Philipp Schindera, SVP Corporate Communications at Deutsche Telekom, is a bold man indeed. For years, he and his team of 130 employees have been breaking new ground, digitalizing wherever they can, introducing innovative formats, convincing their CEO to communicate via Instagram and podcasts, and democratizing communications via ambassador programs and social media. Nor does he shy away from transforming his management methods. In 2019, we were able to support him in the introduction of the objectives and key results (OKR) model. We spoke to him about agility in corporate communications.
Philipp, what was the motivation for you and your team to deal with the topic of OKRs? What did you expect to get out of it?
We were looking for a modern control instrument that is compatible with flexible forms of organization and that opens the door to the agile handling of topics and to better focus. Moreover, we wanted something that is easy to learn. The introduction of OKRs in a number of large companies, and evidently with success, was also a convincing argument for me.
OKRs and corporate communications: are they a good fit for each other?
Certainly! Why not? OKRs help us to focus on the essentials. Very important for communicators: over the course of a year, we, too, have to adjust to the sudden emergence of communication trends and new topics. And the media business is becoming increasingly fast-moving. This pace demands a high degree of flexibility from us. Although we introduced a project organization a few years ago, we still lacked an instrument for flexible control. Transparency is often a casualty of agile structures, but is clearly at the forefront with the OKR method. In addition, as communicators we pay far too little attention to the level of impact. OKRs are a help here as well.
By creating transparency, the OKR method also promotes the self-steering abilities of employees; leadership devolves more extensively to the team. Often enough, this leads to a paradigm shift in the management culture. What were the first reactions in your leadership team when the issue of OKRs was put on the agenda? Was there any resistance?
Working on your own responsibility is nothing new for the team members. But of course we also heard some expressions of skepticism. What, another new method...? What good will it do...? What do I need this for ...? That is why we ran a pilot program with OKRs initially comprising five projects in 2019. The response was positive and so we have introduced OKRs in all projects this year. Our advantage at the time of implementation was that we had long had a setup as a project organization and no longer as a classic hierarchical organization.
You started off with one pilot project. What was the scope of the pilot, and how easy was it for the pilot team to become involved?
The method is relatively simple. You set a goal (your objective), define the key results to be achieved within a certain period of time – e.g., for a quarter – and check on your progress at regular intervals. We did this in a training-on-the-job mode, i.e., during ongoing operations. The five most important projects at that time were in the scope and we wanted to use a new methodology for their management. So it was clear immediately from that moment who would be joining us in the pilot operation.
We had the good fortune of guiding the process intensively as coaches. Why do you think it important to rely on external support when introducing OKRs?
You have to become familiar with the method. Even though in principle OKR is simple, it is still advantageous to have someone on board who already knows and has internalized the methodology, who can help you with questions, and, if necessary, keep a watchful eye on whether you get everything right.
What do you regard to be the major factors for a successful introduction?
In spite of all the freedom you have to act, the OKR method also requires a lot of discipline, and rules must be followed. For instance, one rule is all projects are regularly discussed in weekly/bi-weekly meetings and evaluated during retrospectives. Everyone must accept the assigned responsibility. It takes a certain amount of discipline to discuss the objectives with the teams again and again.
Let’s take a brief look into the future. What upcoming projects for mastering digital transformation do you and your team have on the agenda?
We have grouped 52 projects into ten clusters and defined relevant OKRs. The important step now is to establish the new methodology and make it understandable to everyone. This is a huge project, which we are taking on in addition to the content issues and parallel to the ongoing business. This will remain our focus in 2020 for the time being.
In closing, our standard question: What apps are indispensable for you as a communicator?
Flight Radar 24 – to see what planes are overhead. There is a high risk of addiction, which is why I have suffered withdrawal symptoms a few times during the recent weeks of travel restrictions. ;-) In business, Webex, Trello, and OneNote are essential for me.
Philipp, thank you very much for these fascinating insights and good luck with the agile and digital transformation of your department.