Introduction to OKRs
When implemented correctly, OKRs establish broad alignment and accountability throughout your organization and help teams see how their work contributes to your company’s objectives.
If you’ve made it to the point of checking out our article, you already have an idea of what OKRs can do for your organization.
And if not, you can learn all about the OKR fundamentals
With that being said, you may be reluctant to implement OKRs because you fear a cumbersome, bureaucratic process. We understand and empathize with this reluctance — this playbook is your first step in facing that fear to make OKRs work for you.
For your company to be successful with OKRs, you want to make sure OKRs are implemented with intent at every step. Our most successful groups have taken time to:
- Prepare and follow a detailed strategy
- Educate and empower their organization
- Build a rollout plan while following change management best practices
- Define OKRs in the correct sequence
- Manage and track OKR progress
The right approach to OKRs ensures the process is seen as valuable — from executives all the way down to individual contributors. Answering the question “why” is where all great OKR strategies begin.
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Step 1: Understand why you want to adopt OKRs
Your organization has a unique set of strengths, challenges, and environments. Whether you’re a global enterprise or a scrappy startup, OKRs can boost your business growth with:
But OKRs aren’t about gaining a laundry list of benefits — you want to drive greater outcomes, and this simple, but effective methodology can help. Let’s explore how each core benefit translates to better results for your organization.
At Quantive, we've helped hundreds of high-growth companies successfully implement OKRs — organizational focus is the most desired benefit of OKRs.
Productive, innovative teams often lack focus because in today’s modern operating environment, “busy” is often confused with “effective.”
While there’s always something new to be done, the OKR framework ensures you focus on priorities as opposed to unproductive or futile tasks.
Even if your organization is the most focused, you won’t accomplish much if your goals aren’t connected. OKRs are a system of public ownership, assigning stakeholders for progress.
When supported by the right OKR platform, OKRs ensure you and your team’s work contributes to overarching goals.
The public format of OKRs builds a culture of trust and transparency, increasing the consistency of your teams’ efforts and their commitment to your strategic objectives.
Alignment eliminates time, energy, and resource waste. By removing silos and connecting employees to company and function-level objectives, OKRs are able to foster alignment.
OKRs display your organization’s strategic direction, showcasing top-down initiatives from each function. Alignment helps funnel work towards the same objectives, increasing the potency and potential of everyone's contributions.
While OKRs promote transparency, they also could not survive without it. Knowing the purpose behind high-level decisions, the company’s goals, and the projects your teams are working on makes organizational efficiency easier to achieve.
Additionally, transparency is symbiotic with other OKR benefits. Visibility into organizational processes improves your teams’ focus and promotes accountability, reducing friction for alignment and motivation.
Moreover, real-time progress transparency condenses feedback loops, allowing you to adapt to changing conditions quickly and efficiently.
OKRs empower individual contributors with the power of choice. By shifting the focus of the organization to the “why” behind work, teams can establish "how” their work is accomplished. This democratization of decision-making motivates employees to go all-in on the OKR process.
As a result, team engagement improves, as employees better understand how their work impacts progress at every level.
Learn more about all the benefits of OKRs
Step 2: Get buy-in from leadership and teams
You can spend all day planning out the perfect OKR implementation — without organizational buy-in, you're wasting your time. Conceptually, you can’t roll out OKRs if stakeholders don’t support them.
Your leadership must justify the effort and resources to implement OKRs.
After gaining leadership interest, you’re ready to focus on your teams. This doesn’t mean going in heavy-handed to involve everyone during the initial OKR rollout. Rather, get the initial support of a few colleagues who can help set the rules and practices of OKR implementation in alignment with leadership’s vision.
More to come on this in Step 4: Select an OKR pilot group.
Getting buy-in early from your leadership and teams solidifies two elements your OKR success depends on: transparency and collaboration.
Step 3: Connect your mission to your OKRs
Answering the following goal-setting questions is fundamental to creating your OKRs:
- What are you trying to achieve?
- Why do you want to achieve this?
- When do you want to achieve it?
Thankfully, your company’s mission can guide your answers to these questions, helping you kickstart your OKR journey.
Learn more about effective goal setting
Mission informs strategy
Inspired by your company vision, your mission should reflect a singular, time-bound, ambitious goal. Without a mission in place, your team may have a hard time coming up with meaningful complementary objectives.
