of OKRs. To return to the driving analogy, I need WorkBoard because I need that GPS right in front of me to keep me from going off the route very quickly. It’s all digital and visible to everyone.
How does the workstreams feature help keep your teams aligned?
OKRs aren’t enough. Objectives and key results are lofty ideals. By themselves, you’ll get some wins and some success, but there will still be people who feel disconnected and therefore you won’t be capitalizing on the full capabilities of your team. Workstreams take alignment to a deeper level. They are a way to visualize all the action items related to a work effort or a team and can even be associated with individuals.
I’ll give you an example. The software engineering team had an important OKR — design an addition to our platform that added additional data sources without requiring additional engineering. They had a good statement and good metrics, and they had the right high-level objective. But they didn’t have the connective tissue, down to who was actually going to execute against the OKR. We set up a workstream that allowed the team to assign and monitor the progress of assignments. Adding specific tasks for specific people gave us a complete picture of how the project was going.
In the past we might have been using three different applications: a worksheet, and a chart and a project management tool. Now we use workstreams within WorkBoard to collaborate and help teams stay aligned with each others’ OKRs.
How do you and your teams set priorities? And how do you know you’ve set the right ones?
Before WorkBoard everyone had their own personal project management tool but the applications didn’t deliver the right integration. A task list is like a game of solitaire while setting priorities within our WorkBoard platform is much more like a spider web — everything is connected. It allows employees to see the OKRs of other teams and learn what tasks across teams are actually the most critical for the organization.
We all at some point get into a box where we have way more priorities and tasks than we can get done. And eventually we will all reach a point where three or four of those are massively critical. Then, the question becomes, “well, how do you make a decision?”
There’s no perfect answer for that, but we look for widespread pain points. I tell people to figure out what are the obstacles that people outside of the team are dealing with. If multiple people have the same issue, that’s the one to fix first.
I need WorkBoard because I need that GPS right in front of me to keep me from going off the route very quickly. It’s all digital and visible to everyone.
Do you set OKRs below the enterprise level?
We do. In a high-powered organization, you’ve got a lot of very creative minds and you don’t want them to feel like they don’t have the opportunity to set objectives. So we absolutely allow for the creation of departmental and cross-departmental level OKRs.
We were doing a software validation project for our clients, and it was cumbersome and was taking too much time. People had some ideas around it, so we sponsored an initiative that was cross-departmental, but cross-departmental at the individual contributor layer. It allowed people to leverage their creative juices and feel like they had ownership.
Assigning tasks through OKRs leads to more collaboration and that is made easier because the UI supports a team metaphor. When I assign any of the items inside our OKRs I make it really clear that I’m not assigning this to you as a task that you must do; I’m assigning this as something you must lead.
Looking at the big picture, what’s changed since you started with WorkBoard?
Things are much crisper and I think we’ve pulled away from linear thinking. We know that employees are more aligned, that the ability to make decisions without bureaucracy has increased, and we have driven empowerment across teams.