Objectives and Key Results are a simple and powerful management tool, which is credited with being the underlying reason for the success of firms like Google Inc.
The adoption of Objectives and Key Results by any Startup cannot come with a recommendation bigger than the fact that Google adopted them 20 years to make startup history with its success. One may say that success like Google’s cannot owe everything to its adoption of OKRs, but the fact that Google stayed with this simple and powerful management tool for longer than 20 years carries its own strong message that startups would do well to adopt OKRs as an organizing principle for their performance.
Why should we look at startups differently from organizations, in general? Do they need different strategic approaches when compared to established entities? Let’s try and answer these questions by first looking at what startups need. This would be at the very beginning as they set off on a journey, which needs them to define their mission and vision right. They have the potential to scale up and turn into unicorns, but only if they got things right. To succeed, startups would need many aspects of their operations management to be put in place. To set OKRs, they would need the right thought process too. They would need to find the time to think through and define things to put the right OKRs in place.
Most startups are under-staffed and operate in chaos. Tasks that need immediate attention spill over to the next day, as people fight to get things to a semblance of order. How many of them would be able to find the time to set the right OKRs in place? Ask Google!
Jokes apart, if startups invest the time needed to define and set OKRs for themselves, they can ensure that they execute things right and deliver growth. OKRs will help them stay on course to their goals and make sure that they do not deviate from the path, stay aligned as a team, and never lose focus.
OKRs offer any startup the right kind of discipline. This would be discipline it needs, to stay on course. By following the OKR methodology, with a set of objectives and key results to be achieved, startups can continuously regulate their activities to focus on results and work single-mindedly to achieve them. OKRs help a startup to get into the rhythm of work by setting goals. They can be set even for single members, teams, or just the top managers – much like personal resolutions made at the New Year. Big teams make it harder to implement, measure, or manage. But it would work if teams adopt it separately and motivate more teams to follow suit. Try and try again, without looking to have a perfect plan the first time around.
When picking OKRs for a startup, the question would come up as to how many would be needed. It may not always be easy to set goals and pick specific OKRs without having access to any data or historical trends, with a startup. Where data is missing, use the business aspirations, and projected expectations that initially fueled the business plan of the startup. They can then factor in the actual performance, as they go along, to set more realistic goals and a baseline later. Initially, it makes sense to pick OKRs which are neither too many nor too few. It’s necessary to stay realistic and ensure that they will drive performance. No target is to be set so low or so high that it will be missed by a mile. Achieving at least 70% of an aspirational goal works far better than setting a low goal and achieving it without much effort. Determine what needs to be prioritized and rank them in that order of priority, if possible before setting the OKRS. Get in the data to track and monitor the results and pin the accountability as appropriate.
There’s no point in pursuing an idea when there are no takers, like setting up a café in the boondocks. But all business ideas don’t offer a clear insight into their viability, right at the outset. Many startups hone their business idea or product as they start working with it and develop it into a full-fledged business idea. Sometimes, even brilliant ideas fail because they do not have enough willingness to pay customers. Others perform far lower than expected because of how customers perceive their product. Markets sometimes reject a product though initially, everyone including the investors into the company would have bought into its attractiveness. A prime example of this would be the self-balancing hoverboard Segway which was supposed to change the way the world lived. OKRs can help to validate the expectations behind a business plan and re-affirm its viability using set time-bound metrics for results (e.g. sales achievement) and track them diligently.
As a startup keeps growing, its culture, productivity, and alignment with the original goals adopted would all be in flux and nothing could anchor it better than OKRs. Check-in at regular intervals to get feedback, review OKR updates, and decide the next steps. Ensure that when OKRs are reviewed, the focus is entirely on the achievement of the objectives, and not at all on the performance of the people involved in achieving them. Performance of the people will be a secondary focus!