5 tips to make your OKRs team-centric

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A common problem with the adoption of OKRs is that we tend to stop at the benefits for leadership, and we push the process on the team without explaining how it can help them. OKRs quickly provide clarity to the people looking at the organization from the highest vantage point. But, things may not look as bright for individual contributors looking up.

Without a proper introduction, the team can see OKRs as another cumbersome process taking people away from their job. Worse, it can feel like micromanagement instead of empowerment.

In this post, I'll highlight five ways to keep your team at the center and avoid making OKRs just about leadership happiness.

#1 Survey the team before talking about OKRs

A simple way to justify why OKRs are needed is to let others tell you. You can run a short survey to get feedback on their understanding of the company's focus:

Instruction: Answer how you feel about the following statements:

  1. I understand what the current focus of <organization> is.
  2. I understand what the focus of my team is.

All the answers should be on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 5 (Absolutely), and I made a sample Typeform survey for reference.

Running this survey has two purposes. First, it's about giving you a clear understanding of the state of your company. I'm myself quite curious to know what the answers would be as I'm sure there's a lot to learn there.

But, there's another reason for running this survey before mentioning OKRs. Asking everyone about focus makes it about them — you're showing that you care about the team's opinion, and you can bounce back from a low score by introducing OKRs as a response to improve things.

The goal is to introduce OKRs as a pull from the team, rather than a push from the top.

#2 Draft a vision doc, and discuss it

The tip above was about asking the team if they knew about the vision. This next tip is about seeing if they agree with it.

It's far easier to tell people what to do than explain why they should be doing it. But, the more people understand the Why, the easier it'll be for them to execute. Even better, they'll be able to poke holes in the tactics, experiment and innovate to reach the North Star.

Everybody should know the aspirations of the business, and there might be many roads to get there. This second tip is about shifting the culture from tasks to outcomes.

Having a vision document will also make it easier to create OKRs. People will have a central point of reference to decide how to best coordinate efforts in each quarter.

Resources to create a vision doc:

#3 Don't use OKRs to manage performance

From afar, it looks like OKRs would be an excellent way to drive individual performance. We're talking about metrics, stretch goals, aspirational Key Results. It feels like a good fit for bonuses and measuring the effectiveness of the team.

But this would be misunderstanding the purpose of OKRs. A goal-setting framework is first and foremost about alignment. Then, it's a tool to experiment and learn. Your team should feel 50/50 on their ability to achieve their KRs — which means that it should be okay for some of them to fail. Tie OKRs to bonuses, and then the following may happen:

  • People will pick easy targets.
  • No one will dare to do experiments.
  • Folks will be afraid of mentioning failures.
  • The team will see OKRs as a tool against them.

Most teams need 2 to 3 quarters to calibrate the OKRs process, making it a poor tool to evaluate individuals (and it should not be about people either). My advice is simple: separate performance management from OKRs and use the latter to align rather than motivate.

#4 Don't do people-based OKRs

There are two main approaches to OKRs: people-based and team-based. A people-based approach looks like: CEO > CXO > Manager > Individual Contributor. A team-based approach would be more like Company > Product > Team.

The problem with people-based OKRs is that it puts the emphasis on what's good for your boss rather than what the business needs. You'd hope that they align, but it's easy to see how they would feel like micromanagement:

  • I'm focused on my manager's plan.
  • It's re-inforcing the hierarchy of the company.
  • I'm not sure if I'm looking at a personal growth goal or a company goal.

By contrast, team-based OKRs put the customer and the business at the center. Rather than trying to do what's right for my N+1, I'm thinking about what's best for our customers and the team.

People join companies to do meaningful work, not to align with their managers. So make sure that your OKRs reflect that. It's about empowering the team with a clear purpose, not turning them into a chain of command.

Find 15 more OKR best practices to help you succeed with your implementation.

#5 Bend the rules

Adopting a framework is 10% knowing the rules, 40% understanding why they exist, and 50% bending them to fit the team's culture. You don't have to do aspirational KRs from day 1. You don't have to adopt Google's scoring method. You don't have to do multiple levels of OKRs in your first quarter. You can start with KRs that aren't easily measurable. You can have Objectives that are metric-centric. You can even call your KRs something else.

What matters is that your OKRs help the team answer these 3 questions every week:

  • What's the North Star?
  • Are we on track?
  • Do we need to do something differently?

Try, discuss, iterate. It takes time to get the OKRs process right, and the more you include the team, the faster you'll see a positive impact on your entire organization.

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Sten Pittet

Co-founder and CEO, Tability

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