How we fixed our OKRs

16 January, 2022 - 5 min read

In the start-up world, Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are a pretty popular way to align the team to strive for the same goals. In the context of an early-stage company that's still very much in free flow, however, getting these objectives and results right is less straightforward than the corresponding Wikipedia page might tell you. After going through several OKR cycles with our team, we initially learned a lot about how not to do it.

Our key mistakes?

  1. Setting too many objectives or key results -- the point of undivided attention is, well, not to divide it. We found that with a team of less than ten, having more than a couple of items here rapidly diminished the attention given to them.
  2. Picking lagging indicators -- you could argue that a goal is only really motivating when you see how your actions move the needle. When people feel like something is out of their hands (whether due to their contribution being a small part of the whole or the lag between action and result), they won't have the same drive towards it.
  3. Caring too much about definitions -- frameworks are only helpful as far as they work for your team, and we found that trying to be overly strict in following the "rules" for OKRs was detrimental to what they could mean for us. Especially in the early stage of a company, not everything can be represented in entirely objective numbers, but that doesn't mean you cannot quantify things.

We found that when our OKRs were not working, many clear warning signs were felt throughout the team and the broader company. For example, our monthly OKR review was greeted without the bare minimum of enthusiasm (and, frankly, sometimes forgotten as well). At the end of such a quarter, we found ourselves with the same conclusion: we lost track of at least a couple of our key results and didn't even work towards them. Almost as bad, our OKRs were muddying the water in our communication with the rest of the company. Even when the team was more focused than ever, rambling through our long list of largely unachieved OKRs made it seem like we were working both on everything and nothing at all.

After a couple of quarters of trying to improve our OKR results, mainly by trying the same thing with more effort and processes, we decided to call a halt and reconsider what the priorities for our OKRs would be. First of all, we decided to aim for something that inspired the team -- and to be inspiring, it would have to be compact and memorable enough for the team always to have them top of mind. Secondly, we decided that the value behind each key result should be crystal-clear, even for people outside the team or company. Finally, we decided to diversify our OKRs -- instead of having everything connected to the core tasks of the team, we decided to mix in goals focused on team/personal growth and the way we build our team.

With these changes applied, our team rallied around the new objectives we set for ourselves. Most notably, one of our newly introduced concepts was the notion of a so-called engineering win: a moment where the engineering team made a direct impact on accelerating a deal. These moments include sparking delight with excellent results or tech support, but equally, a prospect reporting that their information security team was impressed by the maturity of how we handle things at TechWolf. Note that the measurement of each engineering win was entirely subjective, and we asked the sales team to be our judges for this. Still, subjective detection aside, we could measure the number of wins, and over the past six months have achieved more than two dozen. More importantly, the goal sparked a new ritual and drive for our engineering team to contribute to sales velocity -- and with success.

While our engineering wins contribute to company results in a rather obvious way, other key results have boosted the team in very different ways. We've had one for escaping the bubble of our team by linking up with external people, one for always showing a demo instead of just telling the team about what we've done and, most recently, one for building a habit around giving and asking for feedback. Each of these has shown to make the team stronger, and members of the team have been overwhelmingly positive about the way we run our OKRs today.

Getting to this point took us about a year of trial-and-error, but I'm happy to say that these (sometimes painful) iterations were more than worth it. If you want to get started with OKRs in a small, rapidly growing team yourself, expect to miss the mark sometimes, but know that if you can find the right flavour for it, objectives and key results can become a new driver for success!

Want to stay up to date?

Leave your email address below to receive my newsletter!