Choose right OKR level

Category: OKR University.

OKR Rollout Options

One of the most important decisions to make while launching your OKR program is to decide specifically at what level you choose to set your OKRs. There are four levels at which OKRs can be set:

  • Corporate OKRs
  • Department OKRs
  • Team OKRs
  • Individual OKRs

Most businesses use 2 or 3 levels to set OKRs. Corporate OKRs are almost always there. Other levels are included or excluded based on the strategy. So, using a combination of these four levels of OKRs, you can actually decide to launch your OKR program in five different approaches:

OKR approach of org levels

You can start with one and work your way to your desired position

At least from a’s standpoint, you don’t really have to pick one and stick with it, you can really change from one approach to another approach as you progress down your OKR program or even completely change if needed. So, the product offers that flexibility, but it’s also important to put in the right amount of effort in the right approach to begin with, so you don’t end up wasting a lot of time going back and forth and figuring things out when you’re in production.

Thinking ahead will help you establish a roadmap for your OKR journey

A lot of thought needs to go in at the beginning to understand the benefits and shortcomings of each of these approaches and how it would actually suit for your business and go from there. Right? That’s really important to think ahead, understand the different options here and establish a roadmap for your OKR journey, which again can be fine-tuned as you go, but having that roadmap clearly in your head is really important. So, the five options that we have here are:

  • Get a feel for OKRs
  • Department centric
  • Individual centric
  • Department centric, but individuals as needed
  • Cross functional initiatives.

So, we’ll be seeing each one of them and what it actually means conceptually in this particular post.

Get a feel for OKRs

This can also be called real basic corporate OKRs. As you can see here, I’m calling it get a feel for OKRs. So, you only enable corporate OKRs in this case. Department OKRs, team OKRs and individual OKRs are turned off. We’ve seen small companies take this approach. Basically, less than 15 to 20 employee companies and others who are at the beginning just do corporate OKRs. They sometimes even go beyond the recommended number of five OKRs, five objectives and sometimes go to seven, eight objectives, but keep all of them at the corporate level and then have key results underneath them assigned to individuals who are functioning in the company.

Get a feel for OKRs approach

Can be a great first step

So, it’s really simple, easy for everyone to understand. Also, there’s another advantage where, when you start implementing a new system or let’s say methodology, keeping the number of levels at which you do things to a minimum is very helpful. So, it can be a great first step in that sense.

Commitment to the methodology is real clear to all employees

Another benefit is that it is obvious that the company is committing to OKRs. When you’re starting, you could’ve said, “Hey, department A, can you go and try OKRs for a quarter and report back.” While you could really do that, if you start with this approach and say, “Hey, I’m starting at the corporate and I’m going to commit myself as the CEO or chief of strategy”, it sends a totally different message to all the employees. Again, it’s really simple, easy to get going and shows the commitment.

Department Centric OKRs

Now, the second approach is department centric approach. Usually you have corporate OKRs here as well, but in general you have OKRs defined at the department level. So, the approach or the underlying theme here is that we are going to have OKRs at the department or function level and not really going to have objectives cascading down to individual employees.

Department centric OKRs approach

Create a hierarchy of departments as needed

Many times, you actually have a hierarchy of departments. So, you could actually have a marketing department at the top and then you could have an inbound marketing department, which actually could be everything related to bringing leads into your business. Under inbound you could actually have a search marketing, a content department and then you could have a social media department and you could have many of those departments which would be sub functions of those.

And in some cases depending on your need, you could actually have within the social media department, you could actually have somebody focusing specifically on Twitter, somebody on Quora and Facebook and a few others as needed. Depending on the business, you could actually create deeper department hierarchies and then associate OKRs at that level. Again, you don’t really want to overkill here, you don’t want to create a department for every employee, although we’ve seen that in some cases. We’ve seen even in large companies, thousands of employee companies, we’ve seen sometimes departments created only for one employee because that function is very important for them. But that’s more of an exception than a norm. So, you want to create a department to represent a function and sometimes that function may only have one employee or two employees, but it’s still a very important function to be modeled and tracked separately from an OKR standpoint. Right?

You can assign key results to individual

Although the OKRs are at the department level, you still may want to assign key results to individuals. And that’s perfectly okay in this approach. It’s just that they are not going to take the key result and expand that into their own objective and key results. That’s the only difference. But key results can be assigned to individuals. This is actually a really, really good approach and there are many large companies that follow this in the tech world.

