OKRs is a great goal setting process to help you achieve orgnaizational objectives. We have created a guide to help you understand OKRs
Objective Key Results or OKRs is a process of