Tips for Setting Q1 OKRs: Interview with OKR Coach Mirell Põllumäe

As a business leader, you’ve probably already begun looking back on company progress in 2021, noticing areas for improvement. Maybe you’ll even consider making some organizational culture changes in the new year. Regardless of whether the company fell short on some objectives, or surpassed them with ease – there is always room to grow and assess processes. 

We’re sitting down with Weekdone’s very own OKR coach, Mirell Põllumäe to discuss the best practices for setting Q1 OKRs. Surely there is something in here that you’ll take with you as you begin working on setting goals for 2022. You don’t want to miss her insider tips – enjoy!

Mirell Interview for Weekdone

First, can you briefly tell us about yourself? How did you become an OKR coach?

I would say that OKRs actually found me and I didn’t plan this. But I immediately became a bit obsessed with this methodology because the more I learned the more I understood why certain things didn’t work out in the past. Weekdone offered me an opportunity and I took it. 

As funny as it sounds, my past experience somehow just prepared me for being an OKR coach. I have bachelors in Andragogy which basically means I am a learning expert. I have tried and failed with startups as CEO, worked in sales, been team lead, project writer and manager and a recruiter. All this experience helped me see different sides and challenges of different organizations and teams. To understand even more how everything works or could work, I started masters in organizational behavior. 

What an interesting background! We're excited to sit down with you. Let's get started with the basics. What would you say is a common misconception people have about OKRs?

Oh, there are many misconceptions depending on how they currently approach their work and goal-setting. We are creatures of habit and we can only connect something new to our current knowledge. That means most of the people have some kind of misconception (or many of them) when they start. It’s a process to get rid of them. 

For example, I’ve heard many of our customers say that they'll do OKRs “their own way”. I have never seen them succeed with it. Maybe they succeed with good high-level project management and it looks like it works but it’s not OKRs. The outcomes and benefits of this “other way” are completely different. You can tweak the method but only after you have really learned how it works. Because then you know what you can tweak and what you cannot.

That is a great point! I know I’m a creature of habit, it’s good to recognize this and be open and willing to learn. Which is why we’re here! Can you briefly tell us 3 common mistakes you see when people start using OKRs?

First, you don’t need to “OKR everything”. OKRs are meant to drive innovation, improvement or any other positive changes. And that doesn’t cover everything people do, you still have your business-as-usual things which do not belong to OKRs. 

Second, OKRs are not the same as KPIs/metrics. Performance management is meant for tracking how your business is doing, or setting expectations of how you want it to be doing in the future. OKRs are improvement goals which single out the areas you need to improve exactly. Ideally, your OKRs should help you eventually achieve the performance you want. For example, Achieve 1 mln revenue is an okay KPI but terrible Objective. It gives no direction whatsoever. You can measure how you are doing but you don’t know which direction to go. OKRs should give that direction. 

Third, OKRs are not projects. Key Results, as the name already says, focus on results. More specifically, measurable outcomes. While projects are a list of tasks and plans. An outcome is rather something you hope to happen after you have performed an action. For example, you write a blog post (plan) and you hope that it reaches 10k readers (outcome). The core point of OKRs is to define what we actually want to achieve with our actions. If you keep writing plans as your KRs, you are not doing OKRs.

Okay and finally, OKRs are not some magic thingy which after you say you are using them will fix all of your problems. It doesn’t happen. OKRs provide you with principles, a framework, a way of thinking but your team or an organization still needs to do the work of learning, adapting, setting, discussing, executing and improving. The organization has to be ready to learn, share and have trust in it’s people. There is a learning curve in all that, you need to be ready to drive and push this kind of change in organizational culture. But I promise, it’s worth it.

What do you think about individual OKRs, do you recommend them?

From a company or a team perspective, no! You want to improve marketing as a function, not just “Marie the Marketer”. Of course, people need to improve themselves and they can use the OKR framework to set goals for personal growth but it should never switch the focus from team to individuality. It causes many problems, I wrote a full article about it, it’s here. 

The key problem is that replacing team OKRs with individual OKRs will not drive significant business results. People will be focusing only on things they can individually impact, and in many cases they will just list a lot of plans they want to execute. You rather want the team [as a function] to understand what they need to change or improve together. 

Forcing individuals to set OKRs causes more misalignment than alignment, and instead of teamwork you get individuality.

Yeah, I can imagine that causes some friction in the company workflow. So, on an individual level, how can employees measure their progress toward goals?