Consider John F. Kennedy’s mission statement for NASA in the early 1960s — see if you can spot the connection between missions and OKRs:
“This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
If this mission sounds like a SMART goal, it’s because it is:
- Specific: land a man on the moon, return him safely
- Measurable: did the man land, did he return
- Achievable: for NASA, this was possible, but a stretch
- Relevant: NASA’s job is aeronautics and space focused
- Timely: there is a deadline, before the decade is out
While this isn’t the only way to frame your mission, OKRs and SMART goals share many similarities. This SMART mission shares the specific, aspirational, and timebound qualities of OKRs.
As the guiding light for your teams, company OKRs closely align with your mission. Therefore, critical strategic questions sit between your company’s mission and your company’s OKRs.
Finding strategic purpose with company OKRs
The ultimate litmus test of creating company OKRs is the question of “why” — this answer lies in your company’s mission. The mission provides a clear direction for your company-level OKRs by indicating what’s trying to be achieved and why (see: the goal-setting questions at the beginning of the section).
Connecting company OKRs to the mission also ensures all stakeholders involved — executives, investors, shareholders — support the change OKRs will bring to your organization.
By creating parallels between the "why" of your mission and the "why" of your OKRs, you set the stage for alignment between your strategy and OKRs at the company, team, and individual levels.
We cover how to create company OKRs in Step 8.
Step 4: Select an OKR pilot group
The purpose of your OKR pilot is to serve as proof of concept across a small part of your organization. This builds the credibility of OKRs, showcasing their effectiveness for your organization.
Outcomes of an OKR pilot
You can run an OKR pilot to test one of many aspects like:
- Conceptual fit: Do OKRs fit into your organization’s culture and working style?
- Leadership engagement: Is there leadership buy-in with OKRs?
- Broad engagement: Do non-leadership employees and individual contributors use the methodology?
- Technology fit: Does your technology enable people to focus on their objectives? Does it work for distributed teams and hybrid work?
- Scale and growth: Do processes, logistics, and technologies support OKRs at scale?
Select an OKR pilot group
As large, sweeping initiatives often fail, a pilot proves if OKRs can deliver desired outcomes with minimal risks.
Additionally, a pilot program can highlight the potential obstacles in your change management process, allowing you to strengthen your OKR implementation strategy before scaling it.
The success of your OKR pilot depends on six distinct processes:
- Onboarding: Can we get people started with OKRs?
- Activity: Do people engage with the process?
- Alignment: Are organizational goals connected with OKRs?
- Transparency: Have OKRs reduced silos and improved collaboration?
- Focus: Are we prioritizing what’s important with OKRs?
- Attainment: Are OKRs helping us achieve our objectives?
As your OKR pilot group can make or break the success of your OKR implementation, choosing the most suitable pilot group is essential.
Learn the steps to a successful OKR implementation
Choosing your OKR pilot group
You can choose your OKR pilot group in two ways: management-specific (e.g., managers and executives) or function-specific (e.g., engineering). While both approaches have their benefits, we strongly recommend the function-specific pilot.
Since OKRs are proposed to improve transparency, focus, and alignment in your organization, they should be deployed to groups that can benefit from these changes the most.
Your OKR pilot participants should represent the day-to-day dynamics of your organization — management is important for operations, but shouldn’t be the majority of your participants.
Using a function as a pilot group can allow you to see how the OKR process works vertically, from the most junior to the most senior person in that function. Additionally, other functions may become more eager to adopt OKRs if they see adjacent functions benefiting from them.
Regardless of how you choose your OKR pilot group, we recommend a gradual approach in a controlled environment. In our experience, companies that jump straight in spend 3-6 months trying to manage the process at an unnecessarily large scale.
See what it takes to run an OKR pilot for the first time
Step 5: Appoint OKR leadership
You wouldn’t expect long-term marketing success without a CMO, sales to excel without a CRO, or your teams to function well without a manager. OKRs are no different — they need dedicated leadership to be effective.
Deciding on an OKR sponsor, champion, and program owner is important for OKR planning and longevity. These key players undertake OKR responsibilities such as decision making, motivating teams, and managing operations. They’re especially vital when rolling out OKRs and scaling these throughout your organization.
- OKR sponsor: Strategy-focused OKR support figure
- OKR champion: Execution-focused operator
- OKR program lead: Executive monitor for planning and strategy
Typically, the OKR sponsor works to establish OKR credibility and authority. Focused on the strategy over the actual execution, they’re trusted with defining OKR success, creating the communication strategy, and supporting the rollout of OKRs.
