Company alignment through goal setting: OKR implementation at KaiOS
“If you don’t know where you’re going,
you might not get there.”
- Yogi Berra
When a team is small, alignment happens naturally. You talk with each other, the information easily spreads, and everyone knows what to work on. But as a startup grows — and especially if it grows fast like KaiOS — a more structured approach to setting goals and communicating them across the company is necessary.
At the same time, you don’t want bureaucracy, nor micro-management; an ideal approach to goal setting creates the required alignment across the company, while keeping teams agile and autonomous.
OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) provide such a system. They’ve been in use at Google nearly from the start and are still their method of choice today. They were invented by Andy Grove at Intel and have since spread across startups, NGOs, and large companies because of their simplicity and effectiveness (and also thanks to their missionary, legendary Silicon Valley investor John Doerr).
Before we get into the how of OKRs, I just want to convince you of their simplicity. This is an OKR:
That’s it! The Objective is at the top (“Grow monetizable user base”) and the Key Results required to achieve the Objective are listed below it (e.g., “Reach 150 million devices shipped”). It’s that simple, no other tools required.
The magic comes from the process required to reach the definition of the OKRs, so the rest of this guide explains how to get started with OKRs:
- Set Objectives
- Assign Key Results
- Kick-off, check-in, and reflect
Shared goals align. When you know the objectives of your company, of other teams, and of your peers, it’s easier to figure out what your individual goals should be.
Goals also drive performance, and hard goals drive performance more effectively than easy ones. Without an objective to work towards, we drift. With a specific, hard goal, we reach beyond our comfort zones and make amazing things happen.
These are the components of effective Objectives:
- Well-thought out
- Not too many
- Mix of top-down and bottom-up
Your Objectives inform all your actions for the next quarter, sometimes even for the coming years! Time spent on defining them well is never wasted.
If you write down your Objectives in five minutes, they’re probably not very good. And if one Objective takes up more than one line it’s not crisp enough.
“Google CEO Sundar Pichai once told me that his team often ‘agonized’ over their goal-setting process: ‘There are single OKR lines on which you can spend an hour and a half thinking, to make sure we are focused on doing something better for the user.’ That’s part of the territory.”
- John Doerr in Measure What Matters
Not too many
The ideal number of quarterly Objectives for any entity (company, team, or individual) lies between three and five. More than five leads to a lack of focus and signals you haven’t done the hard work of deciding what’s truly important.
Mix of top and bottom
OKRs are transparent. Anyone can see the CEO’s list, and he or she (plus everyone else) can see yours. This transparency allows both top-down and bottom-up goal setting: as soon as the company or team Objectives are clear, you can start thinking about your individual Objectives and how they fit in with the larger goals of the organization.
This mix of top-down and bottom-up goals usually results in a list of Objectives that settles at around 50/50: half of the Objectives come from the top while the other half come from you, your peers, and your team.
A good Objective is significant, table stakes not allowed. For example, keeping on top of your email is a basic requirement in the modern workplace, not something to put on your list of OKRs.
“Objectives must be significant. OKRs are neither a catchall wish list nor the sum of a team’s mundane tasks. They’re a set of stringently curated goals that merit special attention and will move people forward in the here and now. They link to the larger purpose we’re expected to deliver around.”
- John Doerr in Measure What Matters
Disregarding table stakes, we categorize Objectives into two groups:
- Committed Objectives
- Aspirational Objectives
1) Committed Objectives have to be achieved. When we reflect and score Objectives at the end of a quarter (something we’ll get to soon), these need to get a 1.0 (the highest score). Common Objectives in this category include product releases, hiring, revenue targets, and sales goals.
2) Aspirational Objectives are higher-risk, bigger picture ideas. They usually express a vision, a bold idea of what you want the future to look like, even if you don’t have a clear idea of how to get there. These Objectives should be very challenging and have an expected average score of 0.7.
As a rule of thumb, your team’s Committed Objectives should consume most but not all of your available resources. Your Committed + Aspirational Objectives should consume somewhat more than your available resources.