By setting plans to work on and later analyzing what kind of results it brought. It’s not about who’s idea was best, but rather what kind of ideas work best for this team or company. You want people to come up with ideas and test things, not scare them off by “grading” how good or bad each of their ideas have been. If something didn’t work, learn and move on to the next thing! You can use personal KPIs if you need to keep track of performance.

So you can use KPIs and Projects with OKRs?

You can and should still use them! It’s like when you dress yourself, you need pants, shirt and socks, etc. While you wouldn’t wear socks as your t-shirt – you can mix up different methods in your company!

OKRs are for setting the quarterly focus and measuring the progress against your goals. KPIs tell you about the general health and performance of your company. Projects are picked based on your goals and hope that those will bring results. Here’s more reading on that in business terms 101.

I like that analogy! So if you were to help someone put together a timeline for setting Q1 OKRs, what would that look like? 

Before the quarter starts (Q4), management should already start brainstorming and bouncing ideas around the company’s overarching Objectives. It’s good if those get agreed and shared with teams just before the quarter starts. This leaves room for teams to work on their contributing OKRs.

Teams (team managers together with team members) should start by asking the right questions, like: what do we need to create, fix, or improve as a team? The Company Objective gives guidelines to what this [contributing] OKR needs, in order to impact on a higher level. After the team has decided the focus area for the quarter they should start defining how they are going to measure the success of this Objective. That's what Key Results are for.

Once the team is happy with the OKR set and management has approved it – it’s time to start working on the OKR. One key element of the executing process is to have Weekly Check-Ins.  Those meetings help the team to discuss necessary things, share learnings and be up to date around what needs to be done. 

Good OKRs alone won’t help you, someone needs to achieve them. So make sure you have the right processes in order and that people remember to work on the agreed upon goals.

Great tips! So moving on then, when should people start reviewing OKR progress? For Q1 OKRs and beyond.

Right from the beginning! And it should be done every week. It’s about trying things out and then measuring the success of those actions. If you do things but there’s no progress on the team Key Results, you’re probably working on wrong things. Who likes to put energy into things that don't bring benefits? You would rather want to learn that fast and just try something else. Weekly cadence is perfect to spot what works and what doesn’t. 

On the other hand – if something works great, you probably want to know why and how you could use this new finding in other areas of work. It’s easy to celebrate and forget to actually analyze when things are going good. It’s equally important to understand the elements of success, as much as the elements of failure.

I love that, what a great reminder! Any suggestions for those OKR reviews/meetings? 

You are asking great questions that actually come up a lot. I feel I have written an article for each of your questions. I will summarize the tips but here’s a long answer to that question. 

First and the most important is actually the mindset. You need to be curious, you have to have the willingness to learn. That means being able to take constructive criticism – not over protecting the things you have done. Just being really curious about why some things work while others don’t. Review is about analysis and trying to provide some story of why things are the way they are. 

The most useless meeting is when everybody just reads off the percentage they achieved on their Objectives. You can email that report! If you have many people already together, use that time wisely. Discuss things, provide feedback and give your input. 

When it comes to discussions and feedback, a safe environment is crucial. Peoples opinions can’t be simply thrown aside because they are not in high position and you can’t label people’s ideas “stupid” or be mad at their opinion just because you didn’t like the feedback. 

Another tip is to ask the right questions. In many cases we don’t hear the answers we need because we simply haven’t asked the right questions. So try to approach the situation from different perspectives and get people's thinking going by throwing different questions up in the air.

Amazing! I’m inspired for my next meeting! Let’s finish with an important question: How can one tell if their Q1 OKRs have been a success?

Did you learn something useful? If yes, then you have already succeeded. Sometimes we have great success progress wise, meaning we achieve the Key Results and business benefit is exactly what we hoped for. Or, we fail with driving the results we hoped to achieve, but learn along the way. Maybe it’s not possible to drive those results yet, maybe there’s something else we need to fix before we can even focus on what we want to achieve, maybe we were simply too ambitious and need to be a bit more realistic.

Even in our team, we’ve had OKRs that “fail” miserably with even less than 20% of success. I loved those OKRs! We understood that we had a completely wrong approach or misconception about how things work, and I am glad that we came to that conclusion. Because of it, we were able to change for the better. But you can’t change what you don’t know. 

There you have it! A huge thanks to Mirell for the interview and insight. We hope you found this useful as you dive into the new year and begin setting your Q1 OKRs and beyond.

If the OKR methodology is something you're interested in applying to your business – feel free to email us at hello@weekdone.com for more information, we're always happy to help! Or get right to it – sign up for a FREE 2-week free trial by clicking below!