Implementing OKRs for the First Time


If you are ready to put OKRs into place, you’ll want to plan out implementing OKR in your company. Assuming you’ve done a training (or done your research), and everyone understands and is on board for OKRs, choose your approach to the first OKR cycle very carefully. The first time you try an OKRs cycle, you are likely to fail. This is a dangerous situation, as your team may become disillusioned with the approach and be unwilling to undertake them again. You don’t want to lose a strong tool simply because it takes a touch of time to master. There are three approaches you’ll use to scale back this risk.

1. Have one team adopt OKRs before the entire company does. Choose an independent team that has all the talents to realize their goals. Don’t choose a broken team; choose a healthy, high-performing team that loves continuous improvement. Wait for a cycle or two until they perfect their approach and then trumpet their success. Teams will be eager to experience that same sort of success and acclaim and will be more willing to adopt OKRs. Over the years, this has been proven to be the most successful approach to adopting OKRs.

2. Start with only one OKR for the entire company. By setting an easy goal for the corporate, your team sees the chief team holding themselves to a high standard. It won’t be surprised when next quarter they’re asked to try to an equivalent. And by not cascading it, you both simplify implementation and see which group will align their work to the OKR and who will need coaching. This is a good approach if you are a relatively small company that needs focus.

3. Start out by applying OKRs to projects, in order to train people on the Objective-Result mindset. Every time you have a project proposal, ask, “What is the Objective for this project?” and “How will we all know if we’ve succeeded?” This approach works well with companies that are not used to being data-driven. Once people learn to evaluate their daily activities by measuring the impact they have, you can then introduce OKRs as a way to drive strategy across the company.

By starting small and focusing on learning how OKRs will work in your organization, you increase the chances of your company adopting a results-based approach and reducing the danger of a disillusioned team. Don’t try to implement OKRs across the entire company all at once. Over the last half-dozen years helping companies adopt OKRs, I keep getting the same story. I pick up the phone and hear, “We tried out OKRs and it went badly. The teams no longer want to use them.” I’ve said before, OKRs are simple and hard. Running a marathon is also simple and hard. You don’t try to do it in one go. You build up to it. Companies try to jump into the deep end of the pool with OKRs. Then it slows down productivity and frustrates the entire company.

It’s better to start with a small pilot, and avoid some of these issues: Support teams have a hard time aligning to company OKRs. This makes sense, since finance, HR, and customer support are much more concerned with keeping the lights on. In the early months of moving to OKRs, it’s better to leave support teams focused on Health Metrics and not worry about OKRs. It’s hard to figure out what Key Results are good indicators of success. Many companies want to use OKRs to become more data-informed, but this is backward. You have to learn what metrics matter before you decide which ones you want to grow and which ones you want to protect.

Many companies who adopt OKRs want to try them perfectly. But perfection is an illusion that keeps you from getting to a simple starting place from which you can grow. Ask yourself, “What is that the smallest possible to start “start line to begin my journey to success?” Then do this, learn from the experience, and check out subsequent steps. It will be slower but it also will be better and more robust and have greater returns.