Chapter Five: How to get started with OKRs

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Even though the OKR framework looks simple, it’s easy to implement it wrong and not achieve the benefits.

Define the company purpose and vision

OKRs help companies achieve their goals, but OKRs would be useless if team members don’t know where the company is going. It should be not only about money. Having a higher purpose would allow each team member to align their efforts in the same direction.

Recommended reading: “Start with WHY”, Simon Sinek

Establish trust and psychological safety

OKRs won’t work unless you have a healthy culture inside the organization. Team members should trust that everyone is working towards common objectives, and not to get the biggest piece of the pie for themselves. Healthy culture would allow team members to give and accept constructive feedback, would encourage collaboration between team members and departments to achieve higher team OKRs (and not just individual).

Recommended reading: Google’s Project Aristotle

Top-management buy-in

OKRs won’t work if the organization doesn’t have the top-management (Board Members and all C-level) buy-in. The strategic OKRs and overall company direction come from them. And if they don’t give it enough focus and priority, the OKRs would be forgotten soon.

Conduct strategic session

To set and align the first OKRs it’s best to conduct strategic sessions among the company key people (up to 10 max). We also recommend to conduct it regularly every year and shorter version every cycle (quarter). During the strategic session you: 

  1. Review previous OKR progress;
  2. Discuss important issues/questions/important decisions, brainstorm strategy;
  3. Finalize and align the next cycle OKRs;

Recommended reading: HBR on Strategic meeting

Assign an OKRs master

When something is everyone’s responsibility, it is no one’s responsibility. The OKRs master would be responsible for making sure the OKRs are implemented correctly. Think about him/her as a Scrum Master for agile teams.

The role of the OKRs master is to:

  1. Ensure the team follows OKRs format and best practices;
  2. Mentors team members on OKR process;
  3. Helps team members set and sync OKRs;
  4. Monitor the process, reminds about the most important activities.

Communicate regularly

Set up regular OKRs review meetings and communicate OKRs regularly. Weekly or bi-weekly meetings are just fine to sync about OKRs and resolve blockers. They should be quick and effective (like scrum stand-ups). Not all team members should be required to participate in such meetings (but recommended).

OKRs methodology for early-stage startups

While the big companies that successfully adopt the OKR methodology, early-stage startups operate in a different environment. For early-stage startups before the Product/Market Fit the main goal is learning and iterating. It’s harmful to them to prematurely optimize any processes, as they are not sure yet if the process is the right one at all. That’s why some people argue that OKRs work only for 25+ people teams, and only after the Product/Market fit. For example, Andrew Chen, an investor at Andreessen Horowitz, claims that “OKRs are almost certainly harmful for pre-P/M fit startups.” 

But is it true? Which of the OKR principles early-stage startups don’t want to have? Don’t they want to have transparency around the ambitious goals? Don’t they want to measure their progress? Don’t they want to allow autonomy (even for small teams below 10 people)? I believe that NO. Any size of the organization would want to have the benefits of the OKRs. The only problem with the standard OKR methodology for early-stage startups I see — that quarterly OKR cycle is too big for the startup. And it seems to be the only objection of Andrew Chen as well.

Here are some tips on how to adopt OKRs for the pre-Product/Market Fit startups based on my experience working with startups at Uptech

Use shorter cycles

Even as small as 2 weeks if needed. Startup priorities might indeed change fast. But you need at least some level of certainty before turning your ship around. 

Be ok to terminate the cycle and the current Objectives 

If you figure out the new info and you want to pivot immediately — that’s ok for startups. But likely you won’t do it too often. It would still be best for your team to finish the goals in most cases and measure the outcome. So that you make data-informed decisions. Unless you finish your iteration and measure the results, you might be repeating the same activities and mistakes. 

Focus on learning and validating hypothesis

For early-stage startups, you’d best set OKRs that would allow you to validate your hypothesis as fast as possible. Such Key Results as “talk to customers” or “conduct user interview” would help you do the right thing in your startup. 

Having these Objectives written down would help you maintain focus and NOT do the other less-important things. And maintaining focus is essential for startups. So that you don’t end up endlessly polishing your MVP with “just this last small improvement.” The proper time-bound goals would help you stay on track and focus on what matters.

Some might argue that if you make these changes, it’s no longer OKRs. Well, where is the holy unbreakable definition of OKRs? Even organizations that preach OKRs don’t use them in the same manner. In Google, every team adopts the methodology for their needs. As long as the main principles are maintained, it is still the same methodology. 

Again, OKR is just a framework that should only be used if it helps. In case you’re a 3-people startup, sit in the same space and feel like you’re all on the same page — you probably don’t need OKRs. But as soon as you think that your team might be more focused and aligned — OKRs will help you, regardless of the size of your organization.

Keep Reading:

Chapter Four: OKR ExamplesChapter Six: Common OKR mistakes

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