Every mistake I made adopting OKRs and what I learned from the train wreck.

This is the story of where I went wrong when I first started using Objectives and Key Results and what I learnt from my experience. After the initial setback, I went back to the 4 managerial disciplines or the Four OKR Superpowers necessary for a successful OKR adoption.

Two biggest mistakes I made

If you’re interested, I’ve also written about how and why I got started with OKRs. Right at the start of adopting OKR as our way of working, I made two crucial mistakes that set us back.

Skipping proper orientation

The very first mistake I made was not making enough time to properly introduce and orient my teams to the OKR methodology.

OKR adoption and on-boarding is a crucial first step. ‘Time is money’ is a fact when you’re working at an agency. In the spirit of saving time, I skipped this crucial step hoping that we’ll fill in the gaps as went along. That was a mistake.

I made these two mistakes that you should avoid.

  1. I skipped proper onboarding.
  2. I didn’t provide guidance as an OKR coach should.

People can be wary of new things especially if they see it as unnecessary work. Committing to an OKR cadence means making time for conversations, reviews and of course, measuring progress. Without knowing the benefits OKR adoption in my team was lukewarm at best.

Setting only top-down OKRs

OKR is a collaborative way of working and in some organisations, it might also require a culture change. Without your team’s opt-in you can’t hope to make any real progress no matter how determined you are.

Having ‘saved time’ by skipping over a proper orientation lead to my second big mistake – not involving my team in setting their own OKRs.

Once I had set OKRs for my Business Unit, I passed them on to my team as OKR for individual Growth Leads and specialists. The end results were poor performance and least because of lack of effort. The individual OKRs simply didn’t take priority over everything else that was already on their tables.

Successful OKR adoption needs to be an inclusive process. It simply doesn’t work when managers set OKRs for the whole team and pass them on as a to-do list.

Four OKR superpowers

John Doerr described the following four features as OKR Superpowers but I’ve come to think of them as four crucial managerial disciplines that I’ve had to develop. Even if you’re not adopting the OKR methodology, these disciplines will help you build and lead a high-performance team.

These are the 4 OKR Superpowers:

  1. Focus and commitment to priorities.
  2. Align and connect for teamwork.
  3. Track for accountability.
  4. Stretch for amazing.

Even after the initial setbacks, we didn’t stop using OKRs. Knowing that we were not moving in the right direction I went back to the basics.

Here’s what I had to learn and improve.

Focus & Commitment to priorities

Identifying your highest priorities can be challenging especially when you’re limited to focus on only 1 to 4 Objectives per year and only 3 – 5 Key Results per quarter.

Narrowing your selection means you can focus and commit to getting your most important work done.

In practice, a manager should set her team’s top-level objectives. These objectives are often set with a consultation with your leadership team. Once that’s done it’s time to communicate the top-level objectives to your team and involving your team in setting roughly 50% of their individual OKRs.

After OKRs for a cycle have been agreed they should be openly shared with the rest of the organisation and publicly tracked and evaluated.

No dictating. OKRs are a cooperative social contract to establish priorities and define how progress will be measured. Even after company objectives are closed to debate, their key results continue to be negotiated.

John Doerr

Align and Connect for teamwork

Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.

John Doerr

Team leaders often describe their individual objective as the team’s collective objective. Having made this mistake myself I’ve learnt that it’s not the best way to utilise your team’s resources.

In an optimal OKR system individual team members, including the team leader, have their own specific Objectives & Key Results. It’s important to remember that it’s your responsibility to align individual OKRs with the team’s objective.

Your chances of success will drastically improve when you start thinking of yourself as an OKR coach rather than a supervisor.

Outside of individual teams when OKRs are openly shared with the whole organisation; team leaders across multiple teams can connect and develop synergies as well.

Track for Accountability

If it doesn’t have a number, it’s not a Key Result.

Marissa Mayer

Research shows that people perform better when their progress is visible to their friends and colleagues. The fact that each Key Result needs to include an objective and measurable metric makes it easy to track progress. That’s simple but on its own it doesn’t promote accountability.

You need to strengthen trust and ensure that your team members know that you’re committed to their development. Accountability works a whole lot better when people don’t fear feedback. Instead, they know that feedback allows them to improve and that they’ll find support when needed.

I recommend committing to weekly check-ins to address any immediate issues and monthly retrospects where objectives are assessed, scored and evaluated.

Stretch for Amazing

‘Hard goals’ drive performance more effectively than easy goals. Second, specific hard goals ,produce a higher level of output, than vaguely worded ones.

John Doerr

Final and in many ways the most difficult managerial discipline to master is setting stretch goals. A stretch goal is an objective that’s deliberately challenging and ambitious. For example, at Google new products are expected to be at least 10X better than existing competition.

A rule of thumb for setting stretch objectives is to focus on gaols meet these three criteria:

  1. High impact
  2. Specific
  3. Within influence

Don’t expect to be great at setting stretch goals from day one and do not worry if you’re not able to reach your stretch goals in your first attempt with OKRs. I’ll share a personal example to show how we use stretch goals in my team.

At the start of the year, we knew that we needed to reach half a million in revenue but instead of setting our revenue objective to be 500 000 we set it at 650 000. At the end of each quarter, we evaluate our progress and adjust our Key Results for the coming quarter. This exercise allowed us to hit our yearly goal at the end of second-quarter!

Aiming for stretch goals allows you to find your limits and come up with innovative ways to go beyond them.

Main points

I’ve benefited both personally and professionally from using OKRs. It’s made me more objective-driven and a better team leader. I know I’ve only scratched the surface and each day I learn something new. I’m passionate about building high-performance teams and OKRs have helped me create an environment where I can promote openness, collaboration and celebrate failure.

Here are the most main points from this article.

  1. Being successful in adopting OKRs requires trial and error.
  2. Mastering the 4 OKR Superpowers or managerial disciplines can help you develop a high-performance team even if you’re not using OKRs.
  3. Discipline #1: Focus and Commit to priorities i.e. only 1 – 4 Objectives per year and only 3 – 5 Key Results per quarter.
  4. Disciplines #2: Align and Connect for teamwork i.e. Instead of setting top-down objectives, involve your team in setting your objectives and openly share them with other teams.
  5. Discipline #3: Track for Accountability i.e. measure your progress using objective metrics and through weekly and monthly check-ups. Use feedback to support and develop your team and promote accountability.
  6. Discipline #4: Stretch for amazing i.e. setting deliberately challenging and ambitious goals will push you to find innovative solutions. Just remember to measure your progress and make adjustments when needed.
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