OKRs - When, how, and why you should start

OKRs - When, how, and why you should start

OKRs can be beneficial to a large majority of companies. But when is it best to start with OKRs? We asked strategy experts for their input.

When should I start with OKRs?!

You've decided that the OKR framework is the one for you and you've read up on how to get started, so it's now a question of when to start! Starting with OKRs can be a daunting process, so we asked our group of OKR experts when they believe companies should get the OKR ball rolling. Whilst many suggest there's no time like the present, there are a few interesting caveats including considerations for company size, failure with other frameworks, stages of growth, and more.

Cansel Sorgens

Cansel Sörgens, Business Coach, OKR Coach & Trainer

Any time is the best time to start using OKRs.

If you’re a founder, OKRs can help you refine and evolve your vision and strategy during the foundation.

If you’re a startup, OKRs can help you to find the market fit as fast as possible.

If you’re a scale-up, OKRs can help you to create alignment, and focus on things that matter.

Every organisation has different challenges at any stage to overcome, and OKRs can help, as long as you are aware of these and willing to do what it takes, even if it means challenging your own beliefs.

Christina Wodtke

Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus Author, OKR Expert, Consultant & Stanford Lecturer

All sizes can benefit from OKRs, but you'll use them differently and you need to modify the process for the company size. 

Before product-market fit, a startup should have one OKR: get to product-market fit. This can be a fabulous conversation for the founders because they can say “how do we actually know when we've got product-market fit?” What numbers will move? How far? One of the hardest things about being in a start-up is knowing when to close it down, when to admit you failed. You can lie to yourself for many years running up horrible credit card bills or annoying your investors. At the beginning of using OKRs, you may not know what your key result should be, but the practice of measuring will teach you what the numbers can be, what they should be and if you can actually move them. 

The opposite end of the spectrum is giant companies. There's a point in company growth where you can't have 1 OKR except in times of great crisis. I have seen a big company set a single OKR set around digital transformation or to figure out what to do about social networks, and that makes sense. But most of the time giant companies should have --as a rule of thumb-- 1 OKR per business model per quarter. It's hard to imagine Google having the same OKR set for self-driving cars and adsense, after all. Big companies have to decide where it makes sense to use them. As well as business unit, product teams can benefit. Service teams struggle with OKRs when a company is small because they don't own their time. Once they are big enough to have dedicated hires for their processes and internal projects (code debt, scaling, pattern libraries and other efficiency measures) then a service team can use the Radical Focus approach to get those useful strategies done. Always ask "why do we want to use OKRs here" and the answer should let you know what -- and if!-- you should use them with a given team. 

If you've got a strong healthy company with psychological safety and a clear strategy then there's no reason you shouldn't be able to benefit from OKRs. You just have to figure out how to get the most out of them. 

Kenneth Paul Lewis

Kenneth Paul Lewis, Co-Founder, and Director at OKR International, Angel Investor, and Leadership Coach

The best stage is after an organisation has: 

  • Achieved a sense of product market fit.
  • Decided to break its shackles of incremental growth and wants to raise its ambition
  • Wants to include its people so that it can unleash the potential of the organisation.
  • Accepted that which has got them here (status quo), will not get them there (aspiration)
  • It doesn't matter if you are a funded, bootstrapped, growth/consolidation stage or traditional organisation. What matters is the willingness to go beyond and enlist its stakeholders to achieve that ambition.
Mukom Tamon

Mukom Tamon, Chief Excellence Officer™️ Academy, OKRs, 4DX & Lean Six Sigma expert (@perfexcellent)

OKRs are stage-agnostic. At every stage of the company’s development, if you can find KPIs that are not green, you can use OKRs. If you have strategic objectives yet to be accomplished, you can use OKRs.

Paul Niven

Paul Niven, Global OKR Coach & OKR Author

One of my favourite adages is this: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today. So it is with OKRs, if you’re a startup there is no better time to introduce OKRs in order to drive focus, alignment, and ultimately ingrain the system into your culture and produce generational dividends (as was the case with Google). Having said that, as the second part of the tree adage suggests, the second best time is today. Why not commit, right now, to avail yourself of the powerful benefits conveyed by OKRs?

Monica Batsleer

Monica Batsleer, Senior Partner of OKR Matrix

I would say if the company doesn't have any management installed it could be easier. But any organisation or even area that is not satisfied with their process, and is facing some kind of difficulties that OKRs could enrich, can implement it. The correct moment is always when the executives of the company are willing to change.

Omid Akhavan

Omid Akhavan, OKR Coach at OKRs.com

Establishing the right OKR culture early on will be much easier and help a lot in the long run, however, certain prerequisites should be in place before introducing OKRs. For example, I “generally” advise startups to start using OKRs after their product-market fit and once they have a sustainable business model so that they could actually come up with strategies and goals. Before that, they are just busy with experimentation & pivoting, hence, OKRs could actually do more harm than good. 

