OKRs for Startups

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How to start a new OKRs cycle with retrospectives

How to start a new OKRs cycle with retrospectives

Sten Pittet - CEO
STen Pittet

How do you move from one OKRs cycle to the next?

Teams shouldn't jump into planning without first looking back at what happened during the previous quarter. Part of it is about acknowledging the efforts and celebrating the victories—3 months of hard work just went by! But there's another good reason for a pause before setting your next OKRs. Taking a moment to reflect on the past will create a shared understanding of what's possible before setting new ambitious goals.

Let's see how you can achieve that with 3 simple steps.

Step 1: Pick the contributors

The earlier the team is involved, the easier it is to create ownership.

BUT, you can't have 50 people in a planning meeting. Too many voices will make it expensive to reach a consensus and diminish the quality of the debates.

We recommend having at most 10 participants in the OKRs planning meeting. If your team is bigger, you'll have to find group representatives, or perhaps it's time to create new layers of OKRs to introduce departments or functions OKRs.

Ex:

  • Company OKRs: done by the leadership team
  • Engineering OKRs: done by Eng leaders
  • Product X OKRs: done by the entire Product X team, or Product X leaders (across disciplines)

Once you have your list of contributors, you can set 1h30-2h to go through the rest of the steps together.

Step 2: Retrospective on the previous quarter

We start with a retrospective to fight recency bias. Planning without taking the time to look back at what happened over the past 3 months will put way too much emphasis on the recent weeks. You might amplify problems that aren't that important or obfuscate critical issues that happened earlier in the cycle.

Retrospectives are a simple way to reconstruct a collective memory. The reflection is divided into 3 parts:

  • Grading past Objectives: look at the Os of your OKRs, and give your final assessment.
  • Looking back: list all the key events that happened, and take note of the good and the bad.
  • Going forward: come up with action items to improve next quarter.

Grading past Objectives (15 mins)

Ideally, you would have kept track of progress on your Key Results weekly. When the quarter ends, it's time to step back and look at how we did overall on each of the Objectives.

Keep it simple. You can use the average score of your Key Results as a starting point, but the more important part is to give a final assessment of how you did overall and add some notes to explain the rationale. The example below is an excerpt from our Tability 2020 Q4 retrospective.

A grading exercise in Confluence, back in 2020

Grading the past Objectives before setting future ones will keep us honest and realistic when we set new targets.

Looking back (10 mins)

Next, we will make an inventory of the things that happened during the quarter:

  • Key events: it can be a holiday, new hire joining the team, big launch. List anything that significantly impacted the team or the market (like a pandemic...).
  • Good and bad things: this is subjective, but it's an opportunity for the team to open up about how they felt during the quarter.

Looking back is not a debate. Don't go spending 10 minutes arguing if something was actually that bad. The purpose is to re-create a timeline and understand how it affected the team.

You can use simple bullet points like in the example below.

  • Key events
    • Person xxx joined the team
    • Big holiday rotation from Thanksgiving to Christmas to NYE (end November → end December)
    • Launched project xxx in mid-October
  • Good
    • Remote team working well in an autonomous fashion
    • Launched Customer Stories!
  • Bad
    • Bit off way more than we can chew
    • Too many big projects = taking too long to get things in the hands of people

Once again, it's not about discussing each statement. It's a simple way to acknowledge the complexity of collaboration and that not everything can be captured by metrics.

Start/stop/continue table, with stars for voting

Going forward (25mins)

Going forward is not yet about setting the new OKRs. It's about what needs to change in how we work.

Use a simple table with 3 columns:

  • What should we start doing?
  • What should we stop doing?
  • What should we continue?

Use the first 10 minutes to brainstorm as many items as people can in the columns. Don't stop to discuss what's written, even if you're outraged by it. There will be a time in the end to discuss the top-voted suggestions (and the process will weed out bad ideas).

Once the brainstorming is done, people can vote on start and stop items to surface what's important for the group. Don't vote on the continue column, as those are things that you should keep doing anyway.

Once you have your top 3, you can start discussing action items to improve things. But don't commit yet! You'll have to think about your goals first.

