How my company implemented OKRs

Lluis Ingles
Jan 13, 2019 · 9 min read

In this article, I will explain a practical case in which OKRs were implemented in a company where most of its employees were not familiar with this framework, and used their own resources to achieve their goals. This draws from a years’ experience using OKRs.

I will start briefly explaining what OKRs are — it will be succinct as there is a lot of information available and my aim is to explain how to implement them in a real case scenario.

O — Objectives
K — Key
R — Results

According to Wikipedia: “Objectives and key results (OKR) is a framework for defining and tracking objectives and their outcomes”.

John Doerr popularised this term when he transferred his knowledge from Intel to Google, where it became popular, and other companies such as LinkedIn, Zynga, Twitter and Uber have been using it ever since.

As mentioned, my goal is not to explain what OKRs are –there are many articles and books for this purpose– but to show you how to implement them in an organisation. However, I’d like to recommend the following resources as further reading on the topic and the concepts involved:

Books

Measure What Matters: OKRs: The Simple Idea that Drives 10x Growth
Author: John Doerr

Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results
Author: Christina Wodtke

Articles

The Art of the OKR

The Guide to Company Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

Videos

Startup Lab workshop: How Google sets goals: OKRs

What is Social and Beyond? About this company

“Social and Beyond brings technology together to turn the Wi-Fi network into a powerful marketing tool by creating a link between free-access Wi-Fi networks and their users.”

I joined the team in April 2017 as a CTO with the aim to strengthen the technical team to help deliver projects that were in progress, but my role extended to other functions, as you will see.

I found that, despite being a small company of about 25 employees, the communication between departments was very limited and poor. Developments were ordered by a particular team and, once delivered to production, it turned out that they were not needed. A lot of time and effort were devoted to tasks that did not bring any value to the client or end user.

All in all, each team was heading in its own direction and without a clear goal uniting them.

My previous job was at Trovit, where I learned a huge amount and it was precisely there where I found out about OKRs and, honestly, once I became accustomed to it, working in an organised manner using any another way felt less successful. Trovit had about 100 employees back then and each team set its OKRs each quarter, while these were aligned with the company’s overall goals.

As a tech lead at Trovit, it was very easy to use OKRs, as I only had to focus on designing them for my team — much work was already done!

However, at Social and Beyond, the challenge was enormous. We did not have a company mission or vision, all teams presumed they were the most important one and nothing was followed up. The technology team had completely different goals every week and people were very under-motivated.

It was clear that it could be a great opportunity to help implement what I had learned at Trovit through OKRs.

Preparation and implementation

It was obvious that the way in which we were working was sub-optimal and there was much room for improvement. It was not about the team itself or how good they were at their work — instead, we were losing out due to poor organisation. It is often said that when someone comes from outside, without a contaminated vision, it is easy for them to identify these shortcomings.

It was evident to me that there was no way that could work — as I was used to working with OKRs, it seemed obvious they should be implemented here too, but the challenge was to transfer them to the company and that everyone would be willing to embrace them.

The first thing to do was talk to the board of directors about it to so that they could understand the need for a better organisation, which had to be interdepartmental, and that everyone comprehended that we had to work together. The key to OKRs is not only that it guides you and gives you focus towards a particular goal, but it does so with total transparency where any member of the team knows and understands the goals of all other teams.

To do this, the most helpful thing in these instances and possibly in all cases, is the data. To be able to check with numbers where we stand in terms of the delivery of a product and the time spent, and to compare it with previous deliveries, gives a clear vision of where we are today and the extent of the challenges faced.

The company always wants to improve and obtain a greater yield, so it’s relatively easy to show that we need to implement a methodology or framework that helps us in this regard — especially when underperformance is brought to the fore.

More lines could be devoted to the topic of working with a vision and mission — as you know, there are a lot of articles and books and I wouldn’t want to bore you with this. I would only like to emphasise that it is very important to set a mission as we will build upon it to work with OKRs.

The last thing to do now is to explain to the board of directors what OKRs are and how to apply them. The key is to have done all the work beforehand and anticipate all kinds of questions such as: “Why can we not work on more goals?” or “What happens if I want to change the goal in the middle of the quarter?”

