Juggling Priorities in a Startup

Explore this startup's OKR success story and how they use prioritization, alignment and strategic thinking to fuel growth.


Driven by their strategic use of OKR strategies, dive into Mantra Health’s remarkable success story. Discover how they transformed the startup through directional alignment, prioritizations and strategic thinking. Learn how Mantra Health refined their existing OKR system and planning to meet their growth needs.

When Alex Radke was interviewing for the Head of Business Operations position at Mantra Health, he was asked how he might solve one of the company’s biggest problems: it was really hard to “keep the main thing the main thing.”

Before Radke joined the organization, it wasn’t unusual to have 15 projects going on at any one time. And employees and managers thought that was just what was normal in an early stage startup.

But the “everything is important” mindset wasn’t serving the mental health company. They were still using a system that worked well when the company was just two co-founders hashing out a plan together. Unsurprisingly, that system started to break down as the company grew.

After spending his first few weeks observing and talking to people, Radke decided that the company needed a better approach to prioritization.

Refining an existing OKR system

Mantra Health was already using OKRs before Radke joined, but not quite as they were intended. “People would present an entire task list of all the projects and all the tasks they were doing,” says Radke, before bucketing them into themes and calling them OKRs. It’s a common mistake that almost always leads to a frustrating outcome — committing to doing many things but only completing a small percentage of them. And most of what got completed was the easiest stuff, not necessarily the most crucial for the company.

The company was also setting OKRs by department. Marketing, for example, would present an idea or project to the executive team. They’d express that they needed input or resources from other teams. Yet most of the time, they hadn’t communicated — let alone aligned — with those teams.

Two big changes helped Radke get the OKR process on stronger footing: limiting the number of Objectives to three for every level, and structuring the OKRs cross-functionally.

Mantra’s OKR planning starts at the top — where the co-founders and executives set the company priorities. They explain “why we’re choosing this, and how we got to this place," to the whole company. That kicks off a series of cross-functional groups that they form based on a top-line business Objective.

One example is a team dedicated to bringing new business, consisting of people across sales, product, and marketing. Those groups propose their own OKRs with initiatives that give them the best chance to achieve them. “When we aggregate all those across the company,” says Radke, “we say, ‘Hey, there are too many projects, how do we start trimming this down? And ensure we have the right resourcing to be able to deliver them and give enough space for the unknown unknowns?’”

Directional alignment between the cross-functional groups and the company’s overall goal “creates forced prioritization,” says Radke. For example, if an individual is in the middle of a quarter and “feels overwhelmed that they have a lot on their plate,” they can refer to the effort that falls “in the bucket of the number one Objective,” then identify the most essential thing to work on.

Cultivating strategic thinkers and long-term alignment

Radke also discovered that when cross-functional alignment happens at the beginning of the planning process, it boosts employee buy-in. In the past, groups waited until the execution phase to align, creating issues and conflicts as deadlines approached.

The alignment process also helps employees understand why the company must say “no” to certain projects. It sends the message of, “It’s not that the thing isn’t important. It’s just not as important right now.” As people understand that focusing on project A instead of B is about selecting the best opportunity to achieve the mission and pursuing the best odds of success, it’s easier to get them fully invested in doing fewer things well.

Now, Radke says, “People are generally bought in for finding that alignment upfront because they recognize that if they don’t, it turns chaotic in the future.”

Since joining Mantra Health, Radke has seen more employees take charge of their own projects and be more decisive about doing so. Creating a process for “keeping the main thing the main thing,” has taught people to be better strategic thinkers. They learn “how to make decisions at the company level, how they think about building a strategy, and they effectively become a mini CEO of their group.”

“It’s not that everything connects in this perfect Venn diagram,” explains Radke, but on the whole, “we are more and more aligned on how we think as an organization.”