Managing expectations: this is no scholarly article, but a real-life testimony of our experiences as a SaaS scale-up with the OKR goal setting process.

Maybe you are still playing with the idea because on every virtual street’s corner somebody is talking about OKR’s, or your VC is really, really insisting you should give it a try, or you are just plain and simply fed up with the way everyone in your company seems to be working really hard in opposite directions… in that case I’m sure you’ll find some resonance in our story.

So we also decided to “try out OKR’s” about a year ago, mainly with the objective to support our scaling efforts and to keep on aligning the growing teams around our strategic goals. Basically, we wanted to translate strategy into well directed action.

LEARNING #1: “Homework before Framework”

Ever since Andy Grove pushed this vision through at Intel, and since it was picked up by the most prominent entrepreneurs of the Valley, it might as well have become the second biggest movement in the heights of Palo Alto (of course Flower Power still rules ). So we dove into some references and did our homework: we read Christina Wodtke and just loved her OKR beercards (helps if you’re Belgian ), we did appreciate the easily accessible style of lean guru Felipe Castro, we were amazed by Larry Page’s iterations at Google to drive a billion dollar company to reach its targets. There was enough zest in the boardroom to go through with it.

A small recap for those less acquainted with the methodology: OKR (acronym for Objectives and Key Results) are a goal setting framework that align strategic, tactical and operational activities in the organisation. The Objective translates your goal, the overall target you’re trying to reach. Theory wants it that you should frame them in inspiring and ambitious wording, as shooting for the moon surely will get you somewhere between the stars ✨ It goes something like: “Flood the Sales-team with a tsunami of qualified leads!”As a counterbalance, Key Results are meant to keep both your feet on the ground, they are the quantitative indicators that show you when you hit your target. They go something like: generate 1000 Sales Qualified Leads, attain 5% outbound reply rate, generate 100 extra SQL’s through web seminars…

After many challenging discussions with the Senior Management Team, we decided to go for the following framework:

  • 3-4 strategic / annual OKR’s to align everyone on the company’s priorities
  • 1 tactical OKR per team/activity per quarter to focus the efforts

We wanted to kick off in a “light” manner, to not overcharge the process. So we didn’t start with personal OKR’s to keep on focusing the team’s efforts on the company’s primary goals.This setup gives us roughly 35 objectives to define, manage and follow up on during the year. The limited number of targets allows you to keep a complete overview, and it stays manageable to track & change if necessary.

LEARNING #2: “Alignment before Definement”

It all seemed so simple. And straightforward. And we all know what’s important for the company, right? And we’re a bunch of smart guys and ladies, so how hard can it be to define 3-4 strategic OKR’s together?

We confess, first time it took us several long iterations to pin down our yearly strategic OKR’s with the Management Team. Every Head of Department had a pretty clear vision of what needed to get done within the teams, but we found it quite uncomfortable to integrate all of our different visions into a bunch of objectives that should drive the energy and efforts of literally everyone in the company.

Since teamwork is at the heart of our culture we decided to translate this into our OKR approach: strategic OKR’s are defined during participative workshops with the Senior Management Team and the CEO. After that the strategic OKR’s are presented to the different Teams, who are entrusted with defining their quarterly Team OKR so it plugs right into the strategy.

The iterations necessary to define the first quarterly Team OKR’s were just as numerous as the ones of the executive team. When we refer to the more “traditional” goal setting process, we see that in many corporate environments it is still the result of a bilateral discussion between N and N-1 (all the way down the pyramid) and the different team goals are not always communicated with the other departments. Lucky for us, at Elium we happen to develop an ace knowledge sharing tool and the communication issue of goal setting isn’t really one for us. Thanks to Elium, all our OKR’s are public and up-to-date. One thing less to worry about . If you’re curious about the way our teams define their objectives and follow-up on them, just check out our homemade template here.

However, we learned the hard way that deciding TOGETHER on what should be our most important challenges is all but an easy process. But by speaking about them we got to feel the true alignment power of the methodology.

And we are getting better at it, too. Each quarter we gain time in setting our Objectives and people get more mature and skilled in target setting. Don’t get discouraged if first rounds seems a little tedious, grant your organisation some “rounds” before it unlocks the true power of OKR’s.

