Love Letter #4: OKRs, the guidelines

Dear Team:

The purpose of this letter is to walk you through the process of creating your OKRs, along with some thoughts you should have in mind, and my own process on creating mine.

The Theory:

OKRs is an acronym for Objective Key Results.  Long story short the Objective is what one aims to achieve and should be clear, actionable, and inspirational. It is designed to align the goals of the individual, team, or organization.

Key Results, on the other hand, are the measurable ways to achieve these objectives. These should be quantifiable, time-bound, and challenging but attainable.

Full transparency for this section: Thank you, Chat GPT.

The Practice:

The experience so far

We started doing OKRs a year ago (third trimester of 2022), and there was a lot of confusion with our strategic planning which was built on the rocks framework.  I consider this exercise -the rocks framework- a huge success since it made us commit to certain projects and face each other when wanting to deviate.

But no one gets OKRs right on the first try, and the theory states that it will take a year or two to get it right.  Because I sensed that we needed to have a better sense of where we were personally going, the initial OKRs were oriented more toward everyone’s personal goals.  But with time I started sensing the main disconnection between each other’s personal goals with the objectives of the company, which were being left to the side.

Let’s be clear, the OKRs were not the only thing wrong going on.  Our Core Values were too many, and Strategic Intent, which was nowhere around the company, had become one of my latest and strongest obsessions, and I think, our main obstacle to overcome.  So we re-shaped and simplified our Core Values to ensure that they made sense for both the company and you personally.  As a reminder, here they are:

  1. We are tireless seekers of excellence and efficiency 

  2. Work with Strategic Intent

  3. Our focus and obsession is around our client’s success

These core values will work for you whether you make part of our team or not.

Still, I see in our OKR Process confusion and participation levels are less than ideal - which is the reason for this letter.  

A more focused OKR Process

As we embarked on our fifth iteration, this time I am giving the responsibility of the creation and the alignment of these OKRs to the HR department.  This does not mean that it was for them to set up the course or strategy to follow, but to ensure the company’s full alignment.  I am doing this, because I’ve always considered HR to be a talent enablement and alignment organ within the body of our company, and not a boring and castrating “No, you can’t do that” and hiring department.

Let’s start by saying that you have a life, a life that I’m sure you’d want to live fully and purposefully.  Also, you work within a company, an organization that also has a purpose: we work for the betterment of Museums and Cultural Institutions - that is a noble and worthy cause.  So the OKRs need to work for you AND for the company.  Anything else is a failure.  The idea is that after each quarter, based on your OKRs, you are better, and the department you work for is better as well.  The idea is that you achieved certain goals, and the department reached a new level.  If you or your department didn't achieve most of the goals set, then we all lose: the OKRs were simply not well created, and/or you didn’t obsess over them as you should have.  I was careful when I used the word “obsessed”: it was with intent.  If you consider it to be too strong of a word, let me tell you: you are in the wrong place, and you have the right to know it right now.

With that being said, let’s clarify some points that have demonstrated some challenges for some:

The Rocks and the OKRs

Each trimester, one month prior to the end of it, we hold a meeting and we select the projects we want to tackle, those we consider strategic, move our Key Performance Indicator (KPIs), and/or whose negligence has been bothering us for a while.  These projects are heavily weighted against resources and customer success or financial gains.  Each team lead or manager must bring to the table three of them, and they are either anointed as rocks or discarded to either lack of strategic impact or simply, lack of resources.

So questions have arisen, why do we need rocks AND OKRs? What is the difference?  Personally, I think the Rocks drive the strategy of the department and the company.  Once the rock is achieved, the department and/or Product is better and is at another level.  And yes, for the leads of those departments, the rock HAS to be in their OKRs.  That is the point of “obsessing about OKRs”: that attitude should drive you to get them done.

This then should be clear to everyone:

First Strategy and Rocks are decided by the leadership team, then OKRs follow for full alignment

But not every OKR is a rock.   I can choose to read a book, take a course, or perform a process improvement that has been bothering me for a while and that will impact my KPIs, but that may not be something strategic for the company.  An OKR may also be a routine but important process for the company, but not something crucial at this moment.  The Employee Satisfaction Survey process comes to mind: We have a 90% Employee Net Score (employees that will recommend Veevart as a company to work for).  The process that provides this information is obviously important.  That you are happy working here is paramount.  But if the kitchen in your house is not burning, it is not strategic that you obsess about it.  You keep doing what you are doing, and your kitchen will be fine.

