personal growth is critical to company success
OKRs

How to get started with OKRs?

April 8, 2021
Emily Vo
Kaisa Savola

What happens if your boss comes into the office and says “We are going to start using Objectives and Key Results for quarterly goal setting from now on?" Do not worry, we’ve got your back. In this blog, we’ll answer the question: how can you get started with OKRs? With steps for implementing your OKR program, before, during, and after implementation.

Begin with your long-term business strategy

When getting started with OKRs, strategy is of utmost importance. Before everything else, before worrying about the details, you need to solidify your strategy. Your mission or vision statement, your balanced scorecard, or other metrics that demonstrate where your focus lies within the company can tell you what your company prioritizes. Once you have this information, you can move forward with more focus and an idea of your overarching strategy.

“Ideally you should have a three-year forward-lookingbusiness plan.” - Roger Longden, OKR Specialist

Translate business strategy into business priorities

This long-term strategy will provide the basis for recognizing your business priorities for the next 12-month period. Three to five business priorities over 12 months is a good figure to go for. These priorities are then delegated to the departments within your company. Also, you might call these strategic priorities or strategic initiatives. But, regardless of the terminology, these priorities are the absolute essentials of the company. 

Company Level Priorities Example
Figure 1. Company Level Priorities Example

An example of these four priorities could be to create an excellent product, have a strong marketing team and promote sales, ensure solid revenue, as well as ensure the customer success team is amazing. Each of these priorities can be correlated with each department.

Translate business priorities into Company OKRs 

Once you have highlighted your business priorities you can convert them into separate OKRs, such as revenue OKRs or organizational OKRs. Then, you’ll need to downsize your annual OKRs into quarterly OKRs to work out what your agenda for the next 90 days will be. Longden notes that while you could of course go for a shorter or longer OKR cycle, such as tertiary OKR cycles, most companies tend to go for a quarterly timeframe. Quarterly cycles are also easily divisible into a working period of 10 weeks where each week represents 10% of a goal, plus a 2-week grace period to get up and running. 

Business Strategy, Business Priorities, and Company OKRs
Figure 2. Business Strategy, Business Priorities, and Company OKRs

Besides, managers should be mindful of setting objectives in a way that is both productive and easily comprehensible (OKRs definition and examples can be found here), but do not get stuck in the planning phase! It might take a few cycles to understand how best to set objectives, and they can always be fine-tuned along the way. It is highly recommended to set no more than three key results for each objective. Moreover, it is of highly importance to have a clear OKR ownership; for example, a CEO would own the 12-month OKRs, while a 3-month team OKR might be owned by a team manager with the most relevant skillset.

“Every company and team OKR should always be owned by at least one person. This does not mean that only this person contributes, but alongside other contributors, there should always be at least one defined owner.” - Roger Longden, OKR Specialist

Convert Company OKRs into Team OKRs

Now, rather than simply bequeathing your shiny new quarterly OKRs to each team, you should also take a bottom-up approach by asking teams to define how they can best contribute to achieving those OKRs. This will take a bit of back and forth between the leadership team and team members, but that discussion provides a crucial opportunity to bring up pain points and pertinent questions, as well as clear up any ambiguities. Still, do not dwell too long on the discussion. In our experience, it is a learning process and OKRs get better quarter by quarter as the company learns. Once that’s done, teams will be able to set their OKRs to fit their envisioned contribution. Usually, a team will have one and three team OKRs per quarter.

Identify interdependencies        

Once priorities have been identified at the team level, you should set up a meeting where all team managers present their team OKRs. The purpose of this meeting will be to create alignment of course, but also to identify if there are any overlaps or interdependencies between groups. Time and resources are limited, so it is important to openly communicate with other teams to ensure that they also have the capacity to contribute to others’ OKRs. During the meeting, it is also recommended to allocate resources where possible or find alternatives if these are limited.

Managers approve OKRs

To ensure there’s both vertical and horizontal alignment, we encourage team leads to discuss their OKRs with their direct managers to guarantee all parties are on board with the defined priorities for the quarter. Once OKRs are approved, the OKR lead can simply “activate” the OKR to indicate the OKR is ready and final.

Convert Team OKRs into Individual OKRs

Finally, we arrive at the smallest level of OKR setting - formulating individual OKRs, or in Talbit’s language, an employee’s Goals & Milestones, based on the aforementioned processes. You can implement these using the same methodology described in the company and team OKR setting: ask individuals what they can contribute to each team OKR. Providing a clear role for each team member helps them stay focused and motivated. In rare cases such as a special project, individual OKRs might align closely with a wider company objective rather than their team objective.

Company, Team, and Individual OKRs
Figure 3. Company, Team, and Individual OKRs

Track your OKRs regularly

“I believe a default-to-transparency approach is best so that all OKRs are visible to everybody but leaving the option to make one confidential if there is justification to do so.” - Roger Longden, OKR Specialist

Being able to track progress will make it easier to align OKRs at each company level and get a sense of the bigger picture. It is also noted that OKRs will not produce tangible results until a rhythm is established, so the focus shifts to ensuring people adhere to the established process and continue to progress week by week. More specifically, keeping goals updated on a (bi-)weekly basis will ensure that your execution remains healthy and will therefore increase your chances of success. 

Use bi-weekly sprint meetings to stay on top of progress

Bi-weekly sprint meetings can be an effective method for keeping everyone focused and on the same page, and allows teams to share any grievances or key learnings as they go. Managers can also discuss progress and responsibilities with their direct reports during 1:1s. In addition, senior-level meetings should be held every month to check the alignment and progress of all the OKRs. Indeed, in Google's younger days its co-founder Larry Page would spend two days every quarter to analyze and cross-reference the OKRs of each software engineer.

Progress can be tracked simply by attributing each OKR with a confidence status: is the OKR on track (green); does it need attention (amber), or is it actually off track (red)? The simplicity of this approach makes it easy to update on a weekly basis and to continuously evaluate and respond to short-term priorities. Finally, each OKR period should be concluded with a comprehensive review of both progress and process. How close did each team get to achieving their goal? Could the process have been more efficient and/or pain-free? What can we celebrate and keep doing; what needs to change? 

Quarterly All Hands meeting

Scheduling Quarterly All Hands meetings has several purposes:

All Hands Meeting
Figure 4. Five Purposes of All Hands Meeting

Quarterly All Hands meetings will also help you to continue to motivate your team and show them how their hard work is paying off. It will enforce alignment but most importantly, will continue to give every employee purpose and take pride in their hard work.

To conclude, it takes a well-defined plan to successfully roll out your OKR program. Structuring your OKR program, documenting the process, and communicating it will set the stage for the following months. This is the most important part because it’ll be your foundation, and if a foundation is not solid, the building typically collapses. Take your time and do not rush the process! #trusttheprocess

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