LEARNING #3: “Rhythm before Process, Trial before Tool”

Yes, there are some pretty interesting OKR tools out there! But as we also were seduced by cool features and vague promises about our companies’ effectiveness, we actually got back to the “root” approach Christina Wodtke spoke about in her much acclaimed book “Radical Focus”. Any OKR can hold on a beer card!

So we started tinkering with this genius idea and created our own giant beer cards:

We still needed to find our OKR flow. Objectives are just a bunch of words on whiteboards unless people start caring about them and building their actions around them. So we set off with the “Monday commitments – Friday wins” cycle for all teams.

“Monday Commitments”: at the start of every week, teams gather around the whiteboard and define together what will be their most important actions this week. They look at what’s ahead and prioritise the activities that are likely to have the most important impact on Key Results. They talk about their confidence level, check if the Health Metrics of the Team are under control, and they find energy and comfort in the interactions. And they hit off for the week!

“Fridays are for winners”: when you’re shooting for the moon you’re up for a great deal of failure… So it’s important to gather with the team and celebrate every step ahead. Friday is about closing the cycle, about evaluating what went well and what didn’t. Friday learnings show us to focus on the impactful actions adn to drop all the rest!

But after a couple of weeks, first rhythm changes were made: the Engineering team needed a better alignment with the Product team and their Scrum rituals, and they decided to go for joint OKR’s and bi-weekly follow-ups: the commitments were integrated in the sprint planning and the evaluation was made during the retrospective. The Marketing team, also Scrum aficionados went the same way. The Sales team, on the contrary, needed to accelerate the weekly rhythm and added daily (shorter) updates to make sure everyone was in tune with the numbers. We were careful to allow those minor adjustments to keep the process alive and relevant for the different teams.

We had only two recommendations to keep a general OKR practice alignment in the company:

  • End of quarter is a hard milestone for everyone, we will evaluate the effectiveness of all teams and also that of the company
  • Each team should make sure to keep a steady OKR pulse that allows it to adjust its actions promptly when things don’t go as planned. The qualification of “promptly” is let to the good judgement of the teams.

One year later, we still haven’t got an OKR tool, since we are still on the same number of objectives per year and we manage pretty well. We created an OKR template on our Elium platform, so it is easier for teams to create and share their Objectives using the same model, and that solution is doing the job.

LEARNING #4: “Effort before Results”

“Yeah so we didn’t nail our first OKR’s…” Needless to say, we missed out on our first rounds. So it made us doubt about OKR’s all at once. Just until we finally managed to pull off a huge product change for a new market. Just until we landed the biggest contract in 2 years. Just until we organised the biggest branding event we ever did….

Looking back, we never really failed at OKR’s, we were just very busy getting into the movement. We were learning to pinpoint priorities, to commit and not to dodge when things got rough. We were learning not to blame each other for the lack of result and challenging ourselves to dig beyond the easy excuses and address new obstacles. We were growing up when we talked about objectives, because one can’t play around with people’s motivations. At the end of the day, it’s all about the team dynamics and major goals, and anything that’s in between them.

LEARNING #5: “Mission before Strategy”

The hardest part of the process is coming full circle, starting all over again each year to define new strategic OKR’s. Once the newness wears off, and the taste of experimentation has made way for a heavier sense of collective responsibility, organisations are confronted with the raw truth of defining the right objectives that contribute to the sustainability of the company. And that any company -even startups- should have a long(er) term plan that contains more than some vague business hypothesis. So we got hit in the face by our obsolete mission statement. That one hurt.

And we got down to it. It wasn’t a pleasant ride, reinventing yourself brings as much darkness as excitement to the journey. The whole endeavour drove us right into an important business pivot, switching our target market and adjusting our entire internal organisation to it. We aren’t there yet, but we’re still moving!

And that might just be the essential value of the entire OKR process, after the initial glitter wears off and you discipline yourself to proceed, your company is offered a real deep-dive into its own cycle of value creation. And once you plug into that, OKR’s are your finest ally to start creating clarity around your most crucial goals and expectations.

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