One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. “Which road do I take?” she asked? His response was a question: “Where do you want to go?”.
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”

-Lewis carrol, Alice in Wonderland

Do you ever feel like Alice, and your company is Wonderland? Like, it’s not clear which path you should take, what tasks are a priority, how business directives can align, what outcomes to be achieved, and why it matters? Cementing these factors and ensuring success can be difficult, particularly when scaling.

“By the time we had seven managers, if you asked us, “What’s the main thing we need to accomplish today?”, well, you’d get eight different answers.”

– Zume Pizza

Indeed, wandering around like Alice is not an option nowadays. We live and work in complex, sometimes even chaotic environments and systems, we fight with uncertainty and unknowns.

We want to maintain alignment company-wide; working as one to fuel symbiotic relationships far greater than the sum of their respective parts.

Instead of petty competition to checklist personal KPIs, the mission becomes helping the team, tracking success via measurable metrics, and birthing continual, useful adaptations. Not only to survive but to thrive we need to be aligned via strong goals and objectives, thus an effective process should be in place.

A better direction – objectives as measured by key results

This is the story of Printify, a successful, fast-growing tech start-up. We’re revolutionizing the world of print on demand by presenting (and pursuing) open, ambitious goals. Indeed, company-wide clarity has long since become a critical component of how we operate.

Watch this session on Navigating product management: Startup, SME and Enterprise

In this article, we’ll share our good and bad experiences in setting, measuring, and testing OKRs goals against the fluctuations of print-on-demand eCommerce. Despite inhabiting quite a chaotic environment, we’ve adhered fast to these fine-tuned processes – constantly grinding toward key achievements and making pleasing gains. We have chosen this simple goal-setting process to achieve what matters, to impact the world, and most important to put smiles on our employee, merchant, and customer faces.

The road so far

Coordinating business goals across different teams and specialities is a beast with many heads – necessitating a properly planned course of action. As such, the entirety of any effort within our multifaceted organization is governed by a single, overarching initiative: transform the world to on-demand production!

Printify employs a multi-level OKR structure.

It all starts with identifying company-wide goals. This is done by top-level management researching and analyzing the most important targets for the company. This meta-perspective paves the way for company-wide synchronization — setting the growth direction for the next year.

Next, these broad OKRs are shared with the product and operational teams. Managers are responsible for running brainstorming and research sessions, leading to the creation of team-level Objectives and Key Results.

All of these, of course, must contribute to the primary company objectives.

Here are some of our biggest takeaways about setting tangible Objectives and Key Results

  • Set effective goals. It’s easy to mess up by setting goals that seem nice, but bring no value at all, especially if you are a newbie. Setting effective goals can be tricky, but is absolutely necessary. Get help from experienced people.
  • Objectives should have clear goals on what they achieve. For that, you should divide the current company objectives into several pieces (as an example – by different domains of contributors) and take the company objective narrowed down to your domain.
  • Key Results answer the question: “How do we know if we are getting there?”. Don’t confuse Key Results with Initiatives or Activities that answer the question: “What will we actually do to reach our KRs?”.
  • Sometimes, setting KRs is more complicated than setting the parent Objective. Key Result is a measurable benchmark. Can we easily measure each business process, every opportunity, or an unrealized value? Sometimes we can, but sometimes indicators are not that clear, they come with experience and continuous learning.
  • In our journey, we try to set Key Results that are effectively measurable. It is crucial to measure the proper indicator/level that is tightly linked with the initially defined team Objective. From the KR’s implementation, it’s important to have a dashboard with leading metrics showing progress in real-time.
  • After setting Objectives and Key Results on a team level, everyone comes together to have a discussion and defend the current team’s OKRs. Defending the OKRs is an iterative process, and could continue a couple of cycles until all contradictions are solved.
  • Once OKRs are set – we are ready to move forward. We dive deeper into KRs and plan a roadmap of initiatives that will drive our Key Results with supporting metrics. We capture and update OKRs progress in a shared space, on a weekly basis.
  • For now, we plan OKRs twice a year. Each reflection and planning session starts one month before the set cycle date. We have experimented with the OKRs cycle: quarterly and half-year. Now, we are thinking about switching back to quarterly. Experimenting with OKRs gives the opportunity to test different approaches and find the most effective way to execute the company plans.

Things to try, avoid, and repeat

The OKR road hasn’t always been pleasant and successful. We have taken some turns and shortcuts, changed directions, and even walked backwards, but it’s provided invaluable, actionable information that betters the company.

We know it all, learn it all! This is one of our values, we still are learning. We share those with you in a hope that your path could be a bit more pleasant.

