Implementing OKRs Successfully Within an Organization

The Knot Worldwide / Joseph Lin Photography

Nikita Miller has always been ambitious and goal-oriented.

As an immigrant who grew up in the Jersey suburbs, “This notion of what success looks like is something I’ve always thought about,” she says. So when it came to implementing OKRs in several organizations, she was undaunted. From a product manager at an ed-tech startup to SVP Head of Product at one of the most popular wedding planning websites, Miller has seen how OKRs operate across several companies. Throughout her career, she’s learned a thing or two about introducing OKRs to an organization.

Here are some of the lessons that she shared with What Matters:

1. The fewer OKRs, the better.

“If you find yourself having 10 Objectives and each Objective has seven KRs, that tends to get really complex,” says Miller. It becomes difficult to track, and too many goals can make it harder to identify what success and winning looks like.

She also says using simple language matters. As a test, she asks, “Can someone who doesn’t know the intricacies of how we operate understand what these KRs are?” Meeting ambitious Objectives requires people from all functions and levels to get on board and “the only way that can really happen is being crisp about the impact,” says Miller.

2. Define what winning means.

Miller first came across OKRs when she worked at Knewton, a New York-based ed-tech company that built products for K-12 and higher ed institutions. It was the company’s first structured approach to goal setting throughout the organization. The OKRs resonated with Miller as a great tool for focus. “We can’t do everything, so how do we go about understanding what the most important things are for us?” she would ask.

Engaging people with goal setting was challenging, especially because of the specificity OKRs require. “There’s an accountability aspect that you have to get comfortable with,” she says.

To help get people on board, Miller taps into the feeling of winning and focusing on impact. “A lot of people know what it’s like to win. They know the feeling of being on the winning team,” Miller explains. However, “you can’t get on a winning team unless we agree what winning means.”

It is a challenge she has had to tackle at each company she’s joined. Her latest tour with OKRs is as SVP of Product at The Knot Worldwide, and even though the team is much larger, Miller says the same lessons for winning apply.

3. Get comfortable with failing.

When teams check in every month, they label each OKR as green, yellow, or red. Green or yellow means the goal is on track. If something is red, it’s a sign that they’re behind. Whenever there’s a red, Miller admits interpretations can get tricky and feelings can run high.

“Since a lot of what we do is experimentation, we do need to be comfortable with the fact that not everything is going to be green or yellow,” she says. The key is having conversations to identify why something is red, because “There is a ‘red’ that you can learn from and ‘red’ that you can’t.”

It’s similar to what What Matters co-founder Ryan Panchadsaram refers to as a “learning OKR.” When a company tries out a new venture, it can often be difficult to know which path to take because there isn’t sufficient data. Learning OKRs, Panchadsaram explains, can help companies determine a course of action by proving or disproving assumptions. In an experimentation phase, a “failure” is merely a sign to take another course of action, or revise the strategy. It’s the kind of failure that a company can learn from because it still moves them forward by either eliminating (or validating) a strategy.

4. Clearly differentiate short-term from long-term goals.

Miller also makes a point of differentiating between two types of Objectives: those that are urgent, and “build goals,” where the impact won’t be visible for several quarters. One example of a build goal is re-platforming, since migrating an app to a different platform can’t be achieved in a single quarter. However, the company can measure metrics like improvements in speed or reliability of certain services within a single cycle.

Meanwhile, an example of a short-term Objective is increasing engagement to the online store while maintaining performance in affiliate programs. A Key Result for that might be to increase the percentage of visitors that visit the store within a specific number of days.

5. Separate company goals from personal performance.

Miller also advocates evaluating personal OKRs separately from company ones.

“Measuring company OKRs with personal performance is quite tricky because of cross-functional teams,” Miller explains. For example, in software companies, an individual often intersects with three to four other teams. Some of those teams may play a leading role in executing the company OKRs, and more of a supporting part in others. Even within the same team, each member may have different roles, leading in some and supporting in others. That’s one reason why it isn’t equitable to tie individual performance to company OKRs, says Miller. When OKRs are tied to personal performance, resentments are more likely to arise, particularly if efforts weren’t shared equally.

Separating team OKRs from individual performance makes it easier for teams to have honest conversations about red OKRs too. When company goals aren’t tied to personal performance reviews, it is much easier to view mistakes objectively and apply lessons learned going forward.

For Miller, success is a constantly moving target, but defining success with OKRs has allowed her to align and empower teams of every size and stage. There may not be a one-size-fits-all approach to implementing OKRs, but the lessons Miller offers help them each aim higher and perform better.

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