So, your team wants to go places?

It turns out that the team at Buffer does as well. Through OKRs, they have been able to do just that.

We know, we know, OK-what? Well, OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. The Objectives are the desired outcomes that you want, and the Key Results are the measurable ways you know you’re on track to reach them.

To define them another way…

  • An Objective helps answer the question, “Where do I want to go?”
  • A Key Result helps answer, “How will I know I’m getting there?”

Big plans require big action, right? So how has the Buffer team used company OKRs?

Hear from Buffer’s VP of Marketing, Kevan Lee, as he breaks down how company strategy mixed with OKRs can lead you to some of your best results next quarter.

OKRs: Objectives And Key Results—What Are They?

Objectives and key results lead to better performance management by tracking your progress through goal-setting. You can use them with groups and teams, and they’re set over a specified amount of time so you can track your progress.

Sounds easy, right?

We have big plans at Buffer to build a social media tool that is as ubiquitous for social marketers as Google Analytics is for website owners. It’s a big, scary, audacious goal! How do we even begin to set objectives and work toward something like that?

We also have big marketing plans to ship major projects (courses!), explore new channels (TikTok!), and not spend all day in Slack (single-tasking!).

It’s tough to align our goals and stay on track with project management. How do we prioritize when every goal is so exciting and, well, so big?

Does this sound familiar? Imagine having a way to reach the objectives you set (no matter how large), and stay on track throughout the entire journey. That’s what we wanted to do.

Our solution is to focus on OKRs, a rigorous method of goal-setting and progress-tracking by using objectives and key results that we’ve found to have a great impact on our focus, excitement, and results. 

Here’s what objectives and key results look like in practice:

What Types Of Companies Use OKRs?

Company OKRs originally arrived at Google in 1999 when VC John Doerr introduced them to Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They’ve been used at Google ever since—and it seems Google has done quite well with growth since the 90s. Talk about social proof!

For a look at how the company implements its OKR processes, Rick Klau of Google Ventures Startup Lab describes what objectives look like (using San Francisco 49er references) and how Google thinks about setting and tracking them:

And Google is not the only big-name company that’s been using OKRs. Many companies have used OKRs successfully at one point or another (or still do to this day) including Twitter, Intel, Sears, LinkedIn, Oracle, and Jira.

Why Should Your Team Set OKRs?

We’ve gone through lots of different work styles at Buffer, experimenting to find the way we all work best and happiest. These are what we’ve done:

  • Teal (based on the book Reinventing Organizations)
  • No managers, very flat structure, almost Holacracy
  • No goals
  • Lots of goals
  • OKRs

At the same time, we’ve grown quite fast. The team was 17 people when I joined three years ago. There are 82 of us now.

As we grew and dreamed on a quarterly basis, we felt that a system might be useful for helping us all stay on the same page with the big goals we wanted for the company. We’ve used OKRs to chart our path toward these goals, setting them quarterly starting in 2016 all the way through to 2021. Here’s what we’ve found most valuable:

1. Objectives And Key Results Increase Goal Clarity

One of the greatest benefits is that OKRs provide structure and clarity for an organization to work toward common goals. I love how the folks at Weekdone describe it:

The main goal of OKRs is to connect company, team, and personal objectives to measurable results, making people move together in the right direction.

And when you get a team of dozens or hundreds all moving as one, you achieve some pretty incredible results!

I felt this clarity right away with our first quarterly objectives (January to March) at Buffer. I was working with team members to create customer case studies, which is a great and fun task on its own, and they became all the more paramount with the perspective gained from OKRs. I could draw a line from my OKR of case studies all the way up to our company-wide OKR for revenue:

  • Case studies lead to …
  • middle-funnel, bottom-funnel traffic, which leads to …
  • higher conversion rates, which lead to … (a marketing-wide OKR)
  • more trial starts, which means …
  • An increase in monthly recurring revenue, or MRR (a company-wide OKR)

2. OKRs Increase Team Focus

Among the best practices for company objectives is to revisit them regularly—not quarterly, but ideally every week. I have even found myself revisiting them daily for my own personal performance reviews.

Whenever I was faced with a new task or felt myself drifting with my work, I would stop and ask:

“Does this get me closer to meeting my goals?”

Then, sure enough, I’d pull out my OKR Trello board (more on that OKR software below) and check to see where my current tasks align with my stated goals. If things were in line, I could get back to work and feel confident that I was moving in the right direction. If there was conflict, I would have a built-in excuse for moving on to other tasks.

3. OKRs Increase Team Collaboration

This is probably a good lesson to learn early (thank you, OKRs!) — I need all hands on deck.

Many of my personal OKRs relied on the involvement of my teammates or employee engagement. I couldn’t set a new landing page live because I don’t have front-end development skills. I couldn’t create three to five new infographics because I can’t design one. I re-evaluated everything.

We noticed these arrangements were common across the board at Buffer, so we made sure to include a period of negotiations before finalizing any OKRs.

You’d simply get in touch with the people you’d need to work with on these projects and find a common ground with them so that the work ended up on each person’s OKR list.

How OKRs Help Marketing And Sales Funnels

We have many different layers of OKRs at Buffer. There are entire company objectives and key results that are set by Joel and Leo, our co-founders. Then, there are good OKRs for each area of Buffer—Marketing, Product, Happiness, Engineering, Data, Systems, Community, Customer Development, People, Ops, etc.

