Our experience when we did OKRs for the first time

By on May 9, 2018

We’ve been consistently writing about the theory behind OKRs. Its benefits, advantages over traditional goal setting etc. Often, we’ve been getting requests for practical guidance in implementing OKRs. This article reflects on our experience of implementing OKRs the first time. To put it on record, we faced almost the same set of challenges as many other teams do. Namely,

  • Getting everyone on-board with the concept.
    • Everyone will ask questions like – now 70% is new 100%? Is it any different from the traditional way or is it just some kind of gimmick?
  • Ensuring that everyone understood their importance and implications.
    • This was a bit easier than the first one. But still needed a few face-2-face sessions with the team.
  • Finding a tool, that matched our needs.

Deployment Parameters

Given that we are an early stage start-up, it made a lot of sense to stick to the quarterly cadence. Thus, while our top level company goals were set for 6 months the team level OKRs were still timeboxed for a 3 month period. Right in the beginning, we made a conscious decision of making individual OKRs optional. What we meant by that was – we will create company & team OKRs, and then it will be up to the every team member as far as individual level goals go. The idea was to provide a guiding light to everyone through company & team OKRs. That would ensure each one of us is rowing in the same direction & also would not create a feeling of forced adoption.

But of course – there was a small twist. We encouraged each team member to put together a personal OKR that DOES NOT contribute to the company/team goals. These goals should help them to improve work-life balance. We get so lost in our professional lives that we hardly ever dedicate time to develop other skills or pursue any hobbies. Our assumption (which turned out to be correct) was, doing something like this would increase adoption in the long run.

Important take aways here:

  • Identify & agree upon a cadence for team & individual OKRs (ideally, both levels should have the same frequency)
  • Company OKRs, being strategic in nature can have different duration (typically, 6 months to 1 year)
  • For 1st time adoption, feel free to skip setting individual OKRs or make them optional
  • Tweak the process within the scope of the framework to increase adoption across the board (e.g. what we did with personal OKRs)

Agreeing upon Company OKRs

What next? We decided to focus radically on only one goal at the company level. All teams would support execution of this goal. Although there was a fair bit of clarity on what our short term goals were – we discussed, at length, the underlying thought process in an all hands meeting. One piece of fact that cannot be stressed enough – processes/frameworks, softwares/tools cannot replace team discussions. Rather, without these discussions your processes & tools would eventually fail. Remember the agile principle – ‘People over processes’

One of the common mistakes – to set the company OKRs in the board room & just pass them onto the team leads, managers. This will mean lack of buy-in from the entire team. And more often than not result in passive participation from them. Concluding with failure in substantial adoption.

Important take aways:

  • DO NOT finalise OKRs amongst the management team & then pass them down the hierarchy. It will backfire in the long run.
  • People over processes. Conduct face-2-face discussion with the entire team in attendance, for finalising the company OKRs. At least, the underlying thought process should be adequately discussed.

Team OKRs

Onus of identifying team priorities was on the leads & respective team members. Once finalised, they were listed in Employee Success.

Key take aways:

  • Keep the team OKRs public, so the efforts are not siloed. Teams & individuals know each others’ priorities.
  • Don’t try to ‘tightly couple’ team & company OKRs. Directional alignment is more important.
  • Let team members have significant say in finalising their team OKRs. This shouldn’t just be limited to the team leads & managers.

Slow & Steady

From experience, we knew that just setting the goals in a tool won’t really change much. Thus, regular progress updates were encouraged through KR punch-in reminders.

Only through regular updates & persistent discussions, did the sense of importance seep in.

Not only that, we conducted an anonymous survey to gauge what everyone felt about OKRs. The feedback was mixed, but more importantly everyone had a suggestion as to how we could improve the adoption further. This stands as a testament to the fact that people were really engaged, although the process was not a 100% success.

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