Never settling: here’s how we use OKRs to turbocharge team growth

OKRs are a really big deal here at Hanno. I can honestly say that if there’s one part of our process in our Playbook that I’d recommend to others to ‘steal’, OKRs would be that thing. From what we’ve seen in our team, they’re capable of having an incredibly powerful effect on how well a team can perform.

So, what are they?

‘OKR’ stands for Objectives and Key Results, and it’s basically a framework for setting goals at work. It was first developed by Andy Grove at Intel, and then adopted by many other companies (including Google, Oracle and Twitter).

We first started using them in our team about a year ago, and since then we’ve gradually iterated on the way we use them, and learned a lot about how to do them better.

I know this sounds a bit like a dull accounting and appraisal system, but in reality, it’s far more than this. And when used in the way we use it, it couldn’t be further away from those horrible systems of manager set, impersonal targets.

As a team, we’ve easily adopted and embraced OKRs because we’ve seen just how powerful they can be for helping us to improve on a personal level. If you’ve ever found a great system for setting personal goals, you’ll know how much of a difference that can make to your life–OKRs are pretty much that kind of system, but applied to what we do at work, too, and come with the added bonus of having a whole supportive team of coaches and mentors to keep you on track!

A little background reading is probably a good idea at this point. Here are a couple of good introductions to the system:

In short, this is how they work

Just to give a practical example, here’s an example of an ambitious annual OKR. This one is actually my own big, hairy annual OKR this year. It’s to “Think deeper, learn more, and become a better coach in the process”:

A screenshot of the 7Geese application showing 4 Key Results, including blogging, speaking at a conference, reading, and watching TED talks
The screenshot here is my progress report from 7Geese, which I’ll talk more about in a minute.

And this is how it breaks down:

  • You choose an objective (“Think deeper…”), and then pick 3-4 measurable key results (KRs) which, if completed, would lead you to accomplish that objective.
  • The KRs should be clearly planned steps which will help you hit the objective. i.e. Don’t set a broad objective like “increase Twitter followers” without fully thinking out how you’ll manage this, and ensuring that those steps are covered by the KRs.
  • The KRs have to be measurable. This means that they usually need to have a number in them, which we can assess. It has to be immediately obvious whether the KR has been hit, or not–it can’t be something arbitrary and debate-worthy.
  • Since these KRs are measurable, it’s possible to calculate the progress and completion as a percentage score for each KR, and for the objective as a whole. The pass rate for an objective (the average of all of the KR scores) is 70%. So you should set objectives which are going to stretch you, and push you to achieve a little bit more than that–that’s how you can achieve continual growth. In my example above, you can see that I’m at 28% right now–a little behind target on where I’d hope to be, 5 months into the year.
  • Each objective should usually have 3 KRs. It’s okay to have fewer, if the objective is suitably ‘captured’ with 1-2 KRs, and it’s ambitious enough. You can add more, if you like, but be careful–make sure you’re keeping yourself focused. As with trying to build up habits, if you’re trying to focus on too much at once, you’ll struggle to keep all of your plates spinning!
  • At Hanno, we say that of your 3-4 objectives, at least one of them should usually be a personal one, related to an aspect of your life you feel you’d like to improve, and will indirectly affect your ability to do good work. This is a really important part of the OKRs for us, but the connection with work is allowed to be very flexible and loose. It just has to be something which will make you a better person.

In truth, one of the things I’m most proud of when it comes to the culture we’re slowly creating at Hanno, is how we’ve built up a group of people who are all hugely supportive when it comes to helping each other to grow and develop. And this is not just in terms of professional goals. One of our most important cultural values is the idea of Never Settling, and OKRs tie into this perfectly.

Isn’t this all a bit too… personal?

Signpost in a field with 'Motivation' written on it
Photo by samsaunders

A lot of shipmates do have quite personal OKRs (revolving around things like exercise, meditation, or personal goals). One of my personal KRs right now is to build up a 30 day meditation streak (it’s very easy to measure!).

To some outsiders, the way we handle OKRs definitely seems quite full-on, and perhaps even intrusive. But it’s not that we’re trying to build the mentality of being in a cult–we’re just comfortable sharing this information with the rest of the team, because we know it’s better for us in the long-run. We strongly believe in the idea that everyone should “bring their whole selves to work”, even if it takes some people a while to adapt to.

I know that I’m starting to relentlessly quote from this book in recent posts, but Reinventing Organizations explains this very well:

“Organizations have always been places that encourage people to show up with a narrow “professional” self and to check other parts of the self at the door. They often require us to show a masculine resolve, to display determination and strength, and to hide doubts and vulnerability. Rationality rules as king, while the emotional, intuitive, and spiritual parts of ourselves often feel unwelcome, out of place. Teal (Next-Generation) Organizations have developed a consistent set of practices that invite us to reclaim our inner wholeness and bring all of who we are to work.”

We’re lucky enough to have built up a team that has a great deal of trust for one another, and who are also willing to listen to feedback and advice when others are able to provide that. We’ve fast realised that when there’s a problem at work, it’s very often the case that it’s things outside of work that are causing it.

If you’re feeling stressed out because your routine is falling apart, you’re not exercising, and you’re overloading on coffee, then that has a very big impact on how happy you’ll be when you’re working.

