Who should set OKRs for your team?

A conversation with Andrew Beebe, Managing Director, Obvious Ventures

Michael Boykin,Yellow Squiggle
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Ahead of Range’s mini-conference on goal and OKRs, I sat down for a quick conversation with event panelist Andrew Beebe to get an idea of how he thinks about OKRs and his experience helping teams manage them. Andrew is the Managing Director of Obvious Ventures. Here’s what we discussed.

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MICHAEL: OKRs are so often used to set company priorities, and those priorities often determine the focus of departments and teams. Do you believe OKRs are a top-down tool for dictating what a team’s work, or should there be a bottom-up component of as well?

ANDREW: I’ve seen objectives and key results (OKRs) work in many ways. When I’ve implemented and helped teams implement OKRs I’ve found them to be both a tool for setting corporate objectives and one that goes up and down the corporate hierarchy. I’ve also seen them emerge from the bottom up for individual purposes, which ultimately went on to impact a company’s success.

I think OKRs are most effective when teams make the process of creating them iterative—from top-down, bottom-up, and back.

MICHAEL: What do you find most often stands in the way of teams achieving their goals and objectives?

ANDREW: A couple of things. First, I would say incorrectly setting OKRs. The process of deriving OKRs can be difficult, especially if teams haven’t effectively implemented them in the past. Another obstacle is the lack of adherence to those goals or objectives by leadership. By this I mean not having buy-in support, consistency in communication, and reference from the top. Leadership adhering to what has been set forth is absolutely critical.

In addition to both of those obstacles, another challenge teams face is finding a way to anchor OKRs in the values and purpose of the company — the actual mission and values used to drive the culture of the business. This is a critical part of the process for creating objectives that some, unfortunately, leave out.

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MICHAEL: How would you advise a manager who says to you “My team is great at getting their work done but they struggle to write goals? Should I just write their goals for them?”

ANDREW: Management can sometimes be a bit like being a therapist. You’re working to understand the root causes and really get under the hood. In this situation I would ask a series of questions:

  • What work is your team great at getting done?
  • How do you know if your team is doing great work?
  • How do you know if they’re doing work that makes the company great?

It’s not enough to say your team is great because they’re great problem solvers and can handle whatever you throw at them. It’s also not enough to say they get everything done on time and are highly efficient. Goals and objectives, when set correctly, are the key to answering these questions.

Relatedly, I don’t believe people can write goals on someone else’s behalf, but teams can sit down and craft them together. Set aside time to get together, sit in a room with a whiteboard, and tease the ideas out of them — or into them.

At the end of the day, it’s most important that you and your team agree on what success looks like and how that success is defined. Defining success is what OKRs are all about.

MICHAEL: That makes me think of another question. How often do you find people forget the intent behind OKRs?

ANDREW: For those who haven’t been trained on OKRs, I’d say people forget the purpose of OKRs 100% of the time. OKRs are something you have to do more than once or twice to really get down pat. They’re simple to understand, but not easy to implement. Implementation requires education on the practice, or great software — usually both.

The idea that people will throw up their arms and say “I tried, and I just can’t write my OKRs” is completely logical. It’s normal and often the reality. There’s no shortcut. You’re going to have to give OKRs the attention they deserve and invest in them.

MICHAEL: Back to that hypothetical from before. How might you respond to “Should my manager’s key results be my objectives?”

ANDREW: You have to remember that with OKRs you aren’t trying to measure every result. You’re trying to measure key results. The same goes for objectives. With OKRs, these are objectives that define success, not objectives that define all activities.

So to that specific question, I would come back with an example. For instance, let’s say I run a sales organization and my objective is to own 60% of market share. I’ve done some math and one way the team and I can accomplish that objective and measure our success is by our ability to sell $400 million worth of product in Q2. Another approach could be growing the sales order backlog for Q3 to equal X. Those are measurable key results that matter and help me determine my success with regard to accomplishing my objective.

I wouldn’t cascade a key result down to someone’s objective. In this example, the US sales president under me might have the same objective or one where they have to hit an overall sales number that contributes to that 60% market share objective. Either of those would work. Cascade objectives down and create a different set of key results.

The real message for me is “Can everybody understand how their OKRs tie back to the high-level objectives of the company?” Sometimes team or individual OKRs will be two steps removed from a company objective — it might even cross teams — but you should be able to get there. If you can’t, then maybe that isn’t an objective you and your team should be responsible for.

MICHAEL: Last question for you. How much personal control or influence should individuals have over their goals and objectives?

ANDREW: There are a lot of ways to be successful with the management, self-management, or lack of management with regard to OKRs. However, the best practice that I’ve seen work and have used myself is when OKRs are set between an employee and their manager, collectively, and monitored and discussed over time.

OKRs should be changed infrequently, likely on a cyclical basis — meaning we will determine each quarter if we change them, but not until then and not after then — and always with the approval of the manager. OKRs should never be changed by the employee alone. I say this only because, nefarious behavior aside, doing so could easily create a situation where every team member accomplishes their objectives while the company does not.

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Who should set OKRs for your team?
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