OKRs Mistakes and Learnings For a Startup

November 12, 2013 - 9 minute read - Posted by

I have the pleasure to publish a new blog post written by Adam Lieb, CEO of Duxter. He previously wrote about Why Your Startup Should Use OKRs, sharing his experience on how he decided to start using Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) in his own company and how OKRs have helped his business. I really enjoyed Adam’s candid perspective as a CEO using OKRs and asked him to be our guest blogger for this week. His latest blog post is very closely linked to mine on OKRs: Potential Issues and How to Deal with Them.

As I wrote about last month, Duxter has been using OKRs to help us measure and reach our goals. I wrote mostly about the virtues of OKRs and why startups should use them. I wanted to dive a bit deeper into our execution of OKRs, more specifically on what DIDN’T work for us.

Ability to control outcomes individually

At the beginning of an OKR interval, the organization publishes the top level goals, then each team/team leader sets their team objectives. From there, each individual contributor sets their personal key results that will help achieve the higher level goals. A problem we ran into early on was when team members would set a personal key result that they couldn’t completely control. Often times they required collaboration or were dependent on another team member doing something before or after them. This created challenges. OKRs need to be clear, objective, measurable, and within the sole control of the individual who owns the goal. Too many of our early goals required collaborate efforts that were unable to be coordinated due to conflicting priorities.

Learnings

  • OKRs should either be in the sole control of one person OR be a team goal that multiple people share.
  • The excuse “Oh I was waiting on ‘x’ to do ‘y’ before I could get this done” should never be employed. OKRs shouldn’t have these types of dependencies.

OKRs aren’t hit because they are rendered unimportant

We are a startup. Even though we run our OKR sprints in shorter intervals than BigCos (who typically do them yearly & quarterly), sometimes priorities have to shift mid OKR cycle. We often discovered that a week or two into an interval some of our goals would simply fall by the wayside. There was no debate that the goal simply wasn’t that important in light of whatever had changed. I don’t think we lacked discipline or focus, I think we did a poor job of setting our OKRs in the first place.

Learnings

  • When we discuss OKRs, I now ask the same question every time “What are the 2-3 things that at the end of this interval, if we don’t get done, you’ll be pissed off?” OKRs should be that important. Don’t pick things you simply want to do or are going to do, pick goals you need to be done. As a startup we don’t always know the 10 things we need to be doing but we can usually figure out the 1-2 burning issues.

Timing/cycles

Google and other BigCos set their goals on quarterly and yearly cycles. We are a tiny little 11 person startup. The world looks different every three months. Rather than starting by setting quarterly objectives, we went with monthly. A month felt like enough time to get important things done. After the first couple of intervals, we found ourselves bleeding over the month. It wasn’t a lack of discipline or focus, we simply picked goals that required more time to complete than 4 weeks. We then shifted to a product-sprint length OKR interval. We are a product focused company that sets sprints based on major product releases. Now that our OKRs are on the same cycle we have been more efficient in setting and hitting our goals.

Learning

  • Pick an interval that makes sense for your company. For big companies quarters make sense. For startups it might be different. What we do now works for us but I don’t think it is a one size fits all proposition.
  • Don’t be too rigid in your process that you are unwilling to bend to reason. As a CEO monthly sprints are easier. As a company product based sprints make sense.

Too many OKRs

We didn’t exactly suffer a death by a thousand goals, but we did set more than we realistically should have. The highest order use for OKRs is to make sure the most important company objectives are being accomplished in each interval. Setting up goals or objectives that you’d “like to do” or “are probably going to do anyway” is a waste of time. What ended up happening early on is that we put our most important objectives up, then backfilled with less important “nice to haves” just to make it look/feel like we were getting more done. This is distracting.

Learnings

  • Less is more. The true value in OKRs is clarifying what is important and ensuring those things get done. Each team member doesn’t have 8 important things they probably have one, maybe two.
  • People like to get good grades and good grades on lots of things. Without some shepherding everyone at Duxter would set 8 goals a month full of things they know they are going to do and will be excited to get high marks on all of them. As we set OKRs at the beginning of each interval I find myself objecting to about 50% of the proposals saying something like “this is just something you are going to do, it isn’t a goal.”

By no means is our way of measuring and hitting our goals perfect. We learn a ton each month. I tried to distill down a few of the biggest missteps we took. Overall, our OKR implementation has been very successful. The entire company is working closer together, goals are clearer, and progress feels more tangible. Our last OKR sprint was the most successful one yet. I’d encourage all startups to give OKRs (or something like them) a try. I can say equivocally, it is not too much process, it is not a burden, and it will not stifle your creativity. Be accountable and know what is important.

About the author

Adam Lieb is the founder and CEO of Duxter, the LinkedIn for Gamers. Duxter is a funded startup in Seattle, Wash., poised to be “the next big thing” in gaming. Rather than listening to the conventional wisdom that “playing games was a waste of time,” Adam turned his passion into a business. Connect with Adam on Twitter @adamslieb or through his blog adamlieb.me. Company website www.duxter.com
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