I remember my first thoughts when Atlassian introduced us to OKRs (I was a Product Manager there back then).
"Oh la la c'est quoi encore ça..."
It felt like having an extra layer of reporting on top of our regular meetings, and I couldn't quite understand the benefits of filling additional status reports for management.
Fast forward to today, and I'm now an evangelist for the framework. OKRs are an excellent tool that helps organisations scale a results-driven culture.
But, rolling out OKRs is still a challenge in spite of the growing popularity of the framework. Many teams still struggle to get company-wide buy-in and some individual contributors might even hate the framework, seeing it as additional reporting that gets in the way of doing their work (like I did 10 years ago).
There's now a lot more literature on OKRs (see bottom of this post), but the truth is that it will take a few cycles to build the right culture. So, this post is here to help. We'll dive in on some ways you can set yourself up for success with your OKRs, in a way that your team won't hate.
Here are some common things to look out for as you're rolling out OKRs for the first time:
- Explaining OKRs from an exec's perspective
- Having too many OKRs
- Writing objectives that aren't clear enough
- Spending too much time aiming for a perfect plan
- Not having an easy way to do weekly check-ins
Let's unpack this below!
OKR mistake #1: explaining OKRs from an exec's perspective
It's generally quite easy for people in leadership positions to see the value of OKRs. There are many moving parts in their org, dozens (hundreds?) of teams to manage, and it's hard to see how everything fits together.
All of a sudden, someone pitches you a framework that guarantees that all teams will use the same language to define their focus. You'll be able to know the goals of any part of the business and see how much progress has been made. And there's also the promise that alignment will be much easier!
HOLY MOLLY THIS OKRS THING IS GENIUS.
The problem is that this pitch doesn't translate well to individual contributors. From the perspective of a designer, developer, content writer, etc, it often feels like management has just found a new way of telling people what to do (but they do seem super excited about it for some reason).
So, if you want your team to embrace OKRs, or at least not reject them, then you need to learn how to explain what's in it for the team.
The good news is that there's a lot to talk about!
- OKRs will help elevate the discussions to talk much more about the goals than the implementation details.
- OKRs will give the team more ownership and help build trust and accountability between the team and management.
- OKRs are a great way for teams to visualise the impact that their work has.
So that's your step 1. Don't mess up the pitch.
OKRs mistake #2: having too many OKRs
OKRs are about focus. You shouldn't use them to track business-as-usual work, nor should you try to turn your entire roadmap into a set of Objectives and Key Results.
Think of it this way: the more time is spent updating goals, the less time is left to achieve them. Additionally, having too many objectives will reduce the ability of your team to have a real impact. They'll be spread thin across many different priorities, making it difficult for them to judge what's important.
- 3 Objectives per plan
- 3/4 Key Results maximum per Objective
- No one should have more than 7 items to update every week
Another thing: your OKRs do not replace your KPIs. Both are useful and serve different purposes. Your KPIs will help you monitor the health of your business during the year, and your OKRs will help your team focus their effort on improving a specific part of your business during a quarter.
OKRs mistake #3: writing Objectives that aren't clear enough
Having bad Objectives could send your team into a wall. Imagine 2 teams that have built the exact same beta and are now looking to get their first paid customers:
- Team A's Objective: build a Stripe integration
- Team B's Objective: get paid customers
Here's what's extremely likely to happen by the end of the quarter:
- Team A only has a working billing page, that may or may not be released in production.
- Team A spent very little time thinking about go-to-market strategy, or pricing.
- Team B has paid customers!
- Team B may have achieved it through a Stripe integration, but even if Stripe wasn't a fit, they would have worked around it.
- Team B also considered the best way to acquire customers and started building their sales playbook – not just the engineering effort.
The point is: good Objectives should be specific enough that they set a clear direction, but they also need to inspire as many teams as possible. Lastly, your Objectives should focus on business outcomes whenever possible.
It's also best to write your Objective using a full sentence. For instance, don't use "US expansion" as it's merely a theme. Instead, a more practical Objective would be "Build momentum to become a leader in the US market". This sentence conveys better intent as it acknowledges that we are just getting started while clearly establishing the goal of being a dominant player in the US market.
Some more examples of good Objectives for your OKRs:
- Become the #1 online resource for _______________
- Our users can onboard the product with success
- Significantly accelerate the cadence and quality of releases
Resources to help you write better OKRs:
OKRs mistake #4: spending too much time aiming for a perfect plan
All frameworks and models are aspirational.
It'd be amazing if all your KRs were measurable outcomes highly correlated with your Objectives. But the reality is often more complex. You'll have strategic initiatives that are 4-6 months long, business outcomes that are hard to measure, or goals that can't be aligned with a top-level OKR. If you force all Key Results to have a metric attached to them, then you'll start seeing your team wasting hours crafting obscure KPIs to justify progress.
Give your team some flexibility. It's far more important to start simple and use weekly updates to refine your strategy than it is to spend weeks crafting a sophisticated set of OKRs. You should think of your OKRs as a balanced effort: some goals will be committed, some will be aspirational. Some KRs will be measurable outcomes, others will be outputs, and others might not even have any metrics attached (but you should still track your confidence).
(PS: If you're new to OKRs, we have a company-level plan that should work for 93% of the startups.)
A good balance in any given quarter can look like this:
- 60% of KRs are measurable
- 20% are outputs
- 20% aren't measurable
Keep in mind that perfect is the enemy of good.
OKRs mistake #5: not having an easy way to do weekly check-ins
Goal-setting gives the general direction, but frequent goal-tracking is what helps teams achieve results faster. Weekly check-ins provide several benefits, including:
- Accountability: Weekly check-ins provide a regular opportunity for team members to report on their progress towards their objectives and key results.
- Visibility: Weekly check-ins provide visibility into the progress being made and allow the team to identify any issues early on and take corrective action as needed.
- Alignment: Weekly check-ins help to ensure that team members are aligned on the goals they are working towards. This helps prevent misunderstandings or conflicts about what needs to be accomplished.
- Adaptability: Weekly check-ins allow teams to adjust their approach as needed based on their progress towards their objectives and key results. If they are falling behind, they can make changes to their approach to get back on track.
The easier it is for the team to do weekly check-ins, the more effective your OKRs process will be.
A good OKRs platform should help people:
- Quickly find the goals they own.
- Know when it's time to update progress.
- Allow people to see their company's and team's OKRs.
- See progress trends and quickly understand what's getting off-track.
- Allow for rapid feedback and discussion.
- Be able to connect outcomes (OKRs) to outputs (initiatives).
Tability is a platform that will meet all these requirements, and it includes a dedicated goal-setting module to simplify the process of creating OKRs.
Be patient, it's a process
That's it for the advice! It'll probably take you a couple of cycles to get OKRs right. It can be tough at times, but it's definitely worth the efforts!
Recommended OKRs books
- Radical Focus: ideal to learn a pragmatic implementation of OKRs
- Measure What Matters: great to understand the value of OKRs (cascading example is a bit outdated)
- The OKR Field Book: structured approach to implement OKRs