OKRs might seem simple, but beware: it takes time to write goals that are short and concise, yet still capture the fullness of what you want to achieve.

This is what we’re aiming for when writing OKRs. Write down everything you need to, but no more.

“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter so I wrote a long one.”

-Mark Twain

We really want to be writing short letters (i.e. short and concise OKRs), but it takes time! In this document, we provide a list of 8 things to keep in mind when you’re articulating your OKRs.

Before you start, it’s useful to align on what we’re looking for in Objectives and Key Results. The destination and waypoint analogy is often used, as in:

Objectives – this is the destination, answering “where do we want to go?”

which is measured by

Key Results – these are the way points, answering “how will we know we’re getting there?”

Objectives

Over time, you might come up with your own syntax and methodology for writing Objectives. To start out with thought, keep these 4 things in mind:

  1. Objectives need to be large, inspiring and important. When writing Objectives, you want to be answering two questions: “Why is this important?” And “Why is this important now?” (I first came across these questions in Objectives and Key Results by Niven and Lamorte, and they are also used in the OKRs Coaching Network facilitated by Ben Lamorte)
  2. Yet concise, clear, unambiguous, with one big idea. Some studies suggest that 90% of information is retained when sentences average 14 words or less.
  3. Don’t worry about putting a metric in your Objective – metrics are for Key Results. It needs to define the big idea, without focusing on a number.
  4. Within your organisation, Objectives need to be aligned up and aligned across.

Some notes on alignment:

Align up: OKR is about progress and moving forward, it’s not business as usual. Which means it needs to align to the overall company mission or strategy. What is the single most important thing you can do in this cycle to progress you towards your mission?

For larger organisations, team OKRs need to align to the departmental OKRs, and departmental OKRs need to align to organisational OKRs. In practice, this “cascading” is hard and never quite perfect, but it needs to be clear how what our team is busy with aligns to what we want to achieve as an organisation.

Align across: The OKR setting process creates conversations between teams, not only within teams. It creates clarity and transparency – now every team can see which other team might be busy with something similar, and these teams can then decide to collaborate to create cross functional OKRs. OKRs shouldn’t necessarily be set up by functional area or department – they should be set up so that they progress the strategy, which might happen to be by functional area or department.

Once you’re done with an Objective, someone should read it and say “amazing, I want to get behind that!”. Because it’s aspirational, it’s inspirational, and it’s aligned to your company mission (which is why people work for your organisation).

Key Results

Writing effective Key Results is probably the best way to create clarity within a team. There are a lot of nuances – talking about milestone Key Results, or setting baselines, or how to score them. We’re not getting into that detail here – see this as your starting point only, setting the foundation for your exploratory journey.

Firstly, to state the obvious, Key Results are always results. Outcomes, not output. It’s the result after a series of activities.

Then, when writing Key Results, read your Objective and ask “what will it look like once we’ve achieved this? How do we measure it?”. Then write down all those metrics. Number of downloads, conversion rate, NPS score, and so forth.

Then decide what needs to happen to each metric. Does it need to increase or decrease? By how much?

Once you’re done, read through the Key Results and ask a couple of questions:

  1. Are they mutually exclusive? If one Key Result will be achieved only once another one is achieved, you’re creating unnecessary reporting overhead and you’re probably in project planning mode. The reason we’re aligning on results is to create clarity on expectations and on the impact on the business, we want to get out of project planning mode for now.
  2. Are the collectively exhaustive? You should list everything that needs to be listed to ensure you meet your Objective. Think about what it looks like at the end of the reporting period – if you’ve achieved all the Key Results, would you have met the Objective?
  3. Are they outcomes? Remember, this is not a project plan. Convert all tasks to results.
  4. Are they objectively measurable? Someone should be able to look at your list of Key Results and score them, independent from you and the process. To be “80% done with writing a document” is not a key result.

Two other elements are worthy of mention, but not always applicable and hence why it didn’t make our list.

  • Check for any unintended consequences. For example, you might be aiming for more leads (quantity) but in the process you sacrifice on quality. If this is the case, be more specific (about which type of leads you want) or list the unintended consequence as an additional Key Results (to measure quality).
  • When starting with OKRs, we often find that things aren’t measured – you know you want to increase conversion, but you don’t know what your current conversion rate is. Then start by defining a Key Result to “Report the baseline metric for conversion rate” – this is your baseline, which sounds more like a task, but has to be done in the first reporting period to ensure success later on.

Browsing through examples is useful, but don’t copy and paste them, it needs to be unique to you.

Turning mindsets to focus on outcomes rather than output is one of the toughest challenges that we come across in OKR implementation. This is a culture shift –it’s about trusting people with outcomes. But it will allow more freedom for employees, more trust within a team and more engagement from individuals.

If you want to dig deeper, please get in touch at coach@theokrgroup.com

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