Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results by Christina Wodtke is a really great guide for those who are new to OKRs or want to refresh on its key points.
This post is a collection of the notes I took as I was reading this book.
What is Objective and Key Result (OKR)?
- O – stands for Objective.
- KR – for Key Results.
- Objective – is what you want to do (launch a killer game!)
- Key Results – are how you know if you’ve achieved them (downloads of 25K/day, revenue $50K/day).
OKRs are set annually and/or quarterly and unite the company behind a vision.
- Objective – is inspiring and motivates those people who don’t dig numbers.
- For those who do love numbers, the Key Results keep the Objective real.
- Objective – is qualitative.
- Key Results (most often three) – are quantitative.
OKRs are used to focus a group or individual around a bold goal.
- Objective – establishes a goal for a set period of time, usually a quarter.
- Key Results – tell you if the Objective has been met by the end of that time.
OKRs are a goal setting and achieving method.
I know I’ve got a good Objective when I leap out of bed in the morning eager to make it happen. I know I’ve got the right Key Results when I am also a little scared you can’t make them.
Why We Can’t Get Things Done?
One: We haven’t prioritized our goals.
By setting a single Objective with only three Key Results to measure it, you can provide the kind of focus needed to achieve great things despite life’s little distractions.
Two: We haven’t communicated the goal obsessively and comprehensively.
Once you have picked the goal you want your team to focus on, you have to reiterate it daily. But it’s not enough to talk about it. You must weave reminders into every aspect of company life. Progress toward the goal must be marked in status meetings and weekly status emails. Projects must be evaluated against the goal.
Three: We don’t have a plan to get things done.
You need a process that helps you make sense of the work you need to do and keeps you on track even when you are tired. The process reminds you what to do, even when you don’t feel like doing it. The original OKR system was just a way to set smart stretch goals. But the system around it—commitment, celebrations, check-ins —makes sure you continue to make progress toward your goals even when you feel more like eating a cookie.
Four: We haven’t made time for what matters.
“What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” —Dwight Eisenhower.
The Eisenhower Box is a popular time management tool.
Five: We give up instead of iterating.
Successful companies are all alike in the same way: After they fail, they try again. They learn from the failure and adjust their approach. The only hope for success in any endeavor is iteration. This does not mean blindly trying the same thing over and over again. I believe that is the definition of insanity. Instead, you track closely what works, and what does not, and you do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. The heart of success is learning.
A Path to Success
Pick which goal matters most, and not be greedy and unrealistic and try to do everything at once. Clarify conceptualizing that goal: What does it look like, when is it accomplished, what exactly do you want? State that clear, conceptual goal in all messaging, over and over, until everyone understands and pursues it. Make a plan that will keep you moving forward, even when you are tired and disheartened. Dedicate time to accomplishing the goal, instead of endlessly hoping for a tomorrow that never comes. Be ready for failure, ready to learn, and
ready to try again.
How to Write a Good Objective?
Your Objective is a single sentence that is:
- Qualitative and Inspirational.
The Objective’s job is to get people jumping out of bed in the morning with excitement.
Use the language of your team. If they want to use slang and say “own it” or “kill it,” use that wording. If they say “delight” and “transform,” that’s the language for that team.
- The Objective is time bound.
Early stage start-ups will rarely have an annual Objective (there are some exceptions, such as biotech, banking, and medicine) and usually just set quarterly OKRs. Larger companies need annual and quarterly OKRs.
- Actionable by the Team Independently.
This is less a problem for start-ups, but bigger companies often struggle with OKRs because of interdependence. Your Objective must be truly yours, and you can’t have the excuse of, “Marketing didn’t market it.”
An Objective is like a mission statement, only for a shorter period of time. I think of it like this:
- A mission is an Objective for five years.
- Objective is a mission for three months.
A great Objective inspires the team, is hard (but not impossible) to do in a set time frame, and can be done by the person or people who have set it, independently.
