The OKR Methodology and Team Performance: Goal Setting from an Organizational Perspective

By Rebecca Fullmer, based on an interview with Michael London and Nazalee O’Hearn, Cleveland Clinic 

Goal setting … that special time when we look ahead to the coming fiscal year and plan the activities that will help us meet our ever-increasing fundraising goals. I recently had a conversation with Michael London, senior director of research for Prospect Management, Systems and Analytics (RPMSA) at the Cleveland Clinic, to learn more about its new approach to goal setting.

Whether your organization has already completed its FY20 goal-setting process or you are right in the midst of it, you may be able to identify with some of the feelings this process can evoke. On one level, a good goal-setting process can distill a comprehensive fundraising strategy into clear organizational objectives. Those objectives can then feed both team and individual performance measures, and with alignment among all levels of the organization, the team is primed for success. 

However, there can be a degree of uncertainty inherent in the process, as well. While we can — and should — plan in a way that accounts for some of that uncertainty, when it comes to solicitation timelines, there are simply some things out of our control. This can make the goal- setting process feel a bit like a … guess. 

An approach to goal setting that shifts more of the focus on what we can control — onto the process and the steps that will lead to success — is a powerful concept. When teams can strategize around clear, measurable results that ladder up to larger institutional objectives, and every team has a clear role in meeting those objectives, that can have a transformational impact. That is exactly what Cleveland Clinic has done by adopting OKRs. 

First, a quick primer on OKRs: short for “Objectives and Key Results.” Google and other tech companies made OKRs famous — John Doerr’s book, “Measure What Matters,” outlines the methodology. Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg also cover the method in their book, “How Google Works.” Companies of various sizes and industries have adopted the OKR framework, and it has helped numerous companies achieve ambitious growth.  

The OKR method requires organizations to set a goal (the objective) and to define clearly the measures of success (the key results). Objectives should be high-level and both inspirational and aspirational. If an organization is reaching 100% of its objectives, they are not nearly ambitious enough. In some cases, if the objective is truly a stretch, even 50% achievement could be a really good outcome.

Each objective should then have a set of key results – often between two and five measurable results – that will define whether the objective was met. At the highest level of the organization, the objectives are more strategic in nature and can sometimes be longer-term initiatives that may span a year or more. At the team and individual levels, the objectives are often more tactical and shorter in duration. One of the nice aspects of OKRs is that the approach is flexible enough to fit any institutional context. 

As part of the Cleveland Clinic’s operations team, its Philanthropy Institute has embraced this new method of goal setting. Prior to this, the Institute set its goals in a more “traditional” way — each fundraiser worked with a set of performance metrics, like visits, solicitations and dollars raised. When it came to dollars, the individual goals rolled up to a large annual fundraising goal. In this system, the focus is largely on individual performance, and little allowance is given for the variation in year-to-year dollars for individual fundraisers that can result from the size and timing of gifts. As a result, fundraisers were spending a lot of time and energy worrying about who was getting credit for what, and what “their” numbers were. With individual performance as the ultimate measure of a fundraiser’s success, attention was drawn away from the broader team performance. 

By using OKRs, the focus of goals at the Clinic is now entirely on team and department performance; individual productivity, while still tracked, no longer functions as a goal. The “total-dollars-raised” goal, while still an important performance indicator, is one of several organizational objectives, rather than the singular focus of performance measurement. There are other objectives that focus on critical activities related to achieving the Clinic’s philanthropic vision, such as growing the number of new donors, increasing donor retention and increasing interaction between fundraisers and donors. 

The transformation within the fundraising culture has been immediate. Fundraisers are focusing on the things they can control, such as getting in front of prospects, executing strategies and making solicitations. This means they are free from having to stress about the things they have less control over. They understand that the overall team performance can help balance those year-to-year variations in individual pipelines. At the same time, there is mutual accountability for team performance and an inherent motivation to help the team succeed. Collaboration has increased and the team is thinking at the organizational level rather than at the individual level.   

Nazalee O’Hearn, a fundraiser with the Clinic, said the team is not driven by “hitting a number,” but by doing the right work. In an environment driven by individual metrics, she says, the focus can easily become activity for activity’s sake. This detracts from doing the highest, best level of work. A “typical” visit goal, for example, only considers how many visits were completed by the fundraiser and doesn’t factor in whether those visits were with the right people. Using OKRs has helped clarify the higher purpose of their work. Rather than counting visits, the OKRs focus on increasing the interaction between fundraisers and donors, especially at key points in the gift cycle. 

In terms of outcomes, the results go beyond just a cultural transformation. While the enterprise-wide adoption of OKRs is still in its first year, a few of the fundraising teams at the Clinic have been working under team goals rather than individual goals for the past two years. Those teams are blowing away expectations and significantly increasing fundraising productivity — without increasing staff.

Additionally, because the core tenets of the OKR method include transparency and frequent reporting of results, the Clinic uses a Tableau dashboard to display progress toward goals. Within the Philanthropy Institute, OKRs are visible to everyone on the team; this helps focus the team on the essential work and makes it clear how each team is contributing to the organizational objectives. Further, it is easy to tell where individual success is happening, and those team members can share their methods with colleagues as a way to elevate group performance.

O’Hearn described a complete change in her day-to-day portfolio management practices as a result of the dashboards. She was quick to share that she has not always embraced technology. The thought of having to wade through lots of data and lists was not an attractive proposition, and the process often felt clunky and inefficient. However, the new dashboards provide not only ease — especially with the option to have content pushed to your inbox — but clarity. Now, rather than having to struggle through a bloated portfolio full of people who haven’t been contacted, O’Hearn works with a highly-focused list of prospects and spends her time ensuring the right work is happening with those prospects. “Behavior dictates habits,” she says, and these tools have helped her develop the discipline of using the data to guide her work. Her prospect interaction score is among the highest in the organization.

Outside of the frontline fundraisers, OKRs help focus the Institute’s operational teams on the work that will be most impactful in achieving the organizational objectives. For the RPMSA team, this has driven innovation in its work. It also helps engage the team think from an organizational perspective or determine how their work can directly help achieve organizational objectives. Every RPMSA team member is given oversight of an OKR. Projects that have come out of this process have included creating a research section in the CRM; integrating the email platform with CRM; aggregating SEC information and alerts and matching it up to records; developing an online donation system integrated with CRM; a text messaging system for fundraisers; new dashboards; and the prospect interaction score. 

One element that has made the Clinic’s transition to OKRs smooth is that about 80% of the reporting is largely automated through Tableau dashboards. The easy access and clear presentation of data is a key part of implementing this methodology. The transparency goes beyond the Philanthropy Institute, too. OKRs are visible throughout the entire Cleveland Clinic enterprise, and every division’s objectives tie into its four organizational pillars. 

Looking ahead, the Philanthropy Institute will be working to automate its OKR reporting further, and to continue fostering both innovation and collaboration. As it relates to large, transformational gifts, the Clinic has recognized the importance of team cohesion in closing these gifts. They recently received an eight-figure gift from a donor who was first identified by analytics several years ago — and it took the collaboration of many colleagues for several years to secure that gift. Actively looking for methods to increase collaboration is something the Clinic will be exploring in the coming years. The adoption of an organizational mindset using OKRs is a sure step in that process.

What do you think? Has your organization adopted OKRs? Are other goal-setting approaches that work well for your institution? Comment below or tweet using #HowWeGoal to let us know what you are doing! 



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