Without an OKR sponsor, getting leadership and team buy-in is nearly impossible. Having a support figure for OKRs ensures the methodology can develop and flourish, as OKR sponsors maintain the efficacy of OKRs by integrating them into the fabric of operational culture.
Complementing the OKR sponsor, the OKR champion is a highly operational role. They establish a framework for OKR adoption, evangelizing the methodology across the organization.
As part of this, OKR champions act as internal experts on all things OKRs, providing your organization with an ad hoc OKR consultant. This role is particularly important as streamlining the OKR process requires several quarters to iterate and improve.
As the final decision maker in OKR-related matters, the champion covers the who, what, when, how, and why of OKRs, pushing the process forward by removing bottlenecks and making it as efficient as possible.
OKR program lead
As an intermediary between the strategy-focused sponsor and the execution-focused champion, the OKR program lead role is often filled by the chief of staff, chief of strategy, chief operating officer, or another C-level executive focused on supporting strategy through planning.
It’s the program lead's responsibility to make the OKR strategy actionable by fulfilling the communication strategy, overseeing training activities, and monitoring program health.
Without a program lead, nobody is steering the proverbial OKR ship, creating misalignment between the strategic vision and its execution.
Step 6: Establish an OKR rollout strategy
With leadership established, you’re ready to formalize your OKR rollout strategy. Let's begin with setting expectations for day-to-day operations and OKRs.
Structuring the OKR operating rhythm is part of an effective OKR rollout. The OKR program owner should share timelines and expectations for each stage of the OKR cycle. While the first OKR cycle will always be challenging, subsequent cycles establish OKRs as a familiar routine.
Without clear expectations or an operational “flow,” OKRs can feel forced or rushed. Mapping out each step of the OKR process with desired outcomes in mind will give you the best shot at successfully implementing OKRs.
But how do you communicate your OKRs and ensure visibility every step of the way?
Your OKR rollout is a strategy within a strategy, and as such, must be communicated effectively.
Whether it’s at the start of the fiscal year or outside the annual planning process, choosing when you communicate isn’t as important as how you prepare for it.
For your communication strategy, you must consider:
- Kickoff activity: How OKRs are announced to your teams
- Months before implementation: OKR training, strategy, and cycle management
- Weeks before implementation: Company OKRs, developing and aligning team OKRs
- OKR execution: OKR deployment, adjustments, progress metrics, etc.
- Next implementation planning: Review quarterly results, recalibrate, and continue
Answer your team’s OKR questions
With the cadence and communication strategy established, the success of your OKR implementation now depends on buy-in from your teams. If they have their hands full with complex daily operations, this may require a little convincing.
Asking teams to take on OKRs will only succeed when there’s a “why.”
Most teams have the same questions when it comes to using OKRs. Anticipating and encouraging questions can alleviate stress around OKR rollouts. Here are the most common questions:
- What are we going to do?
- Why are we doing it? What’s in it for me?
- How do we do it? And how do we do it well?
- How can managers help make OKRs stick?
Step 7: Set OKR rules of engagement
You will find many rules when it comes to OKRs. In practice, however, you may have to tweak rules to suit your needs. Adjustments are fine if everyone is aware of them, so below, we list some important OKR rules of engagement your teams should know about.
Rules of engagement checklist:
- Define your chosen OKRs planning cadence
- Determine how frequently OKRs should be updated
- Decide the maximum objectives a person or team can own
- Decide the maximum key results attached to a single objective
- Choose how often teams should meet to discuss OKR progress
- Nominate who sets OKRs for teams and individuals
What OKR cycle length will you be using? Typically, companies use quarterly OKR cycles, but fast-paced organizations may opt for OKR cycles of four, six, or eight weeks instead.
How often should OKR owners update key results? Generally, once a week — on a specific, chosen day — is enough.
Maximum number of objectives
What is the maximum number of objectives a team or individual can own? While we generally recommend three at most, we advise beginners to start with one. This makes it easier to weed out distractions.
Maximum number of key results
What is the maximum number of key results per objective? In our experience, 3-5 key results are optimal. Too many key results complicate OKRs, diminishing their focus. If an objective seems to require more than five key results, try breaking it up into two objectives instead.
