OKRs for Startups

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Introduction to Flowing OKRs: a modern workflow for OKRs

Introduction to Flowing OKRs: a modern workflow for OKRs

Sten Pittet - CEO
STen Pittet

The OKRs acronym stands for Objectives and Key Results. It is a framework is a goal-setting methodology that helps teams get a shared language for focus and manage alignment at scale.

There's a lot of great literature that explains the core tenets of OKRs, and how this framework differs from existing practices. But, teams are still pretty much left to their own devices regarding implementation. As a result, many still struggle to get an effective workflow that serves the team instead of feeling like an extra reporting chore.

That's why we decided to create a prescriptive implementation guide that takes a modern and practical approach to OKRs. The goal is to give you a set of simple rules (with a checklist at the end) that are easy to adopt, and a reference document that is as close as possible to your day-to-day operations.

We called it Flowing OKRs to encapsulate the idea of treating OKRs as a continuous process rather than a monthly touchpoint.

Some ideas around scoring and alignment will differ from what you may have read. But we've found through experience that our model is better suited for outcome-driven teams that work with rapid iterations.

Last word of advice: all guides, frameworks, and workflows are aspirational. You may find that some of the suggestions here can't be applied to your organisation. That's ok—feel free to bend the rules when necessary.

Here's a quick summary below, then read on to learn more.

Flowing OKRs principles

  • Principle 1: Fast feedback loops
  • Principle 2: Outcomes AND outputs
  • Principle 3: Alignment, not punishment
  • Principle 4: Collaboration rather than reporting

Flowing OKRs rules:

  • #1. Understanding the role of OKRs vs. Initiatives
  • #2. Use team-based OKRs
  • #3. Implement a weekly OKRs progress review
  • #4. Don't capture business-as-usual in your OKRs
  • #5. Limit your OKRs to 3 Objectives and 4 KRs per Objective per plan
  • #6. Distribute ownership
  • #7. No individual OKRs
  • #8. Measurable vs. non-measurable Key Results
  • #9. OKRs don't cascade (but they can align)
  • #10. Write meaningful check-ins
  • #11. Keep scoring consistent with the rest of your org
  • #12. No more than 2 yellow statuses in a row
  • #13. Keep track of your initiatives and action items
  • #14. Monthly confidence health check on Objectives
  • #15. Make trends easy to see

Common issues with OKRs

Here are some of the issues that we want to address with our Flowing OKRs approach.

Lack of standards

Quite often, an organisation with a dozen teams using OKRs will see half-a-dozen kinds of spreadsheets. This makes it hard to establish an effective process around outcomes.

Lack of updates

Another issue is the frequency of check-ins. You'll see in the next section that rapid feedback loops are at the core of Flowing OKRs. But, without proper tooling and guidance around ownership, the check-in process can become unnecessarily expensive. As a result, orgs get partial or rushed status updates that aren't good enough to make informed decisions.

Lack of clarity

Finally, Flowing OKRs aims to give teams a clear understanding of execution throughout their organisations. You will have simple tools to help you navigate goals, get actionable insights, and see trends on your OKRs.

Better informed teams will get better results.

Do these problems feel familiar? Good. This guide is made for you.

Core principles of Flowing OKRs

Principle 1: Fast feedback loops

The Flowing OKRs model borrows a lot from Agile and Continuous Delivery. One of the key aspects of this approach will be your ability to get fast feedback loops on strategy.

Teams that have monthly OKRs updates can be lured into a false sense of security until the second month. Then it'll already be too late if you're in the red.

On the other hand, weekly check-ins make it extremely easy to anticipate issues.

The challenge, then, is to enable your team to have quick update cycles. It's one thing to nod at the diagram above, it's another to create an environment where people can quickly share progress updates every week without wasting a morning at work—we'll see how you can make it happen.

Principle 2: Outcomes AND outputs

With Flowing OKRs we want to make sure that teams put outcomes (OKRs) at the centre. But, it is also important to keep the outputs (initiatives/tasks) as part of the picture. The easier you can map OKRs to initiatives, the better you can execute your strategy.

Outcome-driven doesn't mean outcomes only. It simply means that we start with our goals, and then we look at our activities. But there's a lot that we can learn from the work we do, and it's likely that you'll change some of your OKRs as a result of your experience.

