“Practice puts brains in your muscles.”

– Sam Snead

The words of this ex-professional golfer can teach us something when it comes to applying the OKR methodology. When we start our journey with OKRs, we spend so much time trying to understand the principles and the process before we can apply our minds to what we need to be doing over the next few months. Spending this time upfront is important – to start speaking the same language, to understand the ‘why’ behind setting outcomes as a team, and to realise the importance of shorter timeframes. But eventually, we want the methodology and the process of setting OKRs to become second nature to us.  the majority of the time that we spend together as a team should be on the actual substance of the OKRs.

To achieve this, we need to practice.

To make the process of setting OKRs simpler, especially when setting them for the first time, we have broken the process down into 9 steps.

1. Align on your strategic direction

OKRs are an effective tool for strategy implementation. If you’re not sure where you’re going, or have an idea of how you think your organisation could get there, setting OKRs is not going to be easy. The first question we ask companies that approach us to implement OKRs is ”Do you have an ambition and strategy?”. As a team, spend time together reminding each other of your strategic direction so that you ensure that you’re aligned behind one common vision and that it’s front of mind before you start setting your OKRs.

2. Brainstorm everything you could do

The next step is to ask ourselves the question “What’s the most important thing you could work on [in the next OKR cycle*] to progress you towards your ambition?”.

Allow yourselves to think divergently, get the creative juices flowing, and take the necessary time to do this. We often encourage team members to do this individually to avoid ‘group think’ and to generate a broad range of ideas. Don’t limit the thinking by trying to articulate the ideas as perfectly-articulated Objectives – this will come with practice. Rather, write down some rough notes which will inform your thinking at a later stage.

While there is already a mini-prioritisation process baked into this exercise by asking what the most important thing to do is, there should still be a wide range of answers as you are drawing on ideas from different team members.

* Hopefully you’ve already defined your OKR cycle, and therefore have a timeframe to work within. If not, use a one-year time frame until you define your OKR cycle.

3. Capture and cluster the ideas

Come back together as a team, and go through your ideas one-by-one. Capture them onto a white board or by using sticky notes, for example. As you capture them, cluster the ideas that are the same. Do this as a team, and discuss each idea so that you all understand what it means.

Be sure to create a situation that allows for ‘no wrong answers’ and rather appreciate the input from each team member. When discussing an idea, make sure to debate the ‘principle’ rather than the ‘person’.

4. Categorise the ideas

By now, you should have a few clusters of ideas of what you could be working on in the next period. The next step is to give each cluster a short name (or an individual idea for those on their own) that describes what it is about. Don’t spend too long on this; however, make sure it is capturing the essence of the ideas.

5. Prioritise the ideas

One of the core principles of successful strategy execution is focus. Chances are that you still have too many ideas, and so now we need to prioritise 3 to 5 areas to focus on.

To prioritise, your team needs to talk… discuss… debate… then align. There is no exact science to identify the top 3 to 5 focus areas (although there are a number of frameworks and prioritisation methods that can help as a starting point). Rather, look through the lens of “the most important things to work on to progress you towards your ambition” and discuss why you think it’s important, and why it is important NOW.

Be bold enough to say that not everything is equally important. Acknowledge the things that might still happen in the background but will not be a focus for the leadership team.

Ask for input – an objective lens is often helpful to assist in identifying the most important areas to focus on.

As tempting as it is, don’t join ideas that are not the same. This is called ‘shoehorning’ and will erode the focus that you’re trying to create.

At the end of this step, you should have no more than 5 prioritised focus areas.

6. Articulate these priorities as Objectives

Well done for getting down to 3 – 5 priority areas; it’s not easy! But we can’t stop here. To create clarity on exactly what will be done and drive alignment and engagement, we need to articulate the priorities as Objectives:

  • Ask yourself “What will success look like at the end of the OKR cycle?”
  • It should be qualitative – it should define the big ideas without focusing on the numbers
  • It should be inspirational – your team should be motivated to get behind the goal
  • It should be aspirational – Objectives are stretch goals defining a desired future state
  • It should be aligned to your strategy
  • It should be concise, clear and unambiguous with one big idea

Remember to also record ‘why it is important’ and ‘why it is important now’ for each Objective as this will remind you why you prioritised this Objective over others and help you communicate this to the broader team.

7. Define Key Results

Key Results are the quantitative measures linked to Objectives. It ensures we’re clear about what this will look like once we’ve delivered it – what will success look like?

Well-defined Key Results ensure that we deliver value and create clarity. Setting Key Results isn’t easy, and they take time to set.

  • For each Objective, ask yourself “How will you know if you’ve made measurable progress?” by the end of the OKR cycle
  • It should be quantitative and measurable – you should be able to gauge the impact on the business
  • It should be specific – add a starting point, a target and a deadline
  • Key Results should be outcomes – it is not a project plan; write down the results, not the tasks
  • It should be objectively verifiable – someone independent should be able to score them

8. Allocate accountability

Ensure there is a team member’s name next to each Objective or Key Result (we often prefer Key Result but it depends on the OKRs that you set). This person will be responsible for driving progress on the Key Result (not necessarily executing on the Key Result).

9. Commit to habits

While you’re not likely to start working on your OKRs this second, you can make a few decisions regarding how you’re going to start creating the right habits to drive traction.

Brainstorm changes that need to be made to ensure that you’re talking about your OKRs regularly (hopefully weekly) and monitoring progress on an ongoing basis. Also talk about how you’re going to make sure that you Reflect and Reset on your OKRs at the end of each OKR cycle.

And then commit to this process, and get the ball rolling. Send out those new meeting requests, updated agendas, link to the tracking tools, etc.

The above process is the basic process that a team would follow to set OKRs. There are additional steps that you may need to include such as vertical or horizontal alignment if you’re part of a larger organisation, or capturing your OKRs into an online tool if your organisation has adopted one, etc.

The last tip is to consider using an objective facilitator for the above process to allow you to think less about the steps, and more about your business and the goals that you’re setting.

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