How to Align Your Team Around OKRs for 2021 Planning
Actionable steps to prepare for a remote strategic planning session
In case you missed our recent webinar, 2021 Planning: How to Align Your Team Around OKRs, we’ve recapped the highlights and key takeaways. Matt Tucker, CEO and Co-founder of Koan was joined by our friends from There Be Giants, Founder Roger Longden.
2020 Recap: Uncertainty and Unpredictability
This year proved to be challenging, with plenty of chaos, disruption, and unpredictability. On top of that, remote work has become the new normal, where many are faced with an isolating reality with plenty of distractions. With the need to adapt quickly, we’ve seen that many organizations are using OKRs as the anchor of the company, helping to keep everyone aligned. When leaders are clear about what the priorities are and what you’re trying to accomplish as a business, OKRs can be a great structure with a simple framework for the entire team.
The Importance of Reflection and Retrospectives
No-one could have predicted the changes in 2020, and that’s why it’s important to focus on learning and improving. We like to encourage retrospectives on the fly as well as at the end of each OKR cycle because they’re designed to capture changes or adaptations for the way your organization is continuing to use OKRs.
While you may feel inclined to continue moving at a rapid pace and keep charging towards reaching your goals, it’s critical to pause and take the moment to reflect, celebrate wins and learn from both successes and missteps. As you get ready for 2021 annual planning, think about framing the next OKR cycle as the opportunity to learn, adapt, and become better as an organization.
Here are some questions to ask yourselves to help spur the discussion:
Were our goals well aligned?
What went well?
Where could we improve?
What could we have done differently?
Have company-level OKRs changed?
Has anything changed with other departments or teams that we share a dependency with?
Annual goals represent the long-term aspirations of the company. These can set the tone for an entire year but are difficult to track progress over such a long period of time.
Quarterly goals provide a shorter cycle that lets teams see results faster without sacrificing their ability to experiment and make changes.
Once you have annual goals, breaking your goals down into quarterly targets will allow your team to see the payoff for their efforts, adapt to the process more easily, and ultimately better hit their goals.
Planning for Quarterly OKRs
Step 1: Score, closeout, and conduct a retrospective on Q3 goals. You may have previous objectives that would span into the next quarter and would need to adjust the KR.
Step 2: Revisit the annual mission, vision, and strategy. Brainstorm as a team about top priorities for Q4.
Step 4: Document annual strategy and create new goals that address the strategy for 2021
Step 5: Share with the entire organization
Revisit your company mission, vision, and values
Review and score progress of yearly objectives
Step back and think big:
What do you want to transform about your business?
What’s possible to achieve without being over-ambitious?
Write out the overall strategy, a set of Objectives for the year, along with key metrics that need to be achieved.
Don’t try to plan out each quarter in detail at the beginning of the year
Many of you are still running a remote planning cycle and we have gathered some additional tips to keep everyone engaged.
Here is a sample timeline for your team, but remember there are no hard and fast rules and you can adapt this to fit your business.
There were some great questions asked during the webinar, and we thought it would be worthwhile to share the answers with everyone:
Q: How long does this take for a company to roll out OKRs for the first time?
A: Rolling out OKRs for the first time can be challenging, but after two or three OKR cycles, the process will become easier. The recommended approach is that executives will start by setting high-level objectives and then get senior advisors to help set KRs then communicate them to leads and ICs.
Q: Should my OKRs cascade from the top down throughout the rest of the organization? Should they all be aligned and related to one another?
A: No. Cascaded goals are a terrible system for goal-setting. Doing this every time takes way too long, teams hate it, and it’s counterproductive to building alignment. As Felipe Castro puts it, cascading goals is “a top-down, one-way, irreversible flow, with no feedback cycles that ends crashing on the rocks. Everything an agile, innovative organization does not want to be.” It’s far better to allow your teams to set their own goals, aligning theirs to the company objectives in their own terms.
Q: What are some common pitfalls that new companies adopting the OKR methodology face?