Principle 3: Alignment, not punishment

Flowing OKRs won't work without the right culture in place. It's crucial that teams feel safe about reporting risks. "Give me solutions, not problems" is a harmful statement in this environment. Here we want people to give an honest perspective of their execution, including what's getting at risk.

Principle 4: Collaboration rather than reporting

Finally, Flowing OKRs is about treating goals as a conversation. You can automate some things, but OKRs shine best when they're used as means to have focused discussions around the North Star. Treating your OKRs as KPIs will remove the ability to reflect and adjust the strategy.

Rules for implementing Flowing OKRs

#1. Understanding the role of OKRs vs. Initiatives

In the Flowing model we use a precise set of definitions for Objectives, Key Results, and Initiatives.

  • Objectives: where do we want to be at the end of the quarter? (direction)
  • Key Result: how will we measure progress? (traction)
  • Initiatives: what are our best bets to get there? (action)

#2. Use team-based OKRs

Flowing OKRs plans should be team-based rather than people-based.

Having team-based OKRs makes it easier to write goals that are customer-centric instead of individual-performance related.

#3. Implement a weekly OKRs progress review

With Flowing OKRs, we recommend that teams meet at the beginning of each week to discuss progress on their quarterly OKRs.

  • No more than 10 people in the meeting, and all KRs owners should be present.
  • Progress and confidence need to be updated before the meeting.
  • The meeting should start by discussing the OKRs before looking at roadmaps and initiatives.

This weekly ritual is crucial to make Flowing OKRs work. It will help everyone keep the right context in mind when making project decisions. It's also a simple way to create natural accountability and improve alignment (repetition does work!).

Further reading here.

#4. Don't capture business-as-usual in your OKRs

Your OKRs should represent the things that you want to change. Not the status quo. Then you can divide your time between OKRs effort, business-as-usual work, and other things (training, explorations,...)

#5. Limit your OKRs to 3 Objectives and 4 KRs per Objective per plan

We recommend a maximum of 3 Objectives and no more than 4 KRs per Objective in any quarterly plan. That is to help reduce the set of competing priorities and clarify what's really important.

Here's a focused plan with 2 Objectives and 5 measurable KRs.

Don't forget that you don't need to capture business-as-usual work.

#6. Distribute ownership

Teams are responsible for achieving Key Results through their work, but you'll need to have a single owner per KR. The role of the owner is to:

  • Update progress with the weekly check-ins.
  • Be the main point of contact for questions related to that specific KR.

Make sure that you don't give all KRs to the same person. As a rule of thumb, no one should have more than 7 weekly check-ins to do. The quality of updates will diminish a lot otherwise.

Related Tability docs: how to assign owners and contributors to outcomes.

#7. No individual OKRs

OKRs should not go down to the individual level. Keep your OKRs at a team level.

Why? Because setting goals at the individual level will blur the line between personal development goals and customer-centric goals. It's much easier to limit OKRs to teams to avoid any confusion.

#8. Measurable vs. non-measurable Key Results

Try to have measurable Key Results whenever possible. This will make it easier to track the impact of your efforts during the quarter.

But, you will sometimes be faced with a KR that's hard to measure. It might be because you don't have analytics, or because your project is still weeks away from being in the hands of users. In this case, we recommend ditching the target and focusing on confidence levels instead.

Related Tability docs: how to set or remove targets.

#9. OKRs don't cascade (but they can align)

Cascading OKRs was a popular approach a few years ago. But in recent years many have gone against cascading OKRs, including us. We recommend a more flexible model where teams can create their plans under a parent without having to trickle down their goals. They can decide later which items can map to a parent outcome.

Some OKRs will remain isolated as a result, but that's to be expected, especially in large orgs.

One thing you can do to simplify alignment is to try repeating the top-level Objectives throughout the org whenever possible. "Deliver a great onboarding experience" is an Objective that can be equally applied to Product, Engineering, Design, or Support teams.

#10. Write meaningful check-ins

Your OKRs process will only be as good as the quality of the conversations. So it starts by writing meaningful updates that can answer the following questions:

  1. Where are we today?
  2. How much progress have we made since the last update?
  3. How confident are we about reaching our goal by the end of the quarter?
  4. What have we done so far to make progress?
  5. What are we planning to do next?
  6. Is there anything getting in the way?
  7. Do we need help from others?

This may seem like a lot, but you can answer questions (1), (2), and (3) in a matter of seconds with Tability (just add your current value and pick your confidence). This allows you to focus your attention on the analysis of progress.

