When Uncertainty Demands Change

Growth in the FinTech world is surging. But with growth comes uncertainty, and if left unchecked, chaos. So how do you manage your teams in a world (and industry) filled with uncertainty? This is the question Absa Group was facing. We talked to Steven Zwame, COO, Absa Group (Corporate and Investment Banking), about the challenges the business faced and how OKRs helped meet them.

Absa is the majority shareholder in 11 banks located around the African continent.  Following their transition from Barclays. Before COVID-19, the business lacked clear focus. Absa realised their old systems weren’t going to work anymore. Absa needed a framework to align their stand-alone business units and give their teams direction. OKRs changed the mentality of Absa’s teams, uniting their focus on outcomes to drive real productivity.


When COVID-19 hit Absa went all-in on OKRs. They leaned on the resiliency of the OKRs framework, putting systems in place for teams shifting amid the chaos. Absa adapted operations through the pandemic, using OKRs to focus teams on driving results.


About Absa Group

Absa Group Ltd., formerly Barclays Africa Group, was divested in 2017-2018. Originally called the Amalgamated Banks of South Africa, the South African-based financial services group offers personal and business banking,

corporate and investment banking, and wealth management.


Corporate investment needed a different business model and a rebuilding process after Barclays left. We needed heavy investment in replacing systems that had been removed. From technical matters to cash management, this presented a big task.


We also had several business units acting as stand-alone businesses and we needed them to be in a more aligned, singular process. OKRs, we believed, would help drive this change. When we came across John Doerr’s book,

Measure What Matters, it seemed to chime with our situation.


We had no problems producing strategies and initiatives, but when it came to inspiring teams and executing, we felt we weren’t on the right track. The scorecard we had been using was no longer appropriate. This led us to seek strategies that drive the business in a clear direction using a common language: OKRs.


Why did you choose AuxinOKR as a partner?

We needed support and guidance from a good coaching consultancy. We identified AuxinOKR and Peter Kerr and they seemed keen to take up our assignment. We liked the approach that Auxin took. They produced a moonshot outlook and helped us to define our main objectives. We identified four main areas but quickly recognised that having our people on board and in focus would be at the core of successful OKR delivery.


Our four objectives became five:

1. Sales

2. Customer retention

3. Customer experience

4. Process improvement

5. And ‘people’


How did your OKR journey begin?

Senior management identified the requirements to unlock the power of OKRs. The head office executive team was first exposed to OKRs and started the adoption. Once we developed our story, Yasmin Masithela, our Managing Executive for Transactional Banking, presented the model to the Corporate Investment Bank then involved the teams. Next was fleshing out our moonshot objectives. Our teams collaborated on the selection of OKR champions who were trained to teach everyone about the OKR framework.

We didn’t have the data in the early months. The big driver was the benefit of changing attitudes and mindsets. Some days, it felt like we were taking steps backward to move slowly forwards. We had 4–5-hour sessions with everybody. The scope of work undertaken by the whole organisation was immense. By February 2020, we felt

clear on our moonshot, what the rooftop was, and the way forward.


What were the initial obstacles to implementing OKRs?

We didn’t face any outright resistance to OKRs. Most people recognised we had to change and adapt. We learned the need to move slower than we initially wanted because at the outset, we were trying to drive things too quickly.

The country moved into a state of emergency when the pandemic struck in March 2020. We moved to a Level 5 lockdown and suddenly could not go into our offices.


Before the pandemic, we had started introducing and working with OKRs. However, we had not translated OKRs across the business. However, OKRs as a cadence helped us drive our response to COVID-19. We had to quickly respond to the work-from-home challenge. The mindset of OKRs already ingrained in many of us helped this transition.

“OKRs enables everyone to focus on the few things that matter.”

Steven Zwane, COO, Absa Group Tweet

Internet access and broadband quality was an immediate issue affecting all of our staff. Communication went from important to mission- critical – with one another, colleagues across the bank, and with customers. OKRs were the cornerstone of our COVID-19 response. As the company sponsor for OKRs, Yasmin Masithela’s key driver was focus, which was central to OKR management and our COVID- 19 response.

During the pandemic, making the process easy for all colleagues working from home became our paramount objective and key metric. We needed to feel more connected, creating a real sense of community amid the adjustments to working from home.

We were involved in practical matters of securing chairs and desks for people. All the time we were talking, staying connected. People moved from meetings daily, to every-other-day meetings, then weekly meetings.

Q2 of 2020 was all about managing our response to the pandemic. By Q3, we saw how people were adapting to working from home and we started taking stock of the future.

In addition, many of the teams set OKRs before the pandemic that kept them focused on driving key results amid the chaos. We tracked our productivity through COVID-19 by leveraging our OKRs.

The contribution from the AuxinOKR team has been invaluable. Their voice of reason and quality of advice has been great for us and the whole business. It’s invaluable when you have an OKR coach who has your interests at heart. Peter and Auxin kept us on the straight and narrow and brought focus to the OKR process. 

We liked their openness and willingness to engage, and we’ve relied on and respected their advice like our own employees’. For us, this partnership with Auxin will go a long way.

Photo credit: Absa Group

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