A: When you’re starting to use OKRs for the first time, mistakes are common, and it typically takes two or three quarters to feel comfortable and fully see the benefits of the OKR methodology. OKRs are a cultural change and require commitment, patience, and time to develop new habits. Here’s a list of some of the most common stumbling blocks that we see among our customers, as well as ways to minimize or avoid them when you work to implement OKRs in your organization.
Q: Why are engineering groups resistant to OKRs? Or is this a myth?
A: From our experience, engineering and product management groups tend to be one of the first groups to adopt OKRs within organizations. Particularly with tech companies, oftentimes the strategic initiatives are around a product launch, and OKRs can help to keep these teams aligned working together.
Q: What’s the best way to communicate that OKRs are not performance reviews?
A: OKRs can serve as a guide to help with growth and performance, but when you explicitly link OKRs to compensation or performance assessments you can get into trouble. Personal professional development should be individualized, and this is typically managed by HR, but it shouldn’t be aligned with the strategy of the organization. Clearly communicating the purpose of OKRs, avoiding the development of individual OKRs, and encourage individuals to try new things even as they support the goals of the team, are all ways to help differentiate between OKRs and performance reviews.
Q: Should we set individual OKRs?
A: No. the only exception might be at the senior level - for example, a special project worked on by a specific level. Individual OKRs can kill OKRs because they end up overloading the OKR structure in terms of volume, it massively increases management workload to realign. And OKRs work best when they focus on growth and innovation and change.
Q: If you only shine the spotlight and don't include every individual in the organization on strategic OKRs, how do you manage the individuals who are feeling ‘left out' or not contributing to the key goals?
A: Not all roles in an organization can contribute to OKRs. That doesn’t mean that some employees are more important than others. This is typically a leadership challenge, to make sure that there is clear communication around OKRs. Finding a way to keep those that aren’t necessarily in the scope of OKRs feel equally valuable, and find a way to keep them connected.
Q: Would it make sense to establish longer-term 3-5 year OKRs?
A: It depends. It may help with establishing better clarity. A nice approach might be to build out strategic pillars and summarize what you’re trying to accomplish over a longer period. Then take those strategic pillars and relate to the annual and quarterly OKRs, so people remember the higher-level strategy.
Q: We find it challenging from a timing standpoint to get all the alignment at the various levels and organizations to do it effectively (it can take almost a month). What are some tips to make this easier?
A: Make sure to keep things simple. In most cases, the fewer OKRs, the better. Oftentimes, alignment can take a long time because there may be too many OKRs and they are being structured hierarchically. It’s important to think about the principle of using OKRs as a spotlight. Ideally, you’ll want to create a network of OKRs to allow for more agility across the organization. To learn more about network structure, check out this awesome blog post from There Be Giants.
Q: Any guidance on how to address and measure annual performance this year after the year has been turned upside down? Our Q4 OKRs might be the most accurate view of our objectives for the year?
A: It’s important to keep in mind that this year has been unpredictable - it is not business as usual and the economic and societal impacts of a pandemic have been profound. When facing difficult business challenges, remembering to find flexibility and agility when shifting priorities. Learn from what happened in 2020, and then reprioritize objectives with adjusted KR metrics to what you think you can accomplish in 2021.
Q: What’s a good example of the difference between the annual KR measure, and a quarterly KR measure? Or an example of an organizational, and departmental KR?
A: It’s important to balance both annual and quarterly OKRs. Annual goals can and should act as guidelines–a living document that can adapt and change to the world depending on new factors or previous performance. quarterly targets provide a shorter cycle that lets teams see results faster without sacrificing their ability to experiment and make changes.
An example of a good quarterly OKR could be a product launch:
An example of a good annual OKR is to successfully deliver GTM efforts in a new region:
Again, if you’d like to watch the webinar on-demand, the recording is available here. Remember, Koan and There Be Giants are here for you for your OKR needs. If you want to talk about anything we’ve covered in this post or learn more about our platform, just let us know.
And if you haven’t already, check out the podcast Giant Talk, the world’s first OKR podcast, which is chalked full of great content about how to get the most out of OKRs.