Examples of Good Objective
- Own the direct-to-business coffee retail market in the South Bay.
- Launch an awesome MVP that delights product managers.
- Transform Palo Alto’s coupon using habits.
Examples of Poor Objective
- Sales numbers up 30%.
- Double our userbase.
- $2 million in revenue.
Why are those bad Objectives bad? Probably because they are Key Results.
Key Results take all that inspirational language and quantify it. You create them by asking a simple question:
- “How would we know if we met our Objective?”
This causes you to define what you mean by “awesome,” “kill it,” or “pwn.” Typically, you have three Key Results, but I’ve seen as many as five and as few as one.
Key Results can be based on anything you can measure, including:
Examples of Key Results
The Objective “Launch an awesome MVP” might have these Key Results:
- 40% of users come back twice in one week.
- Recommendation score of 8.
- 15% email newsletter open rate.
If you don’t have a baseline for a metric you wish to measure, just make a guess. By the end of the quarter, you’ll be a lot smarter.
Basics of Setting Key Results
Start by looking at your Objective, for example:
- “Our customers love us so much they are our sales team.”
- “If our customers were our sales team, what numbers would move?”
I often look at the Objective and see if there are words that could be quantified. In the example above, “love” becomes NPS4 and “sales” becomes referrals. Both are measurable outcomes.
- KR: NPS >7
- KR: Referrals +25%
- KR: “How did you hear of us” survey results: Friends and Family up 20%
Using OKRs helps you move the team from output thinking to outcome thinking. It may take a few tries, but you will be more successful once you focus on outcomes.
I like to develop Key Results using a technique called “freelisting.” Freelisting is a design thinking technique. To do it, simply write down as many ideas on a topic as you can, one idea per sticky note. You put one idea on each sticky so you can rearrange, discard, and otherwise manipulate the ideas you have generated. It is a far more effective way to brainstorm, and results in better and more diverse ideas. Make sure you give people a tiny bit too much time, so they move past the obvious and into the more innovative.
Then the team should stack rank the metrics. The metrics that are the best indicators of progress go at the top of the list and ones that are less trustworthy go to the bottom. Finally, think through the consequences of these Key Results. In High Output Management, Andy Grove talks about “pairing indicators:”
Indicators tend to direct your attention toward what they are monitoring. It is like riding a bicycle: you will probably steer it where you are looking. If, for example, you start measuring your inventory levels carefully, you are likely to take action to drive your inventory levels down, which is good up to a point. But your inventories could become so lean that you can’t react to changes in demand without creating shortages. So because indicators direct one’s activities, you should guard against overreacting. This you can do by pairing indicators, so that together both effect and counter-effect are measured.
Sometimes your health metrics act as counter-balances to the OKRs. But sometimes you want to lend nuance to your Objective:
- Customers love us? Revenue might be one indicator, but so might customer service calls (they should go down).
- Want to sell more units, but don’t want sales using deception to move product? You may wish to also set a satisfaction score.
Common pairs include:
- long term/short term
These pairs make sure that, in the words of Grove, “both effect and counter-effect are measured.”
Some things to consider as you develop Key Results:
- Do we have a baseline? You may have to measure something for a month or two before you are comfortable setting Key Results.
- How easy is it to measure? I remember talking to a group who wanted to fix their boring meetings. Attendance was suggested. I asked, “Do you really want to measure that?” They could have, but they chose not to. They believed no one would remember to do it.
- Is it a strong signal or a weak signal? How confident will you feel if this number is met?
Can Project Completion Be a KR?
If you make a Key Result a project, you are locked into it even if it doesn’t work. You don’t want to commit to a tactic that may turn out to be a bad choice. Instead, you want to aim for an outcome.
Once your team is checking to-do lists instead of watching metrics, you’ve institutionalized self-delusion.
Ask Questions about Tasks to Find the Real Metric that Matters
If you spot a task or project listed as a Key Result, ask a few questions:
- Why this project? Why is it important?
