The Simple Way to Implement OKRs in Your Scaleup

Katy TrostFuture of Work

OKRs are the tool helps teams and individuals set ambitious goals with measurable results and track progress towards them. Image courtesy of Mameraman via Shutterstock.

Katy Trost is one of The Org's Expert Contributors. She is a leading coach to tech CEOs and Founders, at Series A stage and beyond. She specializes in effective leadership skills, and implementing systems for scaling organizations.

What are OKRs

OKR stands for “Objectives and Key results', Google’s collaborative goal setting system which is now used by companies across all industries. The tool helps teams and individuals set ambitious goals with measurable results and track progress towards them.

The concept was first developed by Andy Grove in the 70s and became popular when John Doerr introduced it to Google in the 90s.

John Doerr’s OKR formular is the following:

I will (Objective) as measured by (set of Key Results).

The Objective (“What”) is a strategic, qualitative theme with multiple Key Results (“Hows”), metrics or measurable milestones that ultimately lead to achieving the overarching goal. OKRs are usually set annually for the company - in alignment with it’s long-term strategy - and quarterly for the company, each department, teams, and individuals - in alignment with annual company OKRs.

For more details about the OKR system, visit WhatMatters.com and watch John Doerr’s Ted Talk.

Why are OKRs useful

Organizations using the OKR framework benefit from its impact on business performance and company culture. OKRs create focus, accountability, transparency and alignment. With a top-down/bottom-up approach, they tap into the wisdom of employees, encourage collaboration, and help them understand exactly how their actions contribute to the company’s long-term vision. Giving people the autonomy to set their own goals improves engagement and productivity.

OKRs simplify and communicate company objectives clearly and consistently, aligning goals throughout the entire organization. They help everyone focus on high-impact activities that move the needle forward and provide transparency, everyone knows what others are currently working towards.

What’s important to consider

OKRs do not replace KPIs (critical numbers that measure performance of departments and individuals). OKRs and KPIs are two completely different “buckets” that require separate execution time and reporting (meetings).

  • KPIs - tactical, operational, urgent, working IN the company
  • OKRs - strategic, important, working ON the company (senior leadership should be doing lots of this)

OKRs also don’t replace SMART goal setting. Key Results are most practical when set SMART(-ly).

OKRs are not tasks or activities, they are measurable outcomes that give clarity on what action steps should be taken every week.

OKRs can be vertical (departments) or horizontal (cross-functional). Make sure to assign an owner to every single Key Result who is responsible for tracking progress and finding ways to achieve the desired outcome.

Frequent progress check-ins help with driving execution. Weekly team meetings and 121s will help everyone stay on track with common and individual goals.

Set no more than 3-5 Objectives with 3-5 Key Results each for the company, departments, and individuals. Prioritize the most pressing challenges and opportunities. No “nice-to-haves”. Only “musts... or else”.

Make it SIMPLE. One of the biggest mistakes executive teams make is to overcomplicate everything related to strategy. If people don’t understand what’s important and what’s expected from them, it’s impossible for them to deliver. Confusion is the greatest enemy of execution (this is relevant to anything else discussed in the boardroom). Don’t spend days and days setting your OKRs - remember, you can only address the MOST pressing issues - and these are most likely obvious to everyone involved in the OKR progress.

Yes, OKRs are possible for every single department, not only engineering teams. Use common sense to adjust the system to your business (industry, size, structure, culture). Different departments have different types of measurements.

Don’t do it alone, creating your team's OKRs for the sake of saving time. Instead, involve your team! Remember, the most important outcome is buy-in - which is gained in the process, not the end result. That’s why a top-down (providing clarity on the “What”) / bottom-up (giving autonomy of the “How”) always wins.

