The OKR Journey: a guide for adoption
In 2014 I started helping companies adopt OKR, transforming how they set goals. Since the beginning I had a few questions on my mind:
- What is the best approach for implementing OKR, especially for companies outside Silicon Valley?
- How do you use OKR at scale?
- How do we connect OKR and Agile? It is an obvious fit, but how do you do it in practice?
Adopting Silicon Valley’s mindset is hard for most organizations. Having worked there in 2002, I knew companies would need time to evolve. It is a journey, not an event.
One of the biggest challenges for implementing OKR is not having an implementation guide. Something that pointed you in the right direction and taught you the pitfalls to avoid.
Most of the available material is about how Silicon Valley companies use OKR today, but how do you get there?
Adapting instead of imitating
The most frequent OKR mistake is trying to copy Google blindly. When I hear a company say they want to use OKR “the way Google does,” I ask them: “Why? Are you like them in every other way?”
“Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one” — Google’s IPO letter
Google is not conventional, as the founders stated in their letter in the IPO prospectus in 2004. Imitating Google is like trying to run alongside an Ironman triathlete. Unless you have the proper preparation, it will not end well.
So instead of imitating, choose to learn and adapt.
The first you have to learn is that OKR is not a methodology; there is no rigid step by step that you have to follow. Instead, OKR has a set of practices that you should understand and customize.
You need to comprehend the tradeoffs involved and make the best choice for your company today. As your model matures, you can review those decisions and iterate.
In fact, one of the practices of OKR is that you should adapt your model for the needs of each role. Why should product teams have to set goals the same way they do at sales or finance?
This Internal Adaptability makes benchmarking tricky. If a company can customize OKR for each group, benchmarking with a single team will give you a skewed view at best.
Incremental instead of abrupt
You do not have to adopt OKR all at once; it is not a monolithic system. There is much value in implementing parts of it and iterating. As I mentioned before, you just have to understand the tradeoffs involved.
Start small and iterate
Use an incremental rollout, start small and take advantage of the OKR cycles. Evolve your model in each quarter by adding new teams and practices.
Starting with a shorter OKR cycle of 30 or 45 days can ease learning and shorten the feedback cycle. If you choose to do that, begin with a single OKR to create focus, following my dear colleague Christina Wodtke’s recommendation.
Where should you begin?
Depending on the context and the size of your company, your rollout may be:
- Vertical: Start with the company OKRs and the senior management. Add new layers at each quarter.
- Horizontal: Adding new teams or cross-functional initiatives at each quarter.
Starting with a single functional team can cause problems with other units. For example, starting with Engineering alone may cause lack of alignment with Product. Use the 360º Alignment tool to solve interdependencies.
The best approach is to start with cross-functional initiatives or groups. OKR is an alignment tool and adds a lot more value between different groups.
Do not start with OKR for individuals
Avoid starting with individual OKRs, stopping at the team level. Individual OKRs add complexity, and you can add them later if needed.
Setting different OKRs for each person may create misalignment in agile or multi-functional teams. Having engineers and designers with distinct OKRs may cause problems.
Leave the advanced practices for later
Enabling teams to set ambitious goals is central to OKR. That is why setting stretch goals and separating OKR from compensation are critical.
However, it takes a mature organization to implement those two components. Setting goals that have you do not have to achieve 100% can be confusing and demotivating. Moreover, changing your compensation model at the same time you are adopting OKR can be too risky.
So save those two practices for later:
- Start with “roofshots”, goals that are hard but achievable. Leave the moonshots for later.
- Do not change your compensation right away. Learn from your OKR implementation and improve the rewards later.
Train the team on the “Why” and the “How.”
Too many unsuccessful OKR implementations start the same way. An executive sends an email saying “We are going to adopt OKR, please watch this video from Google.”
OKR is straightforward, easy to understand but hard to master. Your team is going to need more than that to get started.
Either using an external consultant or not, your company needs to educate the team:
- Teach people about what motivated the adoption of OKR, explaining its benefits. Understanding the “Why” behind the OKR initiative increases the team motivation and engagement.
- Selecting Key Results is hard, so educating the team on how to choose them and set measurable goals is key. Too many individuals lack the proper training to set goals and to coach the team to develop theirs.
Key Results should be Value-based
A critical point to create the right culture is to train the team on how to separate activities from value. The team should focus on setting Value-based Key Results instead of tasks.
OKR Champions: Change Agents
Many successful methodologies use change agents. Six Sigma has Black and Green Belts while Scrum has Scrum Masters. They help an organization transform itself and to perpetuate the new culture.
Change agents are not originally a part of OKR, but we think they are critical to scaling the model. OKR Champions act as focal points and internal coaches for OKR adoption. Their mission is to ensure that the organization has continued success with OKR.
Champions work as OKR evangelists and PMOs, enabling the transformation process.
An OKR Champion acts as a fitness instructor. First, she teaches you how to do it and then she gives you the motivation and the discipline to continue.
Being an OKR Champion is a part-time role. They should be a group of passionate volunteers.
For larger groups, you will also need an OKR Lead. This role is in charge of the OKR initiative and coordinates the work of the Champions. Usually, the OKR Lead is not the CEO, but a member of the senior management.
Cadence instead of sloppiness
The use of regular ceremonies to set and track OKRs is fundamental to sustain its cadence. Here are a few suggested ceremonies:
- Short weekly meetings for OKR tracking held by each team.
- Provide a high-level view of each OKR and ensure everyone is working on the right priorities.
- Focused on tactical updates and not on a laundry list of tasks.
- OKR development sessions that assemble several individuals that work together in the same room.
- Focused on creating 360º (cross-functional) alignment and shortening the lead time to generate OKRs.
Mid-quarter review of the OKRs targeted at:
- Tracking each OKR.
- Reevaluate each OKR, eliminating unnecessary OKRs, adding new Key Results or raising target values.
- Define action plans or task forces to address OKRs that are below target.
All Hands Meeting
- Frequent meetings (weekly, monthly or quarterly) with all employees.
- Intended to improve communication and motivate the team.
- Report the company results and generate alignment towards the organization priorities
I hope that this article helps you avoid the many pitfalls that hinder a successful OKR adoption. Consider this a guideline; nothing is written in stone.
If you want to know more about OKR, please check my OKR Guide.
Do You Want Help with OKR?
If you want me to help your company with OKR, check my OKR services.