- What will it accomplish? What will change?
- How do you know if it’s successful?
- What numbers will move if it works?
- How does that tie into the company’s Objective?
If you get an OKR from your reports that looks like this:
- O: New self-serve help area
- KR: Better search
- KR: New FAQ
- KR: Forums
You can push and ask questions until it becomes this:
- O: The company helps our customers succeed when they are struggling.
- KR: “Did this help” rating rises 15%
- KR: “Problem resolved” rating on FAQ improves 30%
- KR: Peer-to-peer help forum has DAU of 2K (down from 10K)
KRs Should Be Difficult, Not Impossible
OKRs are always stretch goals. Start by asking yourself:
- “On a scale from one to ten, how confident am I that we can make this goal?”
A confidence level of:
- One – means “never gonna happen, my friend.”
- Ten – means “easy as falling off a log.”
It also means you are setting your goals way too low (often called sandbagging). In companies where failure is punished, employees quickly learn not to try. If you want to achieve great things, you have to find a way to make it safe to reach further than anyone has before. If you only have a fifty-fifty shot of making this goal, it’s probably the right level of stretch.
The Metrics First Approach to Setting OKRs
OKRs are most likely to work when a company has a strong mission and when the company hires great people and then trusts them to do great things.
First, Check Your Mission
Your mission is short and memorable. When you have a question in your daily work life, the mission should be top of mind to help you answer.
In many ways, a mission and an Objective in the OKR model have a lot in common; they are aspirational and memorable. The key difference is time scale. An Objective takes you through a year or a quarter. A mission should last a lot longer.
Second, You Need a Strategy
Objectives and Key Results can only be set if you have a strategy.
Third, Practice Metrics Thinking
The OKR methodology requires the ability to measure critical metrics and then move them.
Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz say, in their excellent book Lean Analytics:
“- A good metric is comparative. Being able to compare a metric to other time periods, groups of users, or competitors helps you understand which way things are moving. Increased conversion from last week” is more meaningful than “2% conversion.”
– A good metric is understandable. If people can’t remember it and discuss it, it’s much harder to turn a change in the data into a change in the culture.
– A good metric is a ratio or a rate. Accountants and financial analysts have several ratios they look at to understand, at a glance, the fundamental health of a company. You need some, too… .
– A good metric changes the way you behave. This is by far the most important
criterion for a metric: what will you do differently based on changes in the metric?”
If your company or parts of the company are bad at thinking about what numbers matter, you might want to spend a quarter instrumenting your products and creating a baseline before trying OKRs.
Finally, Make a Safe Place for Learning
To have an effective team, you must have psychological safety.
Bringing a group of people into a room isn’t enough to make them a team. An effective team requires personal connections and psychological safety.
People don’t feel safe unless they feel connected.
Why a Project Completion Can’t Be a KR?
To avoid semantic arguments, I’ll define Roadmaps as a plan for our desired future and Pipelines as a collection of ideas of projects that might get us to our desired future.
If you have a Roadmap, you’ll want to dismantle it and put it in a Pipeline format. Then you want to brainstorm more potential solutions. You don’t want just one idea to make your OKRs; you want a breadth of choices. See if you can get at least five potential projects that will move a given Key Result. Then evaluate them.
As this table shows, a Pipeline lets a leader quickly assess which efforts are more effective and which aren’t. At this point, the leader can make a go/no-go call or ask for more research.
OKRs are all about setting the goal in order to have more flexibility in accomplishing your goals. Pipelines support flexibility. Roadmaps are guesses on what might work, stuck frozen into a Gantt chart like a bug in amber.
What About Everything Else We Have to Do?
OKRs are part of your management approach, but they are not all of it. There are things you have to do as a business to stay in business that don’t make you money. Contracts, taxes, accounting, payroll, and more. You need to do these things to a certain level of quality, or the company will be in trouble.
The metrics you track in order to spot when things are changing are called “Health Metrics” in the OKR framework.