Assign Key Results
With your Objectives set, it’s time to define the Key Results for each Objective. These are the actions that will lead you and your team to achieving your goals.
Well-defined KRs (Key Results) facilitate accountability. They provide early warning signs when Objectives are at risk but without the need for micro-management and endless reporting.
These are the components of solid Key Results:
- Outcomes, not activities
- Specific and measurable
- Accountable to an individual
- KRs complete the O
Outcomes, not activities
A good KR describes what needs to be achieved, not how it should be done. If your KRs include vague words like “consult,” “help,” “analyze,” or “participate,” they describe activities.
Instead, describe the final outcome: the effect on the end-user, the deliverable, the metrics to be reached, the date on which it should be delivered. When you do use verbs make sure they’re specific and action-oriented, like in the below examples.
Specific and measurable
Key Results are succinct, specific, and measurable. As you can see from the above examples, there can be no misunderstanding about whether a KR is completed or not.
Also make sure you use real dates when a KR includes a deadline. If every KR happens on the last day of the quarter, you likely don’t have a real plan.
Accountable to an individual
Individuals own Key Results while teams assume collective responsibility for Objectives.
Be careful not to match people to OKRs. OKRs should be created based on the Objectives of the company and the team, then people should be matched to OKRs based on their role, skills, and experience.
KRs complete the O (O = KR + KR + KR)
Completion of all Key Results must result in achieving the Objective. In other words, O = KR + KR + KR. If this rule doesn’t hold, it’s not a proper OKR.
Also keeps in mind that three to five KRs should be sufficient to reach a well-framed Objective.
Kick-off, check-in, and reflect
OKRs usually run in quarterly cycles. This rhythm gives you sufficient time for execution as it avoids an overload of planning and reporting. Once the OKRs are set at the start of the quarter you’re good to go.
On the flip side, even busy teams should pause sometimes for thought and reflection. A quarterly moment to review the last cycle and prepare for the next is the perfect moment for this.
These are the components of a quarterly OKR cycle:
- Quarterly kick-off
- Regular check-ins
- End with reflection
You should finalize and communicate the company Objectives two weeks before the start of a new quarter. Teams then set their OKRs at the start of the quarter in a meeting of several hours. Based on these company and team Objectives, individuals work on their OKRs together with their manager and finalize them at the latest one week after the start of the quarter.
Check-ins on OKRs happen throughout the quarter to ensure best results. Progress is reported, obstacles identified, and Key Results refined. Usually this is done in weekly one-on-ones between contributors and managers in which the contributor sets the agenda.
Team reviews of all OKRs happen at least monthly, and a big, mid-quarter review of OKRs — across teams and sometimes the entire company — helps to identify problems in time and allows for recalibration.
Red KRs (those that are not on track) should always get the most attention during reviews. Whenever a Committed OKR is failing, devise a rescue plan. Remember: teams are accountable for the Objectives, individuals for the KRs.
End with reflection
We take time to reflect on our OKRs towards the end of the quarter. This review is a mix of scoring, celebration, and lessons learned:
- Grade your KRs and give them a color: 0.0–0.3 is red, 0.4–0.6 is yellow, and 0.7–1.0 is green.
- Ask yourself questions. Did I accomplish all of my Objectives? If so, what contributed to my success? If not, what obstacles did I encounter? If I were to rewrite a goal achieved in full, what would I change? What have I learned that might alter my approach to the next quarter’s OKRs?
- Pay extra attention to special cases. Committed Objectives that were not met need a post-mortem. OKRs that were dropped before the end of the cycle bag the questions: what did I learn that I didn’t foresee at the beginning of the quarter? And: how will I apply this lesson in the future?
A last word of wisdom from John Doerr on grading your OKRs: “If everything’s at green, you failed.” This is especially true of Aspirational Objectives. If you’re not seeing any red, the bar was not set high enough.
Happy goal setting!
We created this implementation guide to get started with OKRs at KaiOS. We’re off to a flying start this quarter and hope it will be helpful for you and your team too. Let us know in the comments below how it’s going, we’d love to hear about your experience.
- Measure What Matters by John Doerr