Why OKRs Are Not Just Another TLA

OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results

Many companies use OKRs (objectives and key results) as a way to measure individual, team, and company performance.  There are as many ways of using OKRs as there are companies using them:

  • Some OKRs bubble up from the individual, to the team, to the department, and on up to the company level.
  • Some OKRs are set by the executive staff and are handed down to the departments and teams to map onto their own set of goals.
  • OKRs can be about personal development and inform career trajectory.
  • They can be tied to bonus structure.

While not entirely unique, our approach to OKRs in Valimail R&D is, like much of what we do, based in pragmatism. We set a high bar that has been agreed upon across R&D. As a team, we break these higher level goals into three or four component parts that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based (SMART).

It’s generally good practice to implement OKRs that are SMART because, otherwise, it’s challenging — if not impossible — to measure success. But while SMART goals are a well-established best practice, it can often be hard to bring this thinking into quarterly planning. If you only think about OKRs once per quarter or once a year, you never really get skilled at framing our objectives and results in a SMART way.

Instead, look for SMART components that you can monitor and track frequently. For Valimail R&D, we look at our OKRs at the beginning of each sprint planning session to keep us thinking of long-term goals and to ensure our sprint goals align with the bigger picture.

Getting Aligned Toward Business Goals

Just as important is the practice we have here at Valimail of mapping OKRs from the business goal, to the actual product epic, down to the user story. We do this for every business objective we are tracking.  Because we’re not using OKRs that are tangential or orthogonal to our product roadmap, we aren’t struggling with competing priorities. Everyone knows what the number one priority is and how to evaluate whether or not we’ve achieved it.

As a result, everyone on the R&D team is working toward common, measurable and meaningful goals.

I’ve seen companies succeed at setting goals and objectives — but more often than not, when the end of the quarter rolls around and it’s time to set new goals, there are more than a few grumbles. This is a sign that perhaps the process is too heavy. In other words, the frustration of having the meetings is outweighing any perceived good.

So it’s just as important to keep OKRs and their surrounding process sized to match the company. Even more important, you need to make sure OKRs are engaging to the people at the company. Because Valimail is a relatively early-stage, nimble startup, we’ve created a lightweight process that we can evolve as needed, with goals we can reasonably achieve in the allotted time.

How to Make OKRs Work For Your Company

If your company is struggling with competing priorities, if there’s a lack of clarity or vision, or if you’re finding challenges communicating the vision and goals within the company, it may be time to consider a lightweight OKR process.

If you already have an OKR plan and are still running into roadblocks, evaluate the process — no process need be set in stone. A true agile shop will always be iterating, even with the processes they’ve put in place.

Look at your OKRs and the process around them to identify any bottlenecks, problems, and requirements. Then nurture it just like you would any product.

Some things to consider:

  • Are your OKRs too vague and not SMART?
  • Are they aligned with the product roadmap or do they require side work?
  • Are they too easy to achieve? Truly well-crafted OKRs should feel like a stretch and push the team to excel.

Look to your own team and ask them, as we’ve done here at Valimail, to create a Goldilocks process — just the right size, in the right amount of time. And remember that what’s “right” may vary wildly from organization to organization, team to team and even need to evolve over time.

With proper OKRs, you have a map that shows you not just where you’re trying to go but also why it is so important to the business. From HR to Engineering, a quick glance at quarterly OKRs should tell a consistent and meaningful story. Sprint smarter by sprinting in the same direction.

Finn Dannin is a former senior product manager at Valimail. After graduating from UC Berkeley, Finn joined a small startup called Splunk. There, they worked their way from technical support through education and documentation, finally landing in product management. After Splunk, Finn worked at other small startups during their growth phase, including Twilio and Recurly. They took a short hiatus from full time work in software to spin up a consulting firm as PM/UX for hire with seed stage startups, while also pursuing education in the somatic arts, becoming a Certified Balanced Body Pilates instructor and a Certified Massage Therapist in California. Now Finn is back in tech full time and enjoys melding the soft skills they learned as a somatic arts practitioner and the business acumen gained by running their own business with their ongoing product management and user experience design career.