Also, very small companies with like 10 employees may not get much value out of OKRs. Instead they may see a lot of value when they grow over let’s say 20 or 30 (white collar) employees when teams start to shape up and communication, alignment, collaboration, goal-setting, prioritisation, engagement, etc. issues start to surface.

Allan Kelly

Allan Kelly, Agile OKR Coach & OKR Author

5 years ago. The second best time to start is today. Every company battles with priorities, every successful company has too many things to do and too many objectives. OKRs give you a mechanism for winnowing and communicating what is, and is not, important right now. 

Carsten Ley

Carsten Ley, OKR Goal-Setting Coach

Any stage, we can offer OKRs for a sole founder first to action his / her strategic planning, for MVPs and set-up of start-up companies, for traditional companies who want to shift from KPI to OKRs for more aligned management and better employee experienced and for any company who needs a 3-6 months adaptive planning and execution cycle in order to keep up with the pace of the industry and global developments.

Saba Ghafari

Saba Ghafari, OKR Coach & Organisational Development Professional

Growth stage. However, in each stage you are about to start using OKRs, first of all it is better to ask questions mentioned before. (Question No. 6 Answer - Are we ready to have OKRs at all levels? Are we ready to listen to everyone involved? Are we agile? How do we respond to change? Are we result-oriented?)

Madeleine Silva

Madeleine Silva, OKR Coach & Trainer

Sorry if I repeat these answers many times, but it might depend on the company, their necessities and culture. I just recommend, if you want to start with OKRs, start simple, learn fast and throughout the result we will get, we can improve it. 

Christina Lange

Christina Lange, OKR Coach & Speaker

It’s always the right time to start. I would even say: The faster you start, the earlier you learn. 

Richard Russell

Richard Russell, OKR & Leadership Coach

Usually I think the current stage is best - OKRs are like trees, in that the best time to plant a tree is in the past, but the second-best time to plant a tree is now. For established companies, the change can be harder as the culture is already somewhat fixed. It can take a burning platform - or at least a disruptive CEO - to create such a change. For early stage startups still searching for a product or business model, doing OKRs in a lightweight way can be very easy and set the culture in the right direction from the beginning. 

Bart Den Haak

Bart Den Haak, Consultant & OKR Author

OKRs can be used at multiple stages of a company’s evolution. However, the impact of OKRs will be different. Start-ups will use OKRs to find market fit. Scale-ups use OKRs to focus on improving customer value to establish growth or to take the company public. Established organisations can use OKRs to optimise their operational excellence. 

Paul Barker

Paul Barker, OKR & Strategy Coach

After working with clients ranging from startups to stock-exchange listed organisations, we are convinced that it can work well within any environment, provided that the culture allows for it. We’ve seen it fail at both ends of the spectrum, and we’ve seen it work beautifully at both ends of the spectrum. Address the deployment parameter, ensure the rationale for implementation is clear, and create an empowered culture, then there’s no better time to start than now. 

Mike Burrows

Mike Burrows, Lean, Agile, and Kanban Pioneer

I don’t know if there is a best stage, rather it is that good or improving organisations know when something isn’t working and are ready to try alternatives. Whether that something is uncoordinated team-level innovation or something stifling them from above, OKR does have some answers.

Brad Dunn

Brad Dunn, Chief Product Officer & OKR book Author

Any stage really, but I’d say when a company is under 150 people and you have more command and control leaders in place - it will be less effective i’d say. But I have seen small companies, under 20 people get great results. So it may be a bell curve situation where over about 20 people and under 150 it gets a bit harder. But I haven’t exactly done the math on this either - it’s just a gut feel.

Jean-Luc Koning

Jean-Luc Koning, OKR & Systemic Coach, Founder of OkrConsulting.fr

All organisations can benefit from implementing OKRs at all stages of their development. The example of Google shows us that applying OKRs right from the beginning leads to unsuspected results. Nevertheless, it seems that the best time for a company to implement OKRs is when it becomes aware of the need to align its strategy with its purpose. But this awareness does not usually appear right away. During its first phase of growth, the company is too busy growing in all directions.

Then comes the time when the company questions itself, often after a period of plateau. This is when it becomes relevant (essential) for the company to bridge the gap between the strategy it has defined and its execution. As Nash Billimoria puts it "In the absence of purpose, OKRs can still be effective but they are unlikely to be transformational because they don’t tap into our innate purpose superpowers.

Mark Richard

Mark Richard, OKR Coach

As soon as possible

Khalil Medina

Khalil Medina, CEO & OKR Coach


Did you miss our last expert blog? See the common similarities in companies succeeding with OKRs!

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