Have a break!

At the end of the retrospective you should:

  • Have a shared understanding of the past quarter
  • Understand how the team generally felt about it
  • Have identified key areas for improvements

Have a quick break, and come back to draft the new OKRs.

Step 3: Setting the new OKRs

The work done in Step 1 will help you set your OKRs faster. You spent ~1h aligning your thoughts and discussing past events. This is a great basis to talk about the future.

Look at projected KPIs, parent OKRs

Look at any docs that can guide your next set of OKRs. That includes:

  • 10/3/1 plans
  • Vision docs
  • Parent OKRs

This is to make sure that you'll align on your long-term goals, as well as what your parent team may be focused on.

Start with the Objectives (20 mins)

Create a new plan (you can use Tability) and start by listing the possible Objectives. No need to address the Key Results yet. The idea is to capture the high-level goals in simple terms. It can be useful to think about the different stages of the AARRR funnel to start. Do you want to focus on:

  • Acquisition?
  • Activation?
  • Retention?
  • Referral?
  • Revenue?

Use the response as a starting point to elaborate further. A good Objective should read as a clear statement and cover the work of multiple teams. It should also clearly indicates what will be different about your team/org when you look back at the end of the next quarter.

Some recommendations:

Make it a sentence

  • Don't: "Retention" → not very inspiring and could lead to bad tactics such as removing the ability to cancel in-app.
  • Do: "Delight our customers" → clearly state that retention will be achieved by creating a great experience.

Don't include metrics (save it for the KRs)

  • Don't: "Sell 50 contracts" → what if 50 is not the right number?
  • Do: "Make a dent in the Fortune 100" → indicates that you're trying to tackle a new market

Be specific

  • Don't: "Grow the business" → too broad to help the team focus
  • Do: "Build a low-touch growth engine" → helps focus on a specific play

Spend enough time on the Objectives to make them solid. They'll be the foundation of your next quarter.

See more tips for writing good Objectives.

Add the Key Results (20-30 mins)

Once you have agreed on the Key Results, you can start listing the corresponding KRs. Create 2-4 KRs per Objective, and assign them to the right owner. The owner will be in charge of updating progress, but it will remain a collective effort for the team.

A plan in Tability with objectives, key results, and initiatives

See more tips to write good Key Results.

Tips from experts

We asked a couple of our partners for some recommendations, and this is what they had to share.

Tim Horwath from 1OVMany echoed the need for a period of reflection before setting the new OKRs.

"We recommend wrapping up an OKR Cycle with a period of reflection & action, where teams at all levels within the organisation can review the progress made and document any impediments or lessons learned that supported both positive and negative outcomes.

The gathered insights from this period of reflection and action highlight the Key Results that were most significant in delivering value towards the Objectives and where the notable impact was made, so we can prioritise for the next quarter. Once we've established where to prioritise in order to yield maximum productivity, we can then focus on our most profitable outcomes going forward."

Carly Cline, from There Be Giants brings up the importance of creating a dedicated space for planning at the end of each cycle.

"Starting out, organisations can create some great OKRs and produce some fantastic results. However, when it comes to the transition between cycles, if this isn't given the time and attention it needs, OKRs could lose momentum. 

The secret to this is planning! Take the time to create a schedule between cycles that involves the crucial stakeholders and concentrate on reviewing, celebrating, and closing out the current cycle to understand the key learnings and progress. Based on that, you can identify what deserves the focus of an OKR in the next cycle and involve those in scope to contribute to their formation. These can then be shared and agreed upon before returning to the usual check-in cadence."

Wrap up!

That's it! Once you're happy with your draft OKRs, you can call it done. The owners will be in charge of adding the right baseline and targets—no need to do that in the planning meeting.

If you want to facilitate the goal-tracking, you can use Tability and publish your plan there. Weekly reminders will be sent automatically once the quarter starts.

OKRs tracking can be made simpler with Tability

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Hey there 👋 if you enjoyed this post you might also like Tability. It simplifies the OKRs process and helps teams maintain their focus at scale.

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