  • When crafting objectives, think about your customers, their behaviors, and what outcomes are important for them.
    • Is there more to be gained?
    • Are these outcomes reasonable?
    • Is this goal(s) ambitious, or are we playing safe here?
  • When thinking about key results, go for measurable milestones that can be achieved in iterative ways to advance your objectives.
    • Can we measure this today? Is this metric fast-moving enough that we’ll see it change in the set time frame? Try to go for leading indicators/metrics instead of lagging ones. You want to see your progress on a daily basis and correct them if needed. And corrections will be needed as we work with a lot of uncertainty and can not predict the future even for several months ahead.
    • Set and visualize the metrics to control your KR progress on a weekly basis. Start your daily team sync with OKRs and metric performance observation.
  • Know the difference between Weak, Strong, and Super-Strong Key Results:
    • Weak: “Ship feature X by the end of the quarter.”
    • Strong: “Shipping feature X increases new user sign-ups by 10% this quarter.”
    • Super strong: “Shipping feature X increases new user sign-ups from 70% to 77% this quarter.” It is always better to define goals from X to Y as this will allow you to understand from what you are improving, as also always include the outcome in your KRs.
    • Avoid mixing KRs: “Shipping feature X increases new user sign-ups from 70% to 77% this quarter and increases sales from 110k to 150k”. Those should be two separate KRs, otherwise, how will you assess this KR overall if one metric is achieved and the other one is not?
    • Pairing key results. We have faced a lot of key results which are only quantity-focused, for example: “Make 20 offers to new clients”.Pairing this goal with a quality goal faced one. For example: “Close five new deals/orders” – this way you will get more focused sales calls, improve lead quality and your company will actually gain money, instead of just making offers. We want to be outcome-driven, not output-driven.
    • Hygiene OKRs: This is super useful if you have operational teams providing support or maintenance tasks. As an example, the key results could be: “Unanswered customer requests are solved in less than three days”. This KR is at 100% at all times, unless it goes over three days. It could sound like service level agreement, but in this way, it is visible to the whole company, making the team more focused and committed.
    • Committed vs. Aspirational OKRs: Committed OKRs are set to be achieved by 100% and you should be ready to adjust schedules and resources to reach the goal. Aspirational OKRs challenge teams. These goals bring innovation – it’s okay if you don’t have all the details for reaching them. Aspirational OKRs are ok if they are done by 70%, and a failure rate up to 40% is acceptable.By having both types of OKRs in your goals, you can shape the path to success in your specific context. Leaders could ask such questions: What kind of organization do we want to be next year? Do we aim to be innovative and bold, to get into a totally new market – or to compete in an existing one to gain more stability? Do we fight to survive, or is there enough money to think big? What is needed for both our business and our customers?We believe that a healthy OKRs basket should consist of some committed key results and at least one aspirational key result.
    • Don’t focus exclusively on scores. You can learn more from OKRs with scoring, self-assessment, and reflection. Here at Printify, we want to create an OKRs bazaar – a marketplace where each team has their own stall – selling to others their most important discoveries, achievements, and even learning experiences from failures. OKRs should not be boring, you can apply gamification
    • OKR shepherds. It’s crucial to show that leaders believe in the OKRs process, they are, after all, the ambassadors who lead by example. For that also leaders must create their individual contributor OKRs. There will always be those who are slow to adapt to change, some who will show resistance, but for a successful OKR execution, it is crucial for the whole company to work with no exceptions and shortcuts.Being an OKRs shepherd could be as simple as writing an inspirational email and giving a pep talk in town hall meetings. The real mastery is to do regular check-ins on OKRs progress and hold each other accountable.
    • Assign key result leaders. This helps to encourage and ensure ownership and responsibility, both on an organizational and team level. Whether it’s a product manager, engineer, designer, it could be any person from the team and organization who will work to inspire their colleagues.
    • Keep your OKR planning process as lightweight as possible. It is easy to find yourself in endless meetings when setting up objectives and key results. It’s important to have some basics in place: collect data to make data-driven decisions; have a great research process in place – speak with your customers; share insights, and have a clear vision of your goals. Or do you have a couple of months just to discover an OKR?

Instead of all the time collaborating with everyone — work in small groups. Keep your OKRs super transparent, we call it radical transparency. It will help in the setting-up process and even more to track the progress. As Daniel Pink, the author of Drive, agrees: “The single greatest motivator is ‘making progress in one’s work.”

  • Maintain focus on primary goals. While making changes to initiatives and activities is okay, make sure to protect objectives and key results. While you can adapt and tinker with them during the planning stage, only in cases where some radical change is needed you can make adjustments to the core goals.

If teams are in constant “war mode”, people will start to question the OKRs process and the time they invested in planning. If changing objectives is a must, try shortening the OKRs period or look for another goal-setting process that will better fit your current situation and challenges.

  • Less is more. It is better to set one, well-defined objective with several key results for one product team. Think twice before adding a second objective, as it can blur the team’s focus. It is always better to finish five tasks instead of having twenty tasks in progress.

Read this post on how Printify measures product manager success.

Wrapping up

Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.” – Measure What Matters.

OKRs are not a silver bullet, they can not replace strong leadership, great culture, organizational purpose, and values. If you have worked on your organization’s identity and employee satisfaction, the OKRs process will definitely help you to gain a competitive advantage.

The OKR planning process is unique for each organization; base planning on your specific operation area, product type, and growth rate, instead of copying what other companies do. Create and evolve your own process.

Here at Printify we experiment with the goal-setting process, searching for one that will work for us, not one where we need to work for a process. Remember — what matters is that your company delivers the most impactful outcome and delights customers.

Read more about creating delightful products for your users.

A lot of inspiration for this article came from the book “Measure What Matters” by John Doerr. But keep in mind, that you can only adopt these practices by testing the waters yourself. Don’t be afraid to try — just make sure to learn from the experience and adapt along the way. After all, the word FAIL stands for “First Attempt In Learning”.

As for us, our plan is to continue learning. With so much measurable data from implementing OKRs, it’s only a matter of time until we work out better ways of doing things. But, that’s the point, isn’t it?

Tomorrow, watch out for Roman Pichler talk on instilling OKRs into product management practices. See what content is coming up next in our OKR focus week!

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