Adopting OKRs: 3 lessons we learnt at Notify Technology

Andy Dumbell, Chief Product Officer of Notify Technology Ltd, shares firsthand experience of three common mistakes made when adopting OKRs and how to avoid them.

Introduction

The OKR (Objectives and Key Results) goals system offers a simple and effective tool to drive meaningful and measurable goals. It helps businesses communicate objectives and shine a spotlight on what’s most important, and mitigates distraction by empowering your people to stay focused on what really matters, and say no to everything else. OKRs generate engagement and alignment by crystallizing priorities, removing the fear of failure and promoting cross-team collaboration.

And despite the simplicity of the OKR framework, embedding and shaping it to your business is deceptively taxing and requires time, patience, knowledge, and leadership.

In this article, I describe 3 common mistakes to avoid when adopting OKRs. My aim is to share our learnings so that you can avoid some of the pitfalls that held us back, and accelerate the value that OKRs will bring for you. 

Background

I’m co-founder and Chief-Geek of a UK-based SaaS (Software as a Service) business called Notify Technology. Our mission is to make a billion people safer at work.

Notify Technology mission statement over an image of the earth.



At our inception we anticipated the challenges of startup anarchy and related growing pains, so adopted OKRs from day 1, to help give us structure and rigor, and drive us towards our mission. What could go wrong?

Well, whilst our motivation and rationale was sound, we struggled with our early attempts at adopting OKRs and couldn’t get the desired traction, or a regular OKR rhythm, and our OKR failure rate was high.

Our turning point was taking a step back to properly assess why the process of adopting OKRs wasn’t working to identify the root causes of the issues that were blocking our progress. This empowered us to focus on overcoming our key challenges, to ultimately unlock the power of OKRs.

Adopting OKRs – First Mistake

Our first mistake was believing that OKRs are only for big, ambitious and aggressive goals, and shouldn’t be used for the “day job”.

Letter blocks spell 'Myth or Reality'?

This was at a time where we were growing quickly and our “day job” was littered with a long list of goals, projects to deliver, processes to fix (or even create!), and conflicting priorities fighting for attention and order. Sound familiar?

We perceived this work as the day job, business as usual (BAU), and regrettably excluded it from our OKR process. Instead, we only focused OKRs on moonshots (the big aspirational goals) and continued to manage our BAU work separately.

The result of this approach was our OKRs rarely succeeded as important objectives were less visible across our business, and we struggled to prioritize our goals and keep control of our workload. It was often a stressful time and OKRs didn’t inspire or motivate our team in the way we hoped. Instead, they were considered as something to do on top of the already busy day job.

Adopting OKRs – Lesson One

My primary learning here is to ensure ALL important and suitable goals are driven through OKRs, not just moonshots – BAU work may be less glamorous and exciting than the big aspirational goals, but it’s no less important. 

To get the best out of OKRs, we are taking a blended approach; if a BAU process is working ie. it’s documented, well understood, and consistently achieving corresponding KPIs, then we are in great shape and run it independently of OKRs.

On the flip side, we use OKRs to:

  • Avoid priority conflicts and ensure important BAU objectives and projects are prioritized accordingly,
  • Fix or improve processes and ways of working, and
  • Drive innovation and change.

This inclusive approach provides a holistic view and ensures you only work on objectives and projects that are essential and meaningful. It helps assess all-important goals collectively, and communicate to teams where they should focus their time each quarter, which enables them to prioritize work and ensure they deliver on commitments. 

Adopting OKRs – Second mistake

Our second mistake was attempting to shortcut our adoption of OKRs.

Person cheats to complete a rubik cube by painting a blue square red to emphais how attempting to shortcut the process of adopting okrs was a mistake.

Or the modern way of putting this is, when adopting OKRs we tried to find a hack for overnight success and hashtag failed! Unfortunately, the OKR system isn’t a one-size-fits-all methodology, and as we learnt the hard way, you can’t wing it by copying Google’s OKR Playbook, reading a couple of topical blog posts or watching some introductory videos on YouTube. 