To deny this reality, and pretend that when we’re at work, we can’t discuss anything remotely personal, seems like a particularly blind way to approach a problem, and prevents us from solving many of the issues we might have.

Not to mention, one of the best ways to hold yourself accountable and make sure you hit your goals, is to make them public. That’s what we do as a team–when you do set a goal, the whole team will be on hand to cheer you on and help you hit it.

So how do we do OKRs at Hanno?

We have 2 types of OKR:

1) Team-wide, organisational OKRs.

We set these up as 6-month goals in January and July. We discuss where we need to head as a team over the next few months, and settle on 3 solid targets. These will often cover things like finances, marketing targets, or major business changes that we want to achieve as a team.

2) Personal OKRs:

Each quarter, we all write down our personal targets for the next 3 months in areas we want to grow, both in in our careers and also in our personal lives. We set:

  • 1 annual personal OKR, usually in January of each year.
  • 3 quarterly personal OKRs, which each run for 3 months.
    • 2 of these will be work-focused, and might include shipping a certain number of blog posts, launching a new feature or improvement on one of our websites or internal tasks, bringing in new clients, or hitting a big personal goal like speaking at a conference or attending a certain number of meetups.
    • And 1 of them will probably be something related to our personal lives. Fitness, habits, exercise, reading, or even skills outside of work such as learning a new language.

The team OKRs are all written down and defined before we pick our personal OKRs. So the idea is that you can then look at those team OKRs, and pick at least a couple of your own personal OKRs so that you have alignment with the team goals. If everyone was working on tasks which were totally disconnected with where the team needed to be heading, then we’d have a problem! So this system is designed to avoid that.

We’re personally responsible for these OKRs, but of course, others will look out for us and do what they can to help, if needed. The idea is that all of our OKRs are visible to the whole team, and we all try to coach each other and provide plenty of motivation to make sure everyone is making the time to focus on hitting the goals they’ve said are important to them.

Our quarterly OKR timeline

A paper calendar on a desk
Photo by skorecky

We have a couple of key steps:

  1. 2 weeks before the end of the quarter, we’ll begin to review our performance on our current OKRs, and think about what we could have done better. If it’s December or June, we’ll also be discussing our 6 month team-wide OKRs, too.
  2. In the 2 weeks which follow, we’ll start thinking about the goals we’d like to meet in the next quarter. We’ll grab the Shipmate OKR Draft template and make a copy of it. This is what we’ll use to pull together some draft OKRs.
  3. By the 1st day of the new quarter, we’ll send over a draft of the new OKRs we’re thinking of, to our coach. This will be another shipmate on the team.
  4. We’ll have a call to discuss that draft with our coach. During the call, we might make some adjustments to make the OKRs more effective.
  5. After the call, once we’re all wrapped up, we’ll add the finalised OKRs into 7Geese. At this point, they’re locked down, and we don’t change them.
  6. We’ll then check into 7Geese weekly and make sure we’re updating people on our progress.

Doing it better: a few tips and tricks to do it well

Over the last year, we’ve learned a lot of lessons in how to do a better job of setting these goals, and staying on track:

  • It can be easy to neglect OKRs unless you’re reminding yourself of them regularly. Your routine is up to you, but we’d recommend adding recurring tasks in your to-do list:
    • Every Monday, or Friday: review OKR progress and update 7Geese with it. Many of us do a ‘weekly review’ to assess how much we’ve achieved this week, and it’s easy to look over our OKRs in this review session, too.
    • 15th March, recurring every 3 months (i.e. 2 weeks before the deadline): start planning OKR draft.
    • 1st April, recurring every 3 months: send our OKR draft to our coach.
  • If you don’t have a lot of experience setting goals like this, you’ll probably misjudge your first set of OKRs. We had that experience in our team, and found that as long as we made sure to learn from it, it wasn’t a big deal. Our second quarterly OKRs were much more successful. Try not to be too harsh on people, first time around, nor to give up on the process.
  • For habit-based OKRs, where we’re trying to track something “3 times a week” or “every workday”, we all use a habit app on our phones. Our two top picks are Habitbull for Android and Strides for iOS.
  • Don’t overdo it! Especially with the personal OKRs, it’s hard to juggle a lot at once. You can realistically only build one strong habit at any one time, to try not to bite off more than you can chew.
  • Coaching is important, especially for less experienced teammates. The role of the coach is not to tell people how to do things, but rather, to keep them on track and make sure they don’t slip back. If you fall behind on an OKR, or neglect it for the first few weeks of a quarter, it can be very hard to regain ground. The coach can play a really important role here–partnering up as ‘buddies’ to help spot each other on goals, is a great idea.
  • The ‘justification’ for the objective is really important. You’ll see this in our OKR draft template too. It might sound s little pointless, but you should try and write a very personal, evocative justification that sums up exactly why this objective is important to you and the team. This not only helps you to focus on what you want to achieve while you’re setting your OKRs, but can also be a really important reminder when you’re halfway through the quarter, and have lost a little motivation to complete the task. It makes a surprisingly big difference!

Hopefully all of these tips and tricks will help you to set better OKRs! And we’re always looking to improve the way we do them, ourselves–if you’ve got any further advice, I’d love to hear it!