You Have OKRs. Now How Do You Actually Complete Them?

Taking steps towards your destination: much easier on a mountain than in a startup.

An eight-step process for connecting OKR tasks into your calendar and ensuring they get done, plus a shared spreadsheet to help you do it

Thanks to Google — and ultimately to the late, great Andy Grove — lots of startup founders use the system of objectives and key results (OKRs) to focus on what’s most important and to get stuff done.

But there’s a problem. Many founders find that using OKRs for setting objectives is one thing, but actually achieving them is another. “My upcoming week is pretty full,” said Helena, one of the Series A CEOs I coach. “Today I’ve got four one-on-ones, two team meetings, and a board call to prepare for. I don’t know where my time goes, but somehow I feel I’m not actually spending it on what’s important.”

The same thing happened to me in my work as a VC: I was repeatedly getting only a low percentage of my OKRs done.

The underlying causes became visible only after looking back on the past month or quarter, and analysing how my working time was spent. I’d allowed inbound demands on my time to take precedence, and had often chosen easy wins like clearing my email over what was most important.

‘Inbox zero’ is good discipline, but won’t build you a unicorn by itself

For me, the journey to solving for me started with Stephen Covey’s metaphor of ‘big rocks’. The idea is that if you’ve need to fill a big glass jar with a mix of rocks, gravel and sand, you’ll get more in if you put the rocks in first, then drizzle gravel into the gaps, and finally pour in the sand. If the sand goes in first — in the form of email, phone calls, meetings, random questions from your reports — there will be no room for the rocks.

The rocks, when you use an OKR system, are the tasks that will achieve your key results. Those tasks cascade down to departments and then individuals in the company — because by definition, those are the things you’ve decided must achieve even if everything else drops off the bottom of the list.

Over time, I’ve evolved a way of connecting those tasks to my daily work that has helped me sharply raise the percentage of my key results that get achieved. Since I haven’t seen anyone else do this, I thought it might be helpful to share how it works.

1. First, translate your key results into tasks

Some KRs are done by definition when a single task is complete. Others translate into a handful of tasks. So if the key result is hiring a VP sales, then the tasks required to achieve it might be: design the hiring process; set up software to manage it; write the job spec and share on social media; do 15-minute screening calls with 16 candidates; do one-hour in-person interviews with five candidates; and do three 20-minute calls with the successful candidate to negotiate their terms. Once you have a list of tasks, write down how many hours each task will take. Most people, like me, are ‘time optimists’; bear this in mind when estimating, but don’t worry too much because you’ll be able to correct this later.

2. Next, work out how much time you have available

You might you have eight, ten, or twelve hours a day to work on your key results in the coming month or quarter. But you don’t. Many of those inbound demands on your time are important things that can’t be neglected. So you need to make a reasonable estimate of how many hours a day you have available, after dealing with all those things. Figure out how many working days you have in the coming month or quarter (exclude conferences, off-sites, public holidays, work travel, vacations and other days out of the office). Then multiply the net days by the available hours per day. That tells you how many hours in total you really have to work on your OKRs.

3. Now take a reality check

Is the number of hours required for the tasks on your list less than the number of hours you actually have available? If it is, then your chance of hitting your key results is approximately zero, unless you find a way to go without sleep or suddenly become twice as productive as you’ve ever been in your life. So go back to the OKRs, and prune the list back to what’s achievable. Don’t worry, if you turn out to be Superman after all, you can add some more tasks later.

4. Put the tasks in your calendar.

Once you have a realistic list of tasks, pruned back to the time you actually have available, you have a daunting to-do list. But one small thing can can make that list seem suddenly manageable: you can actually put the tasks into your calendar as if they were appointments. So you might schedule setting up the hiring process for two hours starting 11am on Monday, the job spec for two hours from 2pm on Tuesday, the screening calls for four hours split over two slots on successive days the following week, the interviews for 9am every day of the week after that, and calls with the successful candidate for 530pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday of the final week of the month. Whatever.