This is an easy trap to fall into, especially in the startup world where you have a million and one things to do and efficiency is key to survival. But like any form of exercise, if you don’t get your technique right, you can end up hurting yourself and hinder your performance. And this is true for OKRs where bad technique and poor execution will hold you back. In my experience, when adopting OKRs this results in high OKR failure rates and low team engagement.

Adopting OKRs – Lesson Two

OKR is a framework that must be adapted to your business, and to get the best out of it requires deep knowledge of its principles and practices. It’s important to create your own Play that works for your specific environment, and refine it over time, as you learn, grow and evolve. 

In terms of acquiring deep OKR knowledge, you can buy this in from a specialist consultancy who will help get you up and running, or preferably, you can train an internal dedicated OKR Champion; having a devoted OKR guru within your business, that understands the framework and owns and drives your business’ adoption of it, will set you up for success. Plus your people will have someone to reach out to when they struggle. 

And I wouldn’t underestimate the time it takes to embed OKRs; you will need knowledge, patience, leadership and unwavering focus to make it happen, and expect it to take up to a year to fit.

Adopting OKRs – Third mistake

Our third mistake was assuming that once OKRs are written, they are set in stone.

yellow pencil bent backwards to emphasis how assuming that OKRs are set in stone was an error made duriing the process of adopting OKRs

Writing good OKRs is a skill in itself, particularly in the early days, where it can feel like a dark art to express a motivational goal succinctly, or craft meaningful and relevant Key Results! 

And achieving harmonious proportions each quarter – i.e. the number of concurrent OKRs per person/team, the scope of work, the amount of stretch to aim for and so on – is a balancing act influenced by various factors including ambition, intuition, business needs, existing commitments and a quite a bit of guesswork.

So notwithstanding best efforts and good intentions at the OKR planning stage, the reality that often unfolds is we don’t get it right up front, and we frequently take on too much by overcommitting. 

Added to this, change will happen throughout an OKR period that directly impacts the assumptions and decisions that were made during planning. This is especially true for fast-growth startups and scale-ups where there is inherently a lot of uncertainty and moving parts. 

So as the quarter unfolds, if it becomes apparent that an OKR is at significant risk of failure (for example, due to resourcing conflicts or simply that the scope is too ambitious), or when a change in priorities occurs (for example on the back on winning a new client with strings attached and fast approaching deadlines), it’s important to deal with such scenarios head-on and promptly. 

Adopting OKRs – Lesson Three

Sticking religiously to your original plan, ignoring new information and keeping your head down is a mistake. OKRs will become meaningless and stale, and you will end up spinning too many plates which can lead to a stressed out and demotivated team, which kills productivity. This is a common trap to fall into – it perpetuates failure and inertia, and will ultimately delay your business’ adoption of OKRs.

To mitigate this you have to create an agile culture and design your OKR play to expect and embrace change. Encourage your team to escalate when an OKR is at risk or no longer relevant, so that it can be assessed and the best course of action can be taken swiftly. 

For example, you may be able to bring an at-risk OKR back on track by adjusting your resource plan or changing its scope where the original ambition was unrealistic. You may even drop an OKR entirely when it’s no longer relevant or something more important needs to take its place. 

The point is, you need to keep control by actively monitoring your OKRs and managing change when it happens.

Final Thoughts

Knowledge is Power

Gaining deep knowledge about the OKR framework and how to apply it has been a game-changer for us. We continually improve our approach, try new techniques, and learn and iterate along the way. 

Ask Questions and Listen

We recently benefited from engaging our colleagues through an OKR survey, to understand their perspectives on what they think is working well, what challenges they face and what they’d change for the better.

Child listens to a conch shelf to emphasis the need to listen and learn during the process of adopting OKRs

Their feedback has led to improvements in our process, documentation and training. We also took a health-check score on how effective OKRs are for driving our success. This is a useful baseline measure for us to monitor each quarter.

If you are going through a similar journey, where you are trying but struggling to embed OKRs and not getting the desired traction, then I’d recommend you consider conducting a similar exercise as it will provide actionable insights and key metrics for you to measure against.

Here are the questions that we used in our survey –

Thank You

Thank you for taking the time to read my article. I hope it offers some value and would love to hear your feedback.

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