Beyond those, each individual on each team has their individual OKRs, which really helps to stretch goals! Our OKR system looks a bit like this diagram from BetterWorks:

Betterworks Team Diagram & OKRs

A couple of weeks before the start of a new quarter, we all take time to reflect on what we want to achieve in the coming months. Joel and Leo will help set the company-wide top-down OKRs, then we’ll work together as a marketing team to negotiate what OKRs might look like in our area.

Here is a quick list of some of our top tips for setting OKRs at Buffer:

  • Objectives are to be ambitious and should feel slightly uncomfortable.
  • Key results are measurable; they must have a number.
  • Ideally, you’ll only achieve 70% of your OKRs.
  • Getting 100% means your OKRs aren’t ambitious enough.
  • Low grades aren’t to be punished.
  • Be careful not to set too many. Generally, a maximum of five objectives with a max of five key results each is enough.

Our biggest lesson with OKRs: They can (and should) change during the quarter. Especially at a SaaS startup, things happen fast, we learn fast, and the objectives we set may not be the right ones in a few weeks’ time after our day-to-day processes.

Our marketing OKRs for quarter two (April through June) included five different objectives that we were excited to take on, each with three to five key results attached. Here’s one OKR for what we hoped to do on Medium last quarter:


Buffer's OKR Example of company goal

(You can see the full OKR list here.)

Setting them is really fun. It is a chance to dream big, reflect on where you’re at and where you want to go, and brainstorm how to get there.

Also quite fun? Tracking them! I’ve found a lot of joy in the system we use for our marketing OKRs: Trello.

How To Track OKRs In Trello

At Buffer, we have the freedom to track our OKRs however we feel best. There are some great tools out there for robust OKR tracking. I found everything I needed in a Trello board, and it makes a great software management team. Here’s how I put together the board for Buffer’s marketing OKRs:

OKR Screenshot Trello

OKR Tracking Setup

The basic layout is organized like this:

  • Each Objective is summarized in a list title
  • Each Key Result gets its own card under its Objective list
  • Each card has a rich description of the OKR details
  • Labels show the status of the Key Result

One of my biggest goals with the Trello board was to make it a) usable, b) scannable, and c) pretty. Fortunately, all three wishes tied nicely together!

I knew I couldn’t fit a whole Objective into a list title. Something like, “When people think about companies that are some of the best on Medium, they should name Buffer as the #1 brand that comes to mind” just wouldn’t fit very neatly. 

So, I summarized. Each Trello list name is a high-level synopsis of the Objective, sometimes captured in as little as one or two words.

Similarly, each Key Result receives its own Trello card, with a highly-abbreviated description on the front:

Editorial Calendar Screenshot

Then within the card, I go into greater detail about the full Objective and Key Result:

Trello Editorial Calendar Screenshot

I also use a very simple label system, showing how far along we are with each Key Result:

  • Planning: “We haven’t started yet, but we sure are thinking about it lots!”
  • In Progress: “Currently working on it!” (This is our most-used label.)
  • Done: “Success!”
  • Done (for now): A nice way of saying, “we didn’t quite reach this one … but we might someday.”

Trello Labels
Advanced Checklists

One of the best ways we’ve found to track progress on Key Results is to use Advanced Checklists. These make great sense for the results we define as “achieve x number of things,” like blog posts, experiments, and the like. We can even assign team members and a deadline to each subtask and view them from a birds-eye view in Calendar View. 

Here’s our Advanced Checklist for the Editorial Calendar goal:

Trello Advanced Checklist

Waterfall Charts

We’ve set a number of time-bound target goals for the quarter, things like “grow sessions to our new posts by 30% in the first 28 days” or “get to 150,000 sessions per month on the Open blog.”

These goals are exciting to stretch for! And one thing I’m keen to ensure is that we’re not in a place where we set the OKR in April and don’t realize until late June that we’re not even in the ballpark.

What we’ve found works well here is a waterfall chart. You can see them attached to a number of cards on our board, and we’ve set them to be the full Card Cover for an even prettier view:

Trello Card Cover

A waterfall chart is a pair of line graphs, one showing where you are when you set your goal and where you want to be at the end of the goal period, and the other line showing your progress throughout the period.

We’ve adopted ours from a guide by HubSpot’s Mike Volpe. The basics work like this:

  1. Set a goal, based on a time period;
  2. Determine how much daily progress you need to make in order to reach the goal;
  3. Chart this progress on a line graph;
  4. Track your daily progress; and,
  5. Add this progress to the line graph, too.

It’s as simple (and complicated) as that. Here’s a template that we use.

The variations we’ve added to the chart came from a realization we made in quarter one. The idea of OKRs is to set aggressive, ambitious goals to hit, with the understanding that you’re expected to reach only 70 percent of your OKRs in a quarter. So we added this element into our waterfalls, which now include three different growth lines:

  • 70% — On track
  • 85% — Wow, going great
  • 100% — Home run! Fireworks!

So here’s what a chart of ours looked like early in the quarter:

Traffic graph

And how do we add it into Trello?

Simple (and hacky): I take a screenshot of the chart in a Google Sheets spreadsheet, and I add it to the Trello card, making sure that the latest chart is the cover of the card.

Set And Crush Team Goals With Objectives And Key Results

If you’re looking for a way to jumpstart your team’s productivity, your focus, and your results, we’ve found a goal-setting system like OKRs to be a real boost. There can be a lot to dig into with OKRs, though we’ve found that just these basics can be enough to get the ball rolling toward achieving great things:

  1. Set ambitious goals with measurable results.
  2. Place them into Trello.
  3. Check-in regularly to see your progress.

You can also copy this OKR template and make it your own! 

OKR Template



How to set, achieve, and track okrs in Trello