Retrospective meeting cadence
How often should teams meet to discuss OKR progress? To drive performance and accountability, OKR progress needs to be reviewed regularly. Typically, this entails a short weekly or bi-weekly meeting, depending on the size and needs of your organization.
How will OKRs be set?
OKRs can be set in three ways:
- Top-down: Fosters alignment, quick planning
- Bottom-up: Fosters engagement and motivation, requires little coordination
- Bidirectional: Middle ground between top-down and bottom-up
Step 8: Define company OKRs
Before setting individual and team objectives, you need clear company objectives in place. These involve quarterly objectives that tactically progress annual objectives.
Annual company objectives are the most important and ambitious. When preparing these objectives, leadership can look at your organization’s mission and vision for inspiration. Annual objectives are designed to help your company achieve its mission with its vision in mind.
Here’s a thought exercise for annual objectives — if there were only three things you could achieve this year, what would they be?
- Drive more upsells and cross-sells
- Become an industry thought leader
- Grow faster than competitors
Depending on the size of your company, you may have more than three annual objectives. Please keep in mind, though, OKRs are all about focus. We highly advise having no more than 3-5 annual objectives.
With your mission and vision-focused annual objectives in place, defining your quarterly objectives should be straightforward. Quarterly company OKRs inform function, team, and individual level OKRs, aligning them with annual objectives in a specific and tactical manner.
- Improve upsells of our entry-level customers
- Parent: Drive more upsells and cross-sells
- Get media coverage
- Parent: Become an industry thought leader
- Deliver a new vertical solution
- Parent: Grow faster than competitors
Essentially, quarterly objectives break down annual objectives into smaller, focused avenues. If these objectives produce results, they’ll likely be carried into the next quarter — if not, leadership can pivot to a new focus.
Learn more about the ins and outs of company OKRs
Step 9: Define function and team OKRs
All the work you’ve done setting company OKRs pays off at the function and team level. With company OKRs connected to the mission and vision, function and team OKRs align as tactical pursuits.
Function OKRs describe what departments and large sectors of the organization are trying to achieve, while team OKRs are the rallying point for individual contributors.
The constructive challenge of team OKRs
At the function and team level, OKRs are separate enough from the overarching strategy to become tactically focused — this presents both an opportunity and a challenge.
The opportunity is in the outlook provided by management on how OKRs will drive real results. The challenge is in the disconnection of teams and pursuit of alignment.
By defining team OKRs, each team will have a unique perspective and approach to the process. Some teams may be directly in line with the strategic vision, while other teams may challenge that vision.
Uncertainty in the team OKR process is normal — you should encourage teams to take risks here, as not all team OKRs must align at the company level.
Why not individual OKRs?
While we at Quantive once recommended individual OKRs, the methodology continues to mature and evolve. Getting too granular at the individual level creates unnecessary risk from a performance management perspective — it’s no longer our recommended best practice for writing OKRs.
OKRs are meant to push teams, but if an individual’s performance is tied directly to OKRs (a red flag), risk-tasking is discouraged and OKRs lose their aspirational aspect. Maintaining focus on how team OKRs drive company goal progress mitigates this risk.
See the tactical approach to writing great OKRs
Step 10: Align and rollout OKRs
With company, function, and team OKRs set, it’s time for organizational alignment and the official rollout. As a rule of thumb, don’t expect every objective to neatly cascade from one level to the other.
Align function and team OKRs to company OKRs
While cascading isn’t the goal, alignment is, but not every team goal must align with company OKRs — for instance, your HR team might not have a goal that aligns with your revenue numbers. But your company goals should represent the company’s top priorities and each team should contribute where they can.
Think of your objectives as a graph or web instead of a tree — even if some elements are detached from the whole, the average trend should align across peer teams and towards the company’s goals.
Alignment is the last chance to stress test your OKR structure and lock in a solid foundation.
Ideally, each function contributes to a key result(s) in a company OKR, balancing the load of accountability for results across teams. The alignment phase ensures each key result has a contributor and connects team goals before they’re finalized.
Discover expert tips on aligning company and team OKRs
Once team goals are set, they should be shared publicly. Teams can then revise their goals to ensure cross-functional alignment when needed. This makes all OKRs more meaningful and cohesive, uniting teams and individuals through a common purpose.
Leadership shouldn’t dictate every detail in the rollout. Front-line initiative is an indicator of a healthy, empowered culture — employees with autonomy in their goal setting have a stronger sense of ownership and work harder to accomplish their goals.
