Getting Specific with OKRs

How Paperless Post empowers teams to set good goals.

Carrie Farler, Head of People at Paperless Post

Some of us (ahem) are old enough to remember the excitement of receiving invitations in the mail to someone’s special event. While flipping through a mundane stack of bills, it was always a pleasant surprise to come upon a romantic wedding invitation, an elegant request to attend an anniversary party or baby shower, or a classic graduation announcement.

While technology has significantly reduced the amount of physical mail and saved millions of trees, Paperless Post ensures that we never lose the exhilaration associated with sending and receiving invitations to special events.

The company provides customized online invitations (as cards or flyers) for weddings and baby showers, brunches and picnics, dinner and cocktail parties, book clubs and game nights, and just about any other type of event that you can think of. The service also offers features that are harder to do with physical mail, such as making it easy for guests to RSVP via links, or coordinate cancellations and postponements.

Let teams decide how the work gets done

There are several online invitation companies, so what sets Paperless Post apart from competitors? Carrie Farler, Head of People at Paperless Post, believes it’s the company’s best-in-class designs and ease of customization. “None of our competitors in this space really take the design of the invitation as seriously as we do,” Farler explained. The company, which boasts 100 million users, has 70 employees and includes designers, artists, letterers, and copywriters.

Another reason Paperless Post has been able to take a bite out of the online invitation market: it doesn’t operate like a typical small company. In smaller companies, especially organizations that are still founder-driven, Farler says there’s a tendency to give employees a list of strategic priorities or specs that tell them what to do. “One thing that sets us apart from other employers of our size is the collaboration across the whole company.”

This commitment to collaboration provides a competitive business advantage as well as an employer branding advantage. And the company walks its talk — with collaboration becoming cross-functional OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). “We engage the team in the OKR process,” says Farler, “We take into account what the people who are doing the work think. They have a voice in how work gets done.”

users discussing objectives and key results, OKRs

Cross-functional OKRs and transparency drive results

Paperless Post started using OKRs in 2013, six years before Farler joined the company. Like most organizations, the process needed to be tailored to their needs and culture. “It took years of iteration to arrive at the version of an OKR system that works well for us,” Farler recalls.

The revamp was instrumental in helping the company clarify its top priorities and refine the approach quarter over quarter. Today, Paperless Post’s roadmap reflects a lot of things happening at one time, all leading to one goal.

Farler says OKRs have helped the organization provide more transparency around how strategic decisions are made as well as performance against strategy. Since the most impactful work typically takes more than one quarter to accomplish, OKRs also provide accountability to ensure that teams accomplish what they set out to do on a quarterly, semi-annual, and annual basis.

We started using OKRs as a way to set more ambitious goals, and to align several teams toward the same goals so that we could execute plans that continue over a few quarters,” says co-CEO Alexa Hirshfeld. “Any team at the company can set a big goal, but you need a plan to get there. For us, OKRs offered a framework for working backward from big goals.”

One key to success is to make sure that OKRs are not overwhelming. While they try to limit company-level OKRs to three each quarter, Farler acknowledges, “We don’t always hold ourselves to this because sometimes that would mean excluding important bodies of work.”

The company currently has two products – Cards and Flyers. As an example, if one of the cards or flyers team has an Objective to grow the number of events sent by a certain percent, then the next step would be for people to work together with the teams to come up with how to achieve it.

The resulting OKR for one content team could look like this:

Grow Flyers by X percent by the second quarter.
Grow in the Fourth of July category by X percent.
Grow in quinceañera by Y percent.
Grow in adult birthday by Z percent.

There’s no single way to do OKRs right

OKRs enable Paperless Post to establish both clear direction and constraints to work within. “But they also allow employees to have ownership over the work they do, and understand the ‘why’ behind it,” Farler says.

She also believes there can be a level of complexity regarding how specific leaders and managers need to be with top-down direction. “You can’t just toss out the OKR buzzword and apply it in an identical way across any company, or even across goals within a company. We’ve come to realize that it’s not a one-size-fits-all formula. The degree of specificity definitely varies by the goal,” Farler added.

For example, if the company knows it wants to build a specific product or feature and there’s a clear vision and definition for it, then the Objective is specific — even at the top level. However, if the company has a more open-ended goal, such as “grow revenue from X to Y,” there may be several routes to take to achieve it that could work. In that case, make the OKR more metrics-driven.

Over time the team learned that the more decision-making they put in the hands of the people doing the work, the better. “The best results come when you give the doers — who are closest to the work–agency,” Hirschfeld advises. “Be as specific as you have to be and no more. Leave room for the team to decide the details in as many places as they can.

If you’re interested in starting our OKRs 101 course, click here.

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