“OKRs have helped lead us to 10x growth, many times over. They’ve helped make our crazily bold mission of ‘organizing the world’s information’ perhaps even achievable. They’ve kept me and the rest of the company on time and on track when it mattered the most.”
- Larry Page, Co-Founder of Google.
“Don’t quote Google, tell me about some real companies who have succeeded with OKRs!” lamented the COO of a leading venture-funded scale-up. ‘“Well, Google has room for experimentation and discretionary budgets for innovative ideas,” he opined. Indeed, John Doerr and Google have made OKRs very sexy. They are the trailblazers for many start-ups, and mid-sized and large enterprises to emulate.
Everyone needs a role model, a first successful mover, and it’s no different for OKRs. The good news is there are thousands of companies across the globe who have not only adopted but also sustained OKRs to drive business velocity.
They are a strategy to execution framework that helps companies rally teams around the MOST strategic business priorities. Remember, they are written as Teams, rather than individuals. If practiced right, they align teams to company-specific outcomes, with razor-sharp focus, to get teams to row in the same direction. OKRs borrow heavily from agile, and weekly checkpoints help teams stay on course.
Fatal flaws around OKRs could be: companies having a half-hearted executive sponsor commitment or a company culture that is averse to experimentation or sustaining OKRs with a strong cadence.
Having worked with thousands of teams, having a deep analysis of 40,000+ OKRs on our OKRs software, and learning from 10,000+ coaching hours placed by OKR coaches, we have learned a thing or two about what makes OKRs tick.
Let’s take the metaphorical Trojan horse. You would know the story of the hollow wooden horse that was used to charade Greek soldiers as they entered the impenetrable gates of Troy, to seek revenge for the abduction of milady, Helen of Troy. The legend we know led to a bloodbath, with Achilles placing his heels too close to the fire. The strategy was clear - and the execution, well, flawless.
OKRs is a strategy execution framework and not a replacement for strategy. A strong set of priorities such as, “Where should we play? For whom? Which markets? What’s our strong differentiation?” are questions best answered before adopting OKRs.
Companies that have a clear strategy write OKRs with ease. Objective statements are the broad qualitative statements, which tell us “What exactly are we trying to accomplish?” in 90 days (if written by start-ups), or in 6 months or 12 months (if written by mid to large enterprises).
Verbs/Phrases which are most often used in crafting company Objectives are emphatic and inspirational:
Grow like never before…
Launch and Scale …
Activate our GTM…
Place transformational bets…
Deliver Customer Experience…
Increase financial efficiency…
Each Objective statement is concluded with a clear business value.
In the context of Team OKRs, the Objective statements were specific to how the team strategized to achieve or move a company's Key Result.
Implement a systems-driven approach to…
Double down on our Inbound strategy...
Automate our processes…
Objective statements conclude with a clear business value.
The Fitbots OKRs writing assistant kid gloves a newbie to OKRs, prompting one to follow a step by step formula led approach to writing a high quality Objective and KR. Try it for free here.
Think about OKRs more like spearfishing rather than casting a net, helping organizations focus on the vital few metrics, rather than the trivial many. Picking the right metrics is one of the most critical steps in OKR writing, and that too is bi-directionally aligned KRs. Rather than focusing on lag indicators or the usual suspects, it’s the lead indicators that create the much-needed impact.
While start-ups and scale-ups set 3 Objectives followed by 3-5 KRs, we did find that enterprises set 4-6 Objectives followed by 5-7 Key Results. Although less is always more in OKRs, enterprises usually transition from other management/goal management frameworks to OKRs and tend to take more OKRs - at least in the first year.
Irrespective of size or scale, we did see a mindful selection of OKRs to focus on leverage points. For instance, a SaaS start-up that is an online ordering platform for restaurants focused on the speed and seamlessness of onboarding of restaurants in specific cities.
For an FMCG major that had a presence across 4 continents, the growth in specific high-performing and high potential categories was called out in the OKRs.
What are these types of Key Results? Well, the Milestone KRs are more project-like, they are probably also formed with a specific date of completion in mind. They might sometimes seem like tasks, but when you look closely, they require cross-functional teams to come together to be achieved.
In our analysis, it was not surprising that 90% of Sales and marketing teams were metric-focused, moving the needle from X to Y. For instance, Increasing demos in Region A from X to Y, Reducing CAC from USD X to Y, or Increasing MQLs accepted by Sales from X to Y.
However, teams that did take Milestone-based Key Results placed importance on setting the process right, which in turn became the foundation for scaling customer acquisition. For instance: Launch our new sales playbook’ or ‘Implement CRM system by <Date>.
Product and Engineering teams did have more Milestone-based KRs as opposed to metric-based KRs. As teams progressed on OKRs writing, we noticed metric-based KRs around increasing onboarding experience from X to Y, Reduction of bugs from X to Y, and more being considered as Key Results.
OKRs are, of course, contextual to the business model and the industry.
“So, how many teams actually achieve OKRs?” A question asked by a skeptical business leader of a company that was about to introduce OKRs. “Well it depends on your teams, their capabilities, how collaborative they are…” would have been the expected reply. But our response is more like Yoda's instead, “The greatest teacher failure is.”
OKRs are aspirational. They help teams dream about a bright and best-in-class future. There’s no crystal ball here. However, we do not leave it to serendipity either.
The pace of OKRs can also help predict achievement before the end of the quarter. Companies that have a greater appetite for experiments, flourish with OKRs. One begets the other.
So who actually owns OKRs? - because, well, it can’t be everybody! Teams select their OKRs, and connect and align to company strategic Key Results and bi-directionally to other teams. Each Key Result must have an owner and each initiative that moves a KR forward must have an owner.
Owning more than 5 Key Results for direct execution and 5 Milestone KRs will become overwhelming in a 90-day cadence, as seen in many organizations.
Having co-owners for OKRs is not uncommon. In about 10% of our OKRs, we do see 4-5 owners for a specific Key Result, but this can dilute pinning accountability.
In conclusion, OKRs are not a magic bullet to business problems but enable their achievement at a fastidious pace when seasoned with collaboration. OKRs can help people distinguish between missions and goals. “A mission is directional,” wrote Bill Gates. “An objective has a set of concrete steps that you’re intentionally engaged in and actually trying to go far.” Aye!
Vidya Santhanam is the Co-Founder of Fitbots OKRs. Having coached 600+ teams, and conducted 1000+ check-in meetings, Vidya likes writing about Metrics, high performance, and leadership.
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