From Outputs to Business Outcomes with OKR: The Elsevier Journey


 Ian Harvey and me during our talk at the Business Agility conference 2020 in NYC.

Can a 140-year-old organization adopt OKR and outcome-based planning? And can they do it not within their internal “startup incubator,” but on their main product, a billion-dollar business? How do OKR and outcomes thinking fit into a broader transformation journey?

In Silicon Valley, Google and others adopted OKR when they were still early stage startups—OKR was already part of their culture as they scaled. But what happens when a mature, multinational organization adopts OKR?

I had the pleasure of teaming up with Ian Harvey, Senior Portfolio Director at Elsevier, to tell the story of their journey with OKR at the Business Agility Conference in NYC. The talk, which you can watch below, shares the inside view of Elsevier’s journey, including some of the key lessons learned and the difficulties and challenges faced.

Now let me share a bit about the background of our presentation.

Founded in 1880, Elsevier is a $3 billion multinational organization that evolved from a content provider to supporting researchers, governments, and healthcare professionals with digital products.

During that transition, the organization began to adopt modern product management practices, run experiments, and focus on world-class technology delivery, but maintained the commitment to continuous improvement. 

In 2017, a meeting of the organization’s top managers identified engagement and alignment as areas for improvement. The existing approach to connecting strategy to execution and setting goals was hindering this.

A small core team was formed and they identified OKR as the approach to drive alignment and engagement. They reached out to me, and we worked together with the rest of Elsevier to help the company adopt outcome-based planning and OKR.

Two years later, Elsevier has benefited from greater employee engagement and improved NPS and customer retention on critical platforms.

I want to say a very special thanks to Rose L’Huillier, VP of Product Management at Elsevier, who was crucial to making this story happen and was extremely helpful when we were preparing our talk. 

I would also like to thank the conference organizers for doing such a great job. The conference happened as the COVID-19 outbreak unfolded in early March, and the conference organizers did a fantastic job of adapting as the situation developed: no handshakes or hugs, lots of hand sanitizer imported from Canada, and nearly half the audience joining online. 

Ian also wrote a guest post on how to set OKRs remotely, answering a very common question now that many of us are working from home. Finally, you can also watch all the other videos from Business Agility 2020 on the Business Agility Institute website.