Health Metrics – protect what you’ve already accomplished while you try to grow new metrics via your OKRs.
Some examples of potential Health Metrics:
- New customer sign-ups
- Customer satisfaction
- Code health (ignore this and expect to see your technology start crashing)
- Team health (ignore this and expect burnout followed by mass departures)
What Makes OKRs Work? The Cadence.
It’s not enough to set OKRs. You have to track progress toward them regularly.
Monday Commitments and the Four Square
Each Monday, the team should meet to check in on progress against OKRs and commit to the tasks that will help the company meet its Objective. I recommend a format with four key quadrants:
- Intention for the week: What are the three or four most important things you must get done this week toward the Objective? Discuss if these priorities will get you closer to the OKRs.
- Forecast for the month: What should your team know is coming up that they can help with or prepare for?
- Status toward OKRs: If you set a confidence of five out of ten, has that
moved up or down? Have a discussion about why.
- Health Metrics: Pick two to five things you want to protect as you strive toward greatness. What can you not afford to eff-up? Key relationships with customers? Code stability? Team well-being? Now mark when things start to go sideways, and discuss it.
This document is first and last a conversation tool. You want to talk about issues like:
- Do the priorities lead to our hitting our OKRs?
- Why is confidence dropping in our ability to make our OKRs? Can anyone help?
- Are we prepared for major new efforts? Does marketing know what product is up to?
- Are we burning out our people, or letting hacks become part of the code bases?
Make time for the conversations. If only a fourth of the time allotted for the Monday meeting is presentations and the rest is discussing next steps, you are doing it right. If you end early, it’s a good sign. Just because you’ve set aside an hour doesn’t mean you have to use it.
As the leader, you can model this by saying something like:
“It looks like our second Key Result is in trouble. Can we brainstorm some ways to get it back on track?”
Asking for ideas and being visibly grateful for your team’s insights will go a long way to empowering them. Over time your team will learn that you don’t have all the answers, and that they matter to the company.
Balancing Health Metrics and OKRs
Fridays Are for Winners
In the Friday wins session, teams all demo their work in progress. Engineers show bits of code they’ve got working and designers show mock-ups and maps. But beyond that, every team should share something.
Be sure to do a quick check after with a short, three-question, anonymous survey on how it worked. I love these exit tickets that ask, “What should we keep doing? What should we change? What should the management team know?” I use them in my classes as well to make sure people are learning and the class is improving. You’ve hired smart people; let them help you become a better company!
Keep the Cadence and Make It Your Own
OKRs are great for setting goals, but without a system to achieve them, they are as likely to fail as any other process in that fashion. Commit to your team, commit to each other, and commit to your shared future. And renew those vows every week.
Improve Weekly Status Emails with OKRs
Simple, solid format that works across any org, big or small:
- Lead with your team’s OKRs, and how much confidence you have that you are going to hit them this quarter.
- List last week’s prioritized tasks and if they were achieved.
- Next, list next week’s priorities.
- List any risks or blockers.
On Radical Focus
Companies should adopt OKRs because they seek focus and the acceleration that accompanies it. That only happens if every single person in the company knows what the company OKRs are and can make decisions based on them. Which means they have to remember them. Having only one Objective for the organization helps immensely.
My rule of thumb is one OKR set per business model per quarter. If you are not that big, it’s time to focus so that someday you might be.
Here’s some advice based on what I’ve seen work:
- Don’t try to jam years of work into a single quarter. Choose one Objective at a time, and prioritize and sequence your effort for maximum impact. Do less, better.
- Don’t make a company OKR set for every department.
- Not everyone will lead; some will support.
- Don’t let politics distract you from clear, concise OKR sets.
It’s better if you spend an extra hour getting OKRs right than losing your employees’ focus by burying them with unnecessary language, dozens of priorities, and watered-down goals:
- Be clear.
- Be simple.
- Be memorable.
- Achieve your Objectives.