OKR Check-In Learning Curve – What to Expect in the First Year (Quarterly Cadence)

by Bart den Haak | November 28, 2019

You’ve recently started with OKRs, defined company-level OKRs and your teams already have linked OKRs. You are ready to start your first OKR cycle. What things can you expect when you perform your OKR check-ins? Let’s look at different stages of your OKR implementation.

The First 90 Days

The first couple of cycles through your weekly OKR check-ins, it is vital to keep expectations in check; there are no overnight miracles. This initiative takes time, so start simple. Furthermore, chances are that within your first quarter of implementing OKRs, your team won’t have much to share when it comes to scoring and providing updates, but it is still a good idea to schedule in the weekly check-in for a number of reasons.

The Check-in

  • Work out the kinks of planning an event: making sure that there is enough seating, appropriate A/V and other equipment (screen, whiteboard, etc).

The Data

  • The first 90 days will be messy. You are learning a lot about how to collect data, finding outcome metrics that make sense.
  • While it is too early to have much usable information with the KRs, the team can still meet to reaffirm initiatives, report on any early outcomes and to catch any early roadblocks.
  • Define early on the difference between activity measures (Did it get done?) and outcome measures (For what benefit?). This helpful idea comes from Dan Montgomery’s book “Start Less, Finish More” which I highly recommend.

The People

  • Developing the routine early-on will get your team in the habit of meeting weekly. This way, when these weekly check-ins are in the 4th quarter, it will be a well-oiled machine.
  • The first couple of weeks, set an agenda reminder for attendees 15 minutes before the start time to set the tone that being prompt and prepared is expected.
  • Getting used to the idea of transparent goals and outcome measures are often a big cultural shock, and this is to be expected at this stage.
  • Be prepared for some early adopters and others that will push back or reject. In the early stages of OKRs, not everyone will be open to experimentation and out of the box thinking in order to move the needle.
  • Manage expectations: you will need to go through a full-year cycle to see the full effect of this new way of working. One of the root causes why OKR implementations fail is giving up too soon.
  • I recommend you get coached by a seasoned OKR coach to get you started soon and avoid beginner mistakes.

Tip: When starting out, pick just one (or maybe two) OKR, something achievable, to build confidence. Creating the outcome measures will be tricky enough, so better to start out with training wheels.

The Problem Areas

  • This is the learning phase so you can most definitely expect some issues (which is completely normal). It is important to deal with these issues before they become bigger problems leading to severe drawbacks, like demotivated people. Watch out for:
    • Too long (longer than 30 minutes)
    • Too boring (only reporting on status)
    • People show up late
    • No data available
    • Progress isn’t seen or felt after a couple of weeks
    • Team member(s) isn’t committed to his/her task(s)
    • Forget to talk about Health Check Metrics (this will be a future blog post)
    • Tech problems with remote check-ins (ie. no sound or screen sharing doesn’t work)
    • Data that is shared is not relevant nor linked to higher-level OKRs

Tip: If you have software development teams in your organization, you will notice that these teams pick up the OKR check-ins more naturally. Therefore, starting in these teams often helps to start training your “OKR muscles”. Later, these teams can help spread your OKR knowledge throughout the organization.

Learning curve Photo by Denys Nevozhai

After Six Months...

The Check-in

  • The major growing pains are out of the way and your check-ins are more structured, time efficient, and you’re seeing that discussions are focused resulting in improved metrics.
  • If you have remote teams you probably figured out a way to run the check-ins more smoothly. I’ll cover remote check-ins in a later blog post.

The Data

  • Now’s the time to implement a “moonshot” or two. A moonshot is a stretch goal that seems almost impossible to achieve. They force teams out of their comfort zones. This is much more challenging that the “roofshot” OKR(s) from your first quarter that are much more within reaching distance.
  • You have collected some historical data from your first quarter, so you will begin to see some significance in your data. With these data points, you can now also plot this data in charts, resulting in rich dashboards.
  • Scoring Confidence Levels is becoming easier with each passing week with the colours green, yellow or red assigned to KRs indicating that everything is on track or that there are roadblocks that need to be addressed to stay on track or that there is a need for immediate intervention
  • Encourage flexibility; there isn’t per se a deadline at the end of a cadence. Sometimes issues or challenges or opportunities emerge as time passes.

The People

  • The introduction of a moonshot into the mix will have teams facing preconceived notions of the status quo and they will be challenged and pushed into unfamiliar territory. As a leader, now is the time to step up, be patient and repeat the overarching Objective. Encourage your team to be experimental.
  • Teams understand that after 25 weeks of check-ins that this is the new way of working. People are now used to OKR check-ins and will not easily fall back to old habits. They are accountable and committed and supported by senior leaders, modelling the desired behaviour.
  • What is important from leaders at this stage is that you keep the check-ins alive. Enriching the OKR check-ins with new elements often helps, like discussing process improvements on a weekly basis as well, introducing new colleagues or combining it with celebrations or Friday wins.
Moonshot Photo by History in HD

After a Year

The Check-in

  • Most organizations see the positive return on investment of OKRs after one year.
  • The cycle becomes more predictable and the teams have now improved their skills to focus on outcomes and learning.
  • Perhaps the cadence of the OKR cycles needs to be adjusted from quarterly to something more/less frequent.

The Data

  • You will notice a big shift in your OKR check-ins as well. Instead of focussing on the confidence score and commitments you will get more focus on experimentation and obstacles.

The People

  • You observe that other teams will adopt the experimental and agile mindset sooner.
  • This is often a huge cultural shift. Now management can decide to increase the “OKR temperature” and try to challenge the teams on “moonshot” OKRs.

The Future

It will be only after two or more years that an organization utilizes and feels the full potential of OKRs. While some organizations will never reach this level of fluency and are already happy with the alignment and focus results that OKRs bring, others will want to push the envelope. Very ambitious organizations will want to go for the bold 10x goals, that is to say in the words of Larry Page, co-founder of Google: “OKRs have helped lead us to 10x growth, many times over.” This requires the organization to take a full scientific experimental approach when it comes to OKRs. This can be often so hard that people never reach this stage, but when they do, the results are long-lasting and the effect on the bottomline is felt company-wide.

Keep this in mind: OKRs are, at the core, about creating commitments, facing challenges, ongoing dialogue and adaptability. This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Would you like to become fluent in OKRs? Why not schedule a call with me?