The key point is that the tasks are now in your diary. Now, instead of having a terrifyingly big and complex project to achieve, you’ve simply got to do each day whatever is in your calendar for that day. And if someone asks you for help on something, or an interesting opportunity comes up, you’ll have to face the fact that accepting the request will stop you from doing the task you had planned to work on, and so your key result won’t get achieved unless you find some other place in your calendar to put it.

5. Resist the temptation to postpone

Some of the tasks will be easy to stick to (like a scheduled call, where there’s moral pressure from the other person to show up). Others (like writing without interruption) will be tempting to postpone, and in the past you’ve often allowed more urgent but less important things to be scheduled on top.

Here’s what I try to say to myself when faced with these temptations. Learning to be effective at work is all about learning how to let decisions be made by the ‘future you’, who wants what’s best for you in the long term, over the ‘present you’, who wants to lie in bed, eat cookies and waste time on social media.

To be effective, let decisions be made by the ‘future you’, not the ‘present you’

You’ve put the tasks for your OKRs into your calendar for a reason: you’ve decided that if you do nothing else this month or this quarter, you definitely want to do those things. Now what happens when a meeting request comes in? Many startup founders assume that if a client or investor proposes a meeting time, they’ve got to treat it as a take-it-or-leave-it. In fact, if you ask nicely to do it at another time, they’re often able to meet at another time.

So you need to distinguish between competing claims on your time. Some have a mixture of urgency and importance that truly takes priority (such as dropping everything to convince a valued team member who’s received an outside job offer to stay). Others don’t. Ask yourself how this competing claim rates against your original plan, and write down the answer.

6. Keep a record of when you miss your OKR tasks

In cases where you can’t give priority to the future you, then edit the missed appointment for the task to start with ‘ND’, meaning not done, so you can easily see at the end of each week which OKR tasks you missed, and then reschedule them. I use Zapier to put all those appointments tagged with ND into a spreadsheet so I can track progress in the never-ending battle between the present and future mes.

7. Check in on your OKRs at the end of each week

Update your list to show which tasks have been achieved and how close you came to sticking to your schedule. When you do, you may get an unpleasant surprise, and suddenly realise that the tasks you scheduled and the OKRs they represented don’t seem right any more. That’s all right; maybe your first cut wasn’t sufficiently considered, and the combination of new information plus time to reflect has changed your mind. View the process as a reality check, and if you make a change to the OKRs or the tasks, write down what change you made and why you did it. As you do this more regularly and reliably, you’ll get more better at it.

The weekly check and review of the tasks that you promised yourself you would do but actually marked as not done also forces you in real time to face your own inability to stick to your commitments. This is uncomfortable, but no bad thing. And sometimes, with increasing frequency if you stick to this process, it gives you a little reward — a tiny dopamine hit for completing a few tasks, and hitting an objective. This helps give you focus and energy to stick to your commitments.

8. Review your OKRs at the end of each cycle

At the end of each OKR cycle, whether it’s monthly or quarterly, go back and review how you did, focusing on what percent done each key result is and what the total achievement rate is across everything. I’ve written a separate blog post outlining how to do this.

As part of my OKR process, I created a Google sheet to help with steps 1 to 4, which automatically calculates available time for the cycle, checks the tasks needed for OKRs against that time, and keeps track of which tasks have been put in the calendar. It also makes it easier to add tasks at the start of the month, since you can copy-paste them straight from the sheet into calendar appointments. Finally, it makes it easier at the end of the month to calculate what percent of the key results have been achieved. At the end of each cycle, I copy/paste-values the current OKR sheet into a new tab, so that I can look back on the archive over time. If you want to test-drive the sheet, it’s here.

About me

I’m Tim, and I run a seed fund out of London that invests in SAAS, platforms, marketplaces and tools. I’ve backed 50 companies and sat on 19 boards, and I also coach Series A and B CEOs introduced by VC firms in Europe, America and Asia. Previously, I founded a startup and took it to an IPO on the NASDAQ, and before that worked for The Economist and the Financial Times.

Lessons From Startup CEOs is a series of blog posts covering nine of the most important skills I’ve seen in founders who are most successful in scaling their companies. If you’d like to read more of them, please follow.

Image credit: Lucas Favre