by Chris Doig

Law firm uses OKRs to drive astonishing results and get things done

Feb 03, 2017
Collaboration SoftwareIT GovernanceIT Leadership

In the corporate world, many decisions are made in meetings, but too often things fall between the cracks. Here's a look at how a San Francisco law firm used new Workboard OKR software to solve the challenge of getting things done.

business people having a meeting in modern office
Credit: Thinkstock

Even with the best will in the world, it usually takes too long to get things done in corporate situations. Meetings are a primary way in which goals are decided and agreed upon, but they consume inordinate amounts of time when you consider things like developing agendas and PowerPoint presentations, meetings that run over schedule, and the need to have some meetings again because you can’t remember commitments. Some things always seem to fall between the cracks, and results take too long to achieve. Workboard aims to solve this problem in a new way. To find out more, I interviewed Workboard CEO Deidre Paknad.

As a startup CEO, Deidre knew how to focus resources on results, and how to learn and iterate quickly. Startup CEOs do this naturally because they have more ambition than capital, and they view time as a scarce resource. 

Deidre is a serial entrepreneur, and Workboard is her third company. Her last company had been acquired by IBM. While there, she led a fast-growth business unit that was global and broadly distributed. She still wanted to operate with that crazy, ridiculous focus of resources on results and fast iterations. However, she found it much harder to get things done in a big enterprise because there is so much more noise and a greater distance between people. “When you look at what is changing in the market, it is far more important for those large enterprises to get results because they must innovate, they must be responsive and proactive in dynamic markets, or they cease to be competitive and ultimately cease to be players in their own domains,” she says. Like many startup CEOs, Deidre founded Workboard to solve a problem she had experienced, and because she knew that others felt the same pain.

Workboard is built on the foundation of objectives and key results (OKR), a technique for setting and communicating goals and results in organizations. As Deidre says, “To move faster, you have to manage faster.” To accelerate the achievement of goals that drive results, Workboard adds the concept of business velocity, which they call the velocity quotient, or VQ. One way Workboard drives VQ is by making meetings more efficient and focusing teams on results. Another way is by using transparency: ensuring all team members can always see what results they are expected to accomplish at all times. This focus keeps everybody aligned with goals and reduces the effort wasted when people go off on tangents.

To get an idea of how well Workboard performs in real life, I spoke to Vince DiMascio, CIO of Berry Appleman & Leiden, a large law firm based in San Francisco. Vince had joined BAL in November 2015 and immediately created an IT strategy. The core of his strategy was to use technology to drive revenue growth, while simultaneously reducing costs through process automation. However, he found executing on that strategy was hard. “Creating the vision is the easy part; it’s the execution that makes or breaks us,” he says. “That’s what led me to Workboard.”

In an attempt to solve the execution problem, two weeks into his new job Vince piloted and immediately began using Workboard within his IT department of about 65 employees.

Although there was some natural skepticism in the larger organization, people in IT thought the Workboard tool was great. With a mobile app and browser access, training was not needed. However, mastering the OKR technique did need training. How do you set an objective? When everything is important, that isn’t easy! The team did not begin each session with Workboard; rather they started with a whiteboard to capture ideas about their objectives and results. They used Post-it notes and meetings to get people engaged and to recognize that they are responsible for achieving their goals. Then they added the OKRs to Workboard so the team and any subsequent teams could see their OKRs and focus on achieving them. Keeping OKRs visible is key to fast-paced achievement.

Workboard Bridges the gap between one-on-one chats or group meetings and making sure that assigned tasks are done and not forgotten. Project management systems do not reach up into meetings that way; they are lower-level tools. The cascading effect that Workboard provides up, down and across the organization had a profound impact on the business. Vince says his IT team has done tremendously well, and he would love to claim it was his leadership, but in reality, it was the OKR methodology working for them.

I asked Vince if he still had skepticism from the rest of the business, and he replied that the other operations groups have had their tongues hanging out since the second quarter of last year. Throughout the year, IT was doing everything it said it was going to do, and nothing else. No matter how hard the other operations leaders tried, they just could not achieve those kinds of results.

Vince went on to say that the magic is in the OKR process, but you do need the right tool to execute that process. If they had tried to use tools like Google Drive or Office365, they would have failed. But with Workboard they succeeded.

Workboard automatically schedules his one-on-one meetings and even creates the agendas. There is no dodging it; everybody involved knows what is most important. People had agreed at the beginning of the quarter; now every week they do a quick check in on where things stand, and that leads to steady incremental progress. For example, projects that had been languishing for two or three years were rescoped, started anew, and completed in the course of last year.

Given the success achieved with the OKR technique, BAL now wants to deploy Workboard to all operations teams, namely HR, facilities and procurement — and maybe even all of the legal teams. And Vince says those teams can’t wait to get started.