Everyone can take part and their ideas are key to setting the goals

Before any endeavour to explain OKRs to the team, it is a good practice to have them participate in the definition of the future goals and to do so, there is nothing better than working sessions where they give ideas or suggest improvements for our products.

This is perhaps one of the most magical moments, where you realise that everyone is keen to suggest improvements — when they are offered the opportunity to do so, you really see the team’s potential and you realise that it is they themselves that make the company grow. People are the most valuable asset!

How to set OKRs

As it is a framework, it must help us to outline the rules that everyone can understand and follow.

  • Company goals are shared with everyone
  • OKRs are effective quarterly
  • Each team will have a maximum of 3 goals each quarter
  • Each goal will have a maximum of 3 key results
  • It will be monitored monthly and goals that are met will be presented to all
  • We must meet a minimum of 70% of each goal

Goals must be aspirational — the team must work hard on this aspect and make each goal their own while seeking full commitment to achieve it.

The key results linked to each goal must be measurable or quantitative. They can be of a binary type –achieved or not achieved– or rated 0 to 100, for example, where we can measure performance every month.

We can measure them based on growth, engagement, revenue, performance, and quality.

Setting up the teams

Teams must be self-sufficient and large enough to be able to achieve their OKRs.

One of the main problems of any organisation, large or small, is interlinked goals that are dependent on each other goals, which often exist and must be seen as a challenge when it comes to achieving company goals.

In small companies such as Social and Beyond (25 employees), communication and the resolution of conflicting goals should be straightforward. To help with this aspect, each team will have a “lead” figure. The “lead” will be the person who will talk with the other teams to help resolve issues and prioritise work to achieve the goals.

Once a week, a meeting will be held with all team leads taking part.

Each team sets each quarter’s OKRs based on company goals, so the team is responsible for them and engages with what needs to be done in the following 3 months.

Each team can work as they wish in order to achieve their OKRs. For example, at the technology team, we applied SCRUM with our Jira dashboard, but other teams did it with Trello or even some used spreadsheets. OKRs serve as guidance and point at what we need to focus on during those 3 months, but the particular actions and how the team meets the goals are up to the team itself.

Marking all events on the calendar

The forthcoming days and months are marked in the calendar for the whole company — in this way we can forecast appropriately the following events:

  • A week devoted to the setting of the current quarter’s team OKRs
  • The last day of each month in which goals that are met will be presented to all
  • Global assessment at the end of the quarter in which challenges for the following quarter will be explained
  • A week devoted to the setting of team OKRs for the following quarter
  • Weekly meeting with each “lead”

Tools

As always, less is more, and in this regard, the simpler the tool we use to stay focused on goals, the better for us.

We take advantage of GSuite so that we all have access to the spreadsheet, which allows us to share it with everyone and make it editable by the “leads” of each team — great!

A spreadsheet available to the whole company is created, which should include as many tabs as the teams we have. Each team must set their OKRs so that everyone can see what team A or team B are doing at all times.

Here you can see the template we use, which consists of 7 columns: Objectives, Key Results, Weight, Accomplishment, Month 1, Month 2, Month 3.

The “Weight” column allows us to set the most important goals for different reasons, for instance: the client expects a delivery during the first month of the quarter, or it has priority so that other goals can be met.

A follow-up is done each month and its value is logged in the corresponding column for the current month. Then this will be automatically calculated in “Accomplishment”.

Feedback

After a full year –therefore four completed quarters using OKRs within the company–, the team results and feedback are very positive.

Obviously, the first quarter is the trickiest, as everybody must make an effort to understand and be willing to apply them because it is a cultural change. Improvements are visible from the second quarter onwards.

One of the key outcomes after using this framework is work focus. Everyone in the company knows where their efforts are placed and there is no change of direction. This allows teams to become organised and independent, and therefore they are committed to the goals and the company.

We have learned to say NO to certain projects to be able to focus on those to which we have committed. To recognise that you cannot have it all is perhaps the most difficult exercise for a company, but reality is always more challenging than we would like. OKRs allow for transparency and visibility among teams, so it also helps to see the capacity of a team for delivery, and based on that, we will have to rule out projects simply because there is no time to do them. When the decision to say NO is made, then the company understands that we must value that we are aware of what our company does best, and what customers and users will use or buy.

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