My Experience with OKRs

I first encountered the strategic planning methodology, Objectives and Key Results (OKRs for short) about two and a half years ago at Gust. At the time, we were a very capable team that was proficient at shipping high-quality software. However, there were several instances where we would encounter decision paralysis because we knew where we wanted the company to be long-term but had countless ways we thought we could go about getting there. We had a medium-term goal problem. ‌

To solve this, one of our senior engineers advocated that we try to implement OKRs. He had found the methodology helpful with our dev ops team and thought the rest of the company should adopt it. The following are some of my personal reflections implementing OKRs in an organization. ‌

Brief Overview of OKRs

OKRs are a strategic planning and goal setting methodology used by some of the biggest tech companies, Google being the most famous. John Doerr in his book Measure What Matters shows through a series of anecdotes how some of the most successful organizations over the past 50 years have used OKRs to drive company success. I didn’t realize until after talking to several other tech professionals how ubiquitous it seems to be. ‌

An “Objective” is a significant, concrete, action-oriented, and inspirational statement of what needs to be achieved. A “Key Result” are the benchmarks and metrics to determine how to tell if the objective is being met. Ideally, KRs should be specific and time-bound balancing being aggressive and realistic. Each level of the organization will set their own OKRs getting increasingly specific going down the chain. ‌

Doerr explains that by successfully implementing OKRs in an organization, it should receive these 4 “superpowers.”‌

  1. They allow the entire company/team to focus and commit to priorities.
  2. The company can align around the OKRs and connect for better teamwork to achieve each objective.
  3. A better, more granular way, of tracking progress and holding teams accountable to meet their objectives.
  4. Organizations can “stretch for amazing” by allowing teams to be more creative and ambitious.

Perhaps my favorite quote from Measure What Matters that encapsulates OKRs is, “when people help choose a course of action, they are more likely to see it through.”‌

Implementation

Sounds pretty easy right? Wrong! ‌

As an organization, we found it very challenging to come up with our company-wide objectives. In trying to fashion the perfect objectives to precisely encapsulate what we wanted to accomplish over the course of a quarter, we quickly got mired in details and semantics. We spent hours as a company fashioning our objectives. What’s more, when we were ready to determine our KRs for those objectives, we didn’t actually track anything in a way to easily visualize our progress towards some of those objectives. ‌

Also, we found it challenging to set the appropriate objectives at each level of the organization. Initially, some of our company objectives really were more similar to specific feature and product development decisions. Once a company objective was that specific, each team in the company would then essentially just copy the company objective as their own objective. It all kind of added up to be a bit of excess planning. ‌

I think what frustrated me the most was how at times it all could seem like a game to advocate for the initiatives and product work any individual thought was more important. Our early process had a few instances of gamesmanship where previous disagreements and misalignments were just now being masked in OKR lingo. I didn’t like it at first because it seemed more about how well you could play the OKR game rather than creating mutual team alignment that could focus and empower everyone’s efforts. It seemed too easy to conflate the OKR process with trying to set and establish the product roadmap. I felt that the OKR process was coopting a little too much the separate product roadmap exercise. ‌

It took a few tries

It took us about three quarters to get into the OKR groove. We learned from past frustrating conversations how to set better OKRs that were appropriate for each level of the company. We learned to harness aspirational vs. committed KRs to provide even further focus on the decisions we were going to make over that quarter. Slowly we stopped fighting against the process and started to see how the methodology was helping us have a clearer sense of what we were trying to accomplish and how our weekly efforts were contributing to our objectives. ‌

Further, our meetings got shorter because we all knew what had to be done and how we would measure it. Each individual contributor was empowered to act on their own discretion because we all had a shared sense of what things were most impactful to the business. Finally, good ideas came faster and from places a few quarters before they would not have. OKRs gave us the tools to build towards our goals with a shared purpose. ‌

Conclusion

After experiencing both very effective and ineffective OKRs processes, I am a proponent of using OKRs to set strategic priorities. It creates a good balance of where you want to end up while keeping everyone honest about metrics that need to be hit to achieve the objectives. I would definitely encourage any company or organization that is searching for ways to set better goals to start with OKRs. It might take a little time to adjust and start reaping the benefits, but when it does it is well worth it.