What are bottom-up OKRs? How do they differ from top-down OKRs? Why should you use them? We answer these questions and provide examples to foster engagement and innovation inside your organization.

Cascading goals from the top down align teams, but over-alignment can stifle creativity and individual motivation. Organizations need to find a balance between collective commitment and creative freedom. This is where bottom-up OKRs come in.

Since OKRs are transparent throughout an organization, they don’t all have to strictly flow down an organizational chart layer by layer. OKRs can skip some layers for efficiency, going from a CEO straight to a manager or individual contributor.

In organizations, like Google, where enough trust has been built between management and employers, high-level company OKRs can be presented by the company’s leadership once, and the rest of the organization is free to set their own OKRs. With this approach, individuals are not spending time waiting for the layers above them in the organizational chart to set their OKRs first.

Former Google Head of People Operations Laszlo Bock explains how that works in his book, Work Rules!: “We have a market-based approach, where over time our goals all converge because the top OKRs are known and everyone else’s OKRs are visible. Teams that are grossly out of alignment stand out.”

The transparent nature of OKRs prevents employees from siloing themselves from the rest of the organization, while still providing flexibility for them to decide how to best do the work.

Healthy organizations aim to have half of their goals come from the bottom-up. In practice, that means every contributor is free to set some of their Objectives, and most importantly, all of their Key Results. This increases engagement and motivation at all levels, which in turn increases performance and your company’s bottom line.

According to a 2018 Gallup survey, U.S. work engagement is on the rise, but 53 percent of workers still fall into the not engaged category. Unengaged workers typically do the minimum work required and are willing to leave their company for a slightly better offer. Data also shows that “organizations that are the best in engaging their employees to achieve earnings-per-share growth is more than four times that of their competitors.”

Another by-product of bottom-up OKRs is innovation, which starts on the ground. Those working closely with the people who are actually building your products and providing services directly to your customers will have a better feel for upcoming shifts and trends in the industry. Or as John Doerr says, “those closest to the problems” are better able to understand them.

You only have to look at Google’s “20 percent time” rule, that frees engineers to work on side projects for the equivalent of one work day per week, to see how bottom-up OKRs can result in innovation. Game-changing services like Gmail originated as 20 percent time projects.

In Measure What Matters, John Doerr uses the example of the fictional Sand Hill Unicorns Football Team, whose top-level OKR is to win the Super Bowl, to explain bottom-up OKRs. In the example, the team’s physical therapist learns of a new regimen at a sports medicine conference and makes the implementation of the new therapy one of her own OKRs. Although this goal does not directly align with the team’s top-level OKR, it does contribute to its overall Objective.

Bottom-up OKR examples

Let’s revisit the car dealership from our cascading OKR example, whose top-level Objective is to become the leading electric car dealership in the region. A service technician at the dealership hears that other dealerships in the nation are starting to offer mobile servicing. So, the technician comes up with the following OKR:

Run a month-long mobile servicing pilot.
Provide mobile servicing for 50 customers
Survey all customers in the pilot
Present plan to expand mobile servicing operations

Now imagine a media start-up whose top-level Objective is to operate like a top-tier media company. A social media editor at the media start-up is the first to realize that a new video-based platform is generating double the web traffic than other marketing campaigns. So, the editor sets the following OKR:

Flawlessly launch new video platform.
x average engagement/post.
x average reach/post.
x new followers by end of the month.
x% of company traffic comes from new platform.

Where can I get more information?

The OKR goal-setting system enables companies to stay on track in reaching their top priorities without micromanaging their employees. Bottom-up OKRs will foster engagement and innovation inside your organization.

Try them out and let us know how it goes. You can also learn more about OKRs by reading Measure What Matters or exploring our FAQs, Stories, and Resources.

Or, if you are looking for an OKR coach, check this out.

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