Settle the performance management debate

And also is a good way to differentiate this from traditional HR performance management systems. Because you’re not really asking individuals, “What did you accomplish or what did you not?” Here it’s collectively seen as a department level objective and key results related to the department and all the individuals are pulling it through and contributing. There’s a clear line of separation here. My individual employee level performance and development, et cetera is private and I keep it in the HR process, but then this is more of a business centric functional objectives which are important for the team that I’m also part of and contributing and tracking in being successful. So, that way this is very, very, very good from an approach standpoint.

Individual Centric OKRs

The third approach is what we call the individual centric OKRs. It’s pretty clear. OKRs here follow the management reporting hierarchy. So, CEO has six different people reporting to him, the chief marketing officer, one of them. Some of the CEO’s OKRs will become the next level objectives for the CMO and some of the CMO’s key results will become next level objectives for director of digital marketing and so on and so forth. So, basically there’s that cascading of responsibility according to the management reporting hierarchy.

Individual centric OKRs approach

Lot more clarity around who owns what

There is certainly a lot more clarity in terms of who owns what. When it is at the department level, certainly the objectives and key results are owned by the department manager or the department head and key results themselves are assigned to individuals, but here there is no ambiguity. So, my name is on it and everybody’s name is on their OKRs and there’s no confusion around, “Hey, who was supposed to do that?” Or Who missed it? Who dropped the ball? Everything is right there and clear.

Slightly challenging to manage employee role changes and turnover

It is a little bit of a challenge to manage when employees leave their roles or new employees come in with this approach. This is one of those reasons many of our clients have actually chosen the department centric approach. So, apart from the other benefits that it had, one of the key benefits for them to choose department centric OKRs, is actually this. When people come and go, I don’t really want to keep changing my OKRs. I have my functional OKRs set up and I will leave it there. I don’t really want to have to keep changing them when a new guy comes in or when a person leaves the team.

Department OKRs + Individual OKRs

Department OKRs and individual OKRs in combination. Now, this approach is basically department centric and individuals as needed kind of an approach. It’s very similar to department OKRs, which is perfectly a really good approach by itself. But, sometimes they say, “Hey, yes I assigned the key result to an individual from my department, but I still think… we have situations in which they have to expand that key result further down. Basically take that key result as an objective for themselves and expand that objective rather into a few key results at their individual level and then track and execute on that.

Department OKRs + Individual OKRs approach

If adopted, one of the levels should be used as needed.

So, there is some benefit to it, but in general, it’s a lot simpler if you just choose to have one of the two levels. Either a department level or an individual level. If you do take this, you should have clear guidelines as to what is the norm, either department centric or individual centric. Which one is the norm? And then you should use the other very, very sparingly as you need it. There should be clear guidelines on when you would use them because when it comes to the review process and everything else, it’s a lot more challenging if you say, “Hey, that is at the department level, this is at the individual level.” And if you keep going around back and forth, it’s a lot more difficult to track, report and manage. So, we normally recommend against this approach, but we do have clients who have gone this route and if you do end up going, just make sure that there’s a very clear guideline on which approach is the prominent or the norm. And then the other one is, it is more used as an exception.

Cross Functional OKRs

And the last one is really not a separate approach from the other four, it’s more of a cross functional OKRs, is what we call it. Cross functional initiatives. We have had situations where for example, a new product needs to be launched on a war footing basis. A competitor might launch a incredible product and we get a corporate mandate that we have to give a strong response back. And in that case, we have seen clients create a cross functional team formed specifically to achieve that purpose. Based on the special need, you form that team and you say, “Okay, so we will now have six months, leave everything and focus on creating a new product in response to the competition.” So, the competitor launched product X and then now you would like to get your product whatever, A or B swiftly changed to product Y as a response to product X in the market.

Cross functional OKRs approach

Generally you create cross functional teams to solve a specific problem

ow, you may have marketing folks, you may have engineering folks, you may have operations folks, you may have service folks and other department members involved in this response. So, you just create a cross functional team borrowing people from different departments. In general the management hierarchy and all doesn’t change, but they’re just loaned to this project for a certain timeframe. You go and solve this problem and once it’s resolved, you go back to your own departments. So, that’s the use of cross functional OKRs. Again, if you need it, you can use it, if you don’t, it’s okay, you don’t really need to use this.


So, those are the approaches for OKRs that we have in terms of getting your OKR program launched. You can certainly come back and change your direction and make some adjustments sometimes, especially once you go through a quarter or two, if you think that a different approach might be better, you can start the new quarter with a different approach. It’s definitely possible. So again, I wouldn’t really be too hard on people, if you do find out that down the line you need to change your approach. It’s actually okay. Just learn and see what makes sense and how the approach fits into your DNA and how you can get the best out of the OKR process. That’s the most important thing.

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