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How we finally got OKRs to work for our startup

2 months ago - Laura Lundell

A game plan is advisable but what if that plan doesn’t take you where you need to go? What if it takes you where you once thought was right but when you arrive, armed with new insights and information, you realize a new direction is necessary?

Thankfully, even as switchbacks arise along the startup climb, valuable knowledge can be gained to keep you on track towards your vision as long as there is reflection and adaptation in the process.

As a young startup, we were advised to use Objectives & Key Results as a management methodology, a goal-setting framework, and simply a good business practice. OKRs help focus and refocus a company's sights on what tasks really matter to achieve business goals. They are a tool to help strategically plan for each quarter.

The idea seemed simple enough--craft a couple clear objectives and align them each to a few key results. How hard could it be?

Well, like any great process, iterations are your best friend. Or at least that’s the story we told ourselves, the story behind how we got OKRs to work for our startup.

Weekly goals

The OKR vocabulary is simple and should answer basic questions about your business:
Objectives-- Where do we want to go?
Key Results-- How will we know when we got there?

Given advice on completing weekly OKRs as a new startup, we plunged into the deep end, setting objectives, determining appropriate key results and reviewing each on a weekly basis.

After a few months, we realized we weren’t using OKRs as they were intended. First of all, we discovered that when it was only two of us, a week was sufficient. As we brought on additional team members, though, the time spent selecting, debating, and debriefing the OKRs each week was not an efficient use of resources. They were costly both time and mental energy without bringing the value we were seeking to achieve.

Our time frame was simply too narrow. Seeing apparent changes takes time even after achieving desired results; a week was too short a cycle time.

Ultimately, the weekly objectives were not getting us where we needed to go so we started Plan B.

Quarterly

While the weekly system worked well enough for two, as we increased to three, four, five voices in the company, weaknesses began to emerge. Once we got a better understanding on how OKRs were intended to be set and managed, we decided to revise our approach.

After some initial brainstorming on our #OKR Slack channel, we met for a longer team session, to discuss what objectives would be worthy of a quarter-long pursuit.
With plenty of discussion, debate, and a second follow-up meeting, our ideas centered around these core ideas: product market fit, how to get users to engage with the product, creating a product we wanted to work on, clarifying product value for general market fit, redesigning our webpage, and establishing company culture.

We ultimately decided to go with these 4 Objectives and corresponding 2-3 Key Results:

Create a product we want to work on Measure
Implement and integrate centralized database 100%
Human hours spent on report generation 2
Cross-trained areas per person 3

There was a reason this objective came up first. Why work with a company whose product you don't enjoy working on? How we feel about our product is reflected in how we talk about it and present it to potential clients.

Technical debt from the big push before our company’s Demo Day (at the end of an accelerator program) were leaving our engineers frustrated with the tool they had built.

Reducing the manual analysis required to generate reports for our clients, and centralizing our database were identified as measurable steps we could take that would make our product easier to work with.

Increase Customer Engagement with Product Measure
Average referrals per customer 2
Ticket submission completion rate 80%
Average user-requested feature implementation days 3

This objective seemed an appropriate follow-up to the previous: if we are excited about the product, what can we do to increase the customer's interest? We’re seeking to delight our users, and what better way to measure that than how often they put their reputation on the line by recommending you to their friends?

We also felt that getting through our ticket backlog and speeding up the rate of fixes would improve the customer experience as well.

Find Product Market Fit Measure
Unaffiliated Customers 10
5 uploads per customer per week 80%

This is the eternal question of every startup: Where does my product fit in the big picture? It's difficult and ill-advised to try pleasing everyone.

One common sign of early product-market fit for startups to look for is landing your first 10 unaffiliated customers. Not your parents, not your friends or close connections, but people who have very little to do with you and whose only reason to buy your product is that it solves a challenge they have.

Establish Company Culture Measure
Decisions people feel they influenced 12
Personal goals 100%

We felt we had a good thing going with our company culture but as a means of establishing its importance, we decided to include this objective as well.

OKRs



Mid-quarter revision

We made clear and measurable progress on nearly all of our objectives initially and the process of reviewing them weekly was informative, generally and kept us focused.

The personal goals were always a highlight of these weekly reviews, often ending our meetings with light-hearted jabs at those on the team who weren't quite reaching some of their goals.

How many books have you read? How many new anime have you watched? How many articles have you written? How many times have you gone swimming?

However, we soon realized that some of our goals were stagnant.

Integrating a centralized database? It reached a point where everything that could be done was done.

Average referrals per customer? Well, that required we have new customers.

Ticket submission completion rate and user-requested feature implementation? Same issue as above. If no one is submitting issues there are none to fix. If no one is requesting features, there are none to add.

Nearing the end of the quarter, we decided to take off the Key Results that had made little or no progress.

We kept the ones that were still key to our development in the moment, knowing we could revisit ones like “Ticket submission completion rate” and “Average user-requested feature implementation days” when the time was appropriate.

Feeling ready to face the rest of the quarter and see some measure of success on our remaining objectives, we continued on.

End of quarter review

By the end of the quarter, we hadn't completed all of them as hoped.

But was this failure on our part or simply a discovery made that served as valuable information for future decision making?

Successes

  • Reviewing the OKRs regularly
  • Revising when needed

Discoveries

  • The importance of creating objectives that are not beyond the present scope of the business
  • The need to think critically about the status of an OKR and reevaluating sooner when it appears to be stagnant

Overall, we’d like to think they were all a successful OKRs. Because what's a startup without taking opportunities to readjust the plan? Iterating in the process?

This certainly won’t be the last time we rethink the course that endeavoured to follow when creating OKRs. Being responsive and adapting to changes and new information is vital to the growth and long-term success of a company.

Getting OKRs to work for our startup was not a cut and dried solution but realizing the opportunities for revision along the way.

As we near the end of Quarter 2, we are ending with different OKRs than when we started… again. But that's okay. We'll have another story to learn from and share once we’ve had a chance to reflect on the whole process once more.


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