OKR rollout checklist:
- 2 weeks before the OKR rollout: Every team publishes their goals
- 1 week before OKR rollout: Teams collaborate and review each other’s OKRs to ensure alignment and adjust goals
- Days before OKR rollout: Teams publish and commit to their shared OKRs
Create action plans
Aligning OKRs is not the same as the action plan. Planning helps anticipate obstacles and keeps the team on track.
An action plan, enhanced with tasks, boosts productivity and focus.
Planned initiatives you’re going to take, tasks needed to be done, and benchmarks with deadlines all contribute to your key results progress. While the key results should be tracked with OKRs, tasks should be tracked separately from your OKRs so the process doesn’t distract from the outcomes.
Action plans checklist:
- Action plans are outputs, OKRs are outcomes
- Identify leads and contributors responsible for KRs
- Establish a weekly check-in schedule to evaluate progress
- Link your action plan documentation to your OKRs
- Schedule monthly reviews and quarterly retrospectives
Step 11: Set OKR reviews and retrospectives
To drive performance and maintain accountability, OKR progress should be reviewed regularly. These should not be all-hands meetings, but rather short, weekly meetings to discuss progress against objectives and to set priorities for the next week. The goal is to make these team or project specific.
For retrospectives, it’s important to review the previous OKR cycle and make necessary adjustments.
This is a great time to look at OKR progress, determine which company OKR changes need to be made, and incorporate lessons learned into the planning cycle ahead.
The all-hands review of the past OKRs session is important for several reasons:
- It demonstrates how serious a company is about OKRs — if things get done and no one notices, it doesn’t matter
- It is a chance to give credit to people who excelled at their OKRs
- It is a learning opportunity for people and the company to see where things didn’t go well and how they could be improved
OKR reviews and retrospectives
No one gets OKRs right the first time, so focus on learning and improving. Some OKRs just need recalibration from one quarter to the next, while others will end and new ones will be created.
When trying to implement OKRs, you’ll face some challenges along the way. At a broad level, OKR implementations fail for many reasons — make sure you're not making the most common OKR mistakes.
Common questions to help guide the quarterly review process:
- How was the progress in our first round of OKRs?
- Were they well aligned?
- What went well?
- Where could we improve?
- Have company-level OKRs changed?
- Has anything changed with other teams we share dependencies with?
Step 12: Choose OKR software
Implementing the OKR methodology with ad hoc tools like spreadsheets or wiki pages (or worse, with no tools at all) is the first sign your implementation will struggle.
Spreadsheets don’t scale — beyond a group of collaborators, they’re just a way for strategies, goals, and progress to disappear.
They inhibit depth in goal alignment, which counters one of the key benefits of OKRs to your organization. Managing OKRs in spreadsheets (or other ad hoc tools) isn’t sustainable.
Using a dedicated OKR software platform improves efficiency, collaboration, and insight. Platforms like Quantive provide an intuitive UI for managing goals at scale, visualizing goal hierarchy, collecting insights from dedicated dashboards, and ultimately encouraging collaboration and engagement.
Advantages of OKR software
Using purpose-built software to support an OKR implementation creates significant advantages, like:
Greater visibility and better focus: Team members have easy access to strategic objectives and OKRs across the business, focusing teams on what's important to highlight, what’s working, and what's not.
Out-of-the-box best practices: OKR software incorporates best practices that support teams at critical junctures throughout the cycle.
Improved team engagement: Team members and managers give and receive direct feedback on OKRs, increasing engagement and ensuring consistent collaboration.
Reduced meetings and process: Streamlined and automated OKR updates eliminate status-check emails and reduce unnecessary meetings. Slack and email notifications keep the team informed the way they want.
Delivering outcomes, not tasks: Teams use the OKR software to stay focused on measurable progress, make course corrections, and celebrate wins.
Less stressful, more enjoyable work: Platforms help teams raise concerns and catch issues before fires start, reducing employee stress and wasted efforts through better alignment and focus.
Your ideal OKR software will build and reinforce great practices while fitting in seamlessly with the way your team already works.
Software like Quantive prioritizes OKR best practices and cross-functional collaboration, which are crucial to the success of OKR implementation at scale.
OKRs through Quantive are easily trackable, flexible, and scalable.
Take the next step in your OKR journey
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