OKRs for startups

July 22, 20213 min read

Felix Handler is an OKR Consultant and Agile coach at felixhandler.de . He is experienced in Executive coaching, Leadership development, Management & Business consulting and Environmental consulting. In this Voices of OKR piece, Felix gives valuable advice to startups on adopting OKRs. 

Why would you want to do it?

The smaller your company, the less you probably have to worry about transparency and alignment and more about outcomes and laser-focus.

So here is how OKRs can help with that:

“OKRs help to minimize the overhead in planning for me (and the company) and focus more on what really matters. We talk as a team  and set our goals together, so we are aligned from the start. I can deep dive into topics without having to regularly check on the progress of my colleagues.” ~CEO of a startup

In this context, we had introduced OKRs with the intended benefit of focus and quick organizational learning instead of gut feeling & slide decks.

How would you approach it? 

If your entire company is small and all teams work together on a daily basis – go with a single set of OKRs for all. Do not set them by person/function. If your intended benefit is focus – then, the lesser, the better. This way, everybody can see what the most important thing in the current cycle is and measure their own work and results against it.

Iterating and avoiding common pitfalls 

A frequent mistake that I find when helping other people with their OKRs is that sometimes Key Results are regarded as initiatives. While Key Results are the (best) indicator for reaching your Objective (e.g. customers actually changing their behavior and organically signing up more ), initiatives are our experiments that get us there.

Run the experiment, evaluate against your KR and then determine your next step / initiative. I could also mention Outcome and Output here – each initiative produces an output, and you measure its effect against an intended outcome – the KR and its Objective.

While your OKRs mostly stay the same for the cycle, you consistently adjust your next initiatives to include your latest learnings and represent the next best imaginable shot at the intended outcome. This way everybody can do their own thing and discuss with others when they need help. Having a shared focus and measure makes it easier to compare different ideas. Which idea is the most promising at the moment? Do I help you with your idea or do you help me with mine first? 

With this in mind, it is important that the numbers do not become the goal or target but are an indicator for achieving the Objective. Always consider the Objective when measuring. (Goodhart’s law: “ When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure “).

It takes time to adjust it for your company and get the most out of it 

By now you might already have gotten the idea that OKRs are primarily a mindset and not just a method.

This also means, that you should make the method serve you and not the other way around.  

Adapt it if necessary. There is no one-way-fits-all for all companies. It is a learning framework after all and since those are different for each company, so will also be the results. This also implies that you will not get ideal results with the first shot, but it is really a learning journey that takes time if you want to reap the full benefits.

If a number or measure does not make sense anymore, change it! But maybe find a less volatile measure next time or adjust your cycle time, if this happens again. Do not just mistake OKRs for another project management tool.

As a nice side effect, OKRs may also help you to communicate more clearly with potential investors or partners. The same applies to the product and tech people in your company, where everybody can bring in their best ideas because they know what they are.