Tability's check-in form will help you answer most questions at a glance.

Here's a great post by Felipe Castro on weekly check-ins (note: we still recommend tracking progress on your measurable KRs). And here's another guide on OKRs check-ins by Peter Kappus.

#11. Keep scoring consistent with the rest of your org

You might have heard about Google's OKRs scoring methodology. In their approach, they aim for a completion of 60% to 70% of their OKRs. This sounds great in theory, but it hardly works in practice because most organisations expect goals to fall in the 80-100% range.

Keep your scoring consistent with the celebration scale applied in the rest of your org. For instance:

  • 80-100% = green (on track)
  • 60-80% = yellow (at risk)
  • 0-60% = red (off track)

#12. No more than 2 yellow statuses in a row

Your check-ins should have a confidence level attached to them:

  • Green = on track
  • Yellow = at risk
  • Red = off track

Make it a rule that you can't have more than 2 yellows in a row.

The 3rd check-in needs to be either green or red. Adopting this rule will help everyone confront risks earlier instead of hedging their opinions for too long.

#13. Keep track of your initiatives and action items

Keep initiatives as close as possible for your OKRs

The weekly OKRs review is the right time to review progress on the related bets that the team is making. Some of your initiatives will have a positive impact on the OKRs, and some of the work will not produce the expected results.

But don't give into panic mode. A KR that's not moving can mean several things:

  • We made the wrong bets, or
  • We don't have enough budget/time to work on that KR, or
  • The KR was wrong to begin with.

Don't underestimate the last part. It's not uncommon to pick metrics that are hard to influence or misrepresent an Objective. In that case, you should refine the KRs rather than flipping the roadmap on its head.

Note: initiatives should be the big rocks/epics that you're working on. No need to link every small tasks and subtasks to your OKRs.

#14. Monthly confidence health check on Objectives

It can be easy to obsess about the Key Results and forget to consider the Objective. That is why we recommend to have a monthly "health-check" on the Objective where you evaluate the statement itself.

For instance, the Objective "Our users love our product" can be hard to measure, even with NPS. But, you could ask your colleagues about their perception of that statement. Many people are exposed to users through support tickets, social media monitoring, conferences, etc... Health checks will help you elevate the discussion beyond the KRs to see how you're doing on your Os.

#15. Make trends easy to see

Tracking OKRs in tables will often be misleading. A team that started the quarter strong can have hit a plateau, but it will be hard to see without a simple way to look at past data.

Tracking progress is not just about reporting what happened today. It's also about making sure that we're moving in the right direction, compared to what happened before.

Tooling

You will need an adequate platform to support your OKRs process. Spreadsheets are great for a practice run on your OKRs, but they will present severe limitations if you want rapid feedback loops. They require a lot of customisation, are hard to maintain, and offer little automation to support your workflows.

Tability will offer you all the features you need for a successful implementation of Flowing OKRs:

  • Check-ins reminders.
  • Simplified check-ins.
  • Alignment and strategy mapping.
  • Built-in reports and dashboards.
  • Filters and data slicing.

But more importantly, it's designed to be lightweight and easy to adopt by all teams—without burdening the team.

Sign up here to get your first OKRs plan within minutes. You'll get 100 free check-ins on your trial with all features enabled.

The Flowing OKRs checklist

Finally, here's your Flowing OKRs checklist! Make sure that you've ticked all the boxes.

✓ We understand the role of OKRs vs. Initiatives.

✓ Our OKRs are team-based.

✓ We have a weekly meeting to review progress on quarterly OKRs.

✓ OKRs check-ins are done prior to the weekly review.

✓ We do not mix business-as-usual in our OKRs.

✓ No more than 3 Objectives and 4 KRs per Objective in each plan.

✓ Every Key Result has an owner.

✓ No one has more than 7 weekly check-ins to do.

✓ We don't do individual OKRs

✓ We either have measurable KRs, or use confidence for non-measurable KRs.

✓ We're not cascading OKRs.

✓ We write meaningful status updates during check-ins.

✓ Our scoring is consistent with the rest of the org.

✓ We don't have more than 2 yellow statuses in a row.

✓ We discuss outcomes first, and then outputs during our weekly progress review.

✓ We have monthly confidence health checks on our Objectives.

✓ We have a dedicated platform to track and manage our OKRs.

If you have any questions or feedback you can contact us on Twitter (@tabilityio) or email us at [email protected]!

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