OKR Examples

Company Objective

Improve company culture

  • Key Result: Employee recruitment process standardized and used across the company
  • Key Result: Employee on-boarding process and new starter guide / employee handbook
  • Key Result: Update policies (holiday, etc.) - structured HR / staff benefits
  • Key Result: Clarity on people’s roles - create responsibility Scorecards
  • Key Result: Quarterly staff event
  • Key Result: Implement NPS and keep score above 8

Marketing objective

Increase brand awareness

  • Key Result: Drive 1M web visitors
  • Key Result: Increase social media following by 10x
  • Key Result: Recruit and onboard 1,000 community members

Find more OKR examples here.

Setting OKRs with your executive team

Session 1 - Setting the foundation

Two hours with the executive team (this can also be part of your quarterly Strategy Day)

  • Update core and long-term strategy - I like to use the OPSP™ with my clients
  • Update AORs (department responsibilities) and responsibility Scorecards (for executives) and clarify reporting lines (Org structure).
  • Identifying or update 2-3 critical numbers (KPIs) for each department (= critical numbers / KPIs for executive Scorecards)
  • Mine for top issues / opportunities as a team (executives identify top three issues / opportunities and provide suggested solutions for each of them. Write them down and share around the table. Make a list of everything. This is unstructured brainstorming)

Assignment (if session is not part of the Strategy Day): Executives update responsibility Scorecards with their teams - cascading and clarifying responsibilities of individuals.

Session 2 - OKR session

Two hours with the executive team (again, this can also be part of your quarterly Strategy Day)

  • Set 3-5 company OKRs for the year and then 3-5 company OKRs for the quarter (based on top issues / opportunities)
  • Set 3-5 quarterly OKRs for each department (based on quarterly company OKRs plus 1-2 “local OKRs” - objectives relevant to the department but not reflected in company objectives).
  • Prioritize monthly objectives for each departments (simply highlight which objectives will be addressed in the first month)

Assignment (if session is not part of the Strategy Day):

  • Executives help their teams set individual quarterly OKRs (based on quarterly department OKRs plus 1-2 “local OKRs” - objectives relevant to the individual but not reflected in department objectives).
  • Individuals prioritize monthly objectives (individuals)

Create a shared Google Sheet, Google Doc, or use a software like Monday.com, Asana, or AlignToday.com.

Session 3 - OKR execution and accountability

Two hours with the executive team (again, this can also be part of your quarterly Strategy Day)

  • Individuals schedule appropriate weekly OKR blocks in their calendar to execute OKRs (depending on the nature of the role, this can be anywhere between 2 hours (front-line) - 8h (senior management) per week.
  • Schedule weekly team OKR meetings (this is a 60-90 min strategic meeting that addresses progress on OKRs, collective issue resolution, and important team discussions). Review and update the OKR tracker with weekly actions (sheet, doc, software, in this meeting). Managers have TWO of these per week (one with their peers, and one with their teams). Don’t worry, this meeting will help eliminate lot’s of ad-hoc communication throughout the week.
  • Schedule weekly 1-2-1s with direct reports - these 30 min meetings are both operational and strategic. Direct reports give updates on their OKR progress, as well as tactical to-dos, any issues they encounter, and feedback. This meeting focuses on the individual, their goals, development, and engagement. Find out more about why that’s so important.

Here, a detailed meeting agenda to use.

Assignment (if session is not part of the Strategy Day): Implement weekly team meetings and 121s, schedule OKR time into your calendar and help your team do the same.

Assignments (ONLY IN CASE everything above was part of a quarterly Strategy Day):

  • Executives update responsibility Scorecards with their teams - cascading and clarifying responsibilities of individuals. then
  • Executives help their teams set individual quarterly OKRs (based on quarterly department OKRs plus 1-2 “local OKRs” - objectives relevant to the individual but not reflected in department objectives).
  • Individuals prioritize monthly objectives (individuals) then
  • Implement weekly team meetings and 121s, schedule OKR time into your calendar and help your team do the same.

If you have any questions about implementing OKRs in your company, don’t hesitate to reach out at katy@katytrost.com.

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