So just to clarify one more time: if you are the lead of a department, the rocks of that department HAVE to be part of your OKRs - there should not be any confusion about it.

The Basics:

We don’t have a very hierarchical organization.  We mainly have three levels:

  1. Directors and Architects

  2. Managers and Leads

  3. Team Members

We don’t want to go and we won’t go higher than this.  So your Directors and main Product Architects will have OKRs based on Rocks and strategic goals.  If your OKRs do not roll up to theirs, they don’t make your product or department better, if they don't improve your Key Performance Indicators, then your OKRs are not well done. Here are some guidelines when building your OKRs:

The same OKR for an entire team:

This is great for teams focused on a single project and whose success depends on each other.  A good example of this is the Courses 2.0 project.  The entire team is focused on a single endeavor and if one member of the team goes on vacation, another will pick up the work to be done.  In this case: The architect, the team lead, and the team members, all have the same OKR: achieve the project.

The Shared OKR with Different Team Responsibilities:

This is the case for an endeavor that is a project with sub-projects.  A good case for this would be our Sage/Quickbook Integration in which each team has to perform an integration that will amount to finishing the full project.  Each subproject is different, one perhaps more complicated than another, but when you see the main project, you can ensure that if the broken-down parts get done, the full project will get done.

The Shared OKR with Different Individual Responsibilities:

This is the case for most of the departments of our companies.  This applies to Sales, Customer Success, Implementation, HR, and Product Development as well.

  • In sales, this means that everyone has to meet their quota

  • In customer success, it means everyone has to create different OKRs to get different accounts out of their red or orange status, or they have to sell them different products so they can achieve their Sales targets

  • In Product Development, it means that they have to close a certain amount of bugs per department

  • In implementations, it means that they have to achieve their planned vs burned effort objectives

How do I know if my OKRs are right:

This is actually very simple.  Your Cycle (group of individual OKRs) shall meet the following conditions:

  • My OKRs are aligned to my KPIs and you should talk to your manager about it.  Your KPIs are how you win.  If your KPIs are good, then you are good.

  • My OKRs are aligned to my managers’ OKR

  • If I meet my OKRs, my department, operation, and/or product will be better.

  • If I meet my OKRs, I will be better.

  • They not only target my own benefit nor only the company’s benefit but both.

  • They are specific in either number or deliverable - work on strategies is not an OKR, work on bugs is not an OKR, read more is not an OKR.  These are lazy, bullshit OKRs, and I will call you out on them.

  • If you meet all your OKRs or get close to it, you have a clear understanding of your job responsibilities and should be on top of your game.

Finally and most importantly: OKRs are not optional, they are mandatory.  

To all managers and leads, with all the love in the world: A breakdown in the OKR chain, means a disconnection between the teams.  This cannot and will not be tolerated.

What if I don’t agree with our team’s OKRs

That would be an excellent scenario.  That would mean you think so differently from everyone else that you will be able to articulate a better strategy for the team.  Above all, you’ll be able to articulate OKRs for the rest of your team and demonstrate that your strategy will get us farther, and faster.

It is ok to fight over OKRs: outcomes are always better after heated but respectful conversations.  Do not be afraid to have them, but be ready to strongly support your points of view.  

Above everything, obsessing about your OKRs should work for you

As you know, I rarely forget anything, and that is because I create follow up tasks for everything.  But that system has reached its limits (at least for me personally), and building my OKRs for this quarter has provided me with a way to revamp my methods.  Meaning that following my OKRs should drive me to achieve more by doing less.  You read right: do less.  

Your OKRs should drive you to do less and achieve more.  This requires thought.  I read recently that In Knowledge work a task is not given; it has to be determined.  Meaning that you have to sit down and think, strategically, and not be a slave of your email or every day fires.

Which is why on our next cycle, you should deliver your OKRs 15 days before the quarter starts (September 15th).  The Leadership Team will decide on rocks and strategy during the last week of August.  Still start thinking about your process, your accounts, your products, think about your methods, and about what will drive you to achieve more by doing less.  You don’t want to be the boxer that gives out 1000 punches: you want to be fucking Mike Tyson, give two or three punches and knock the shit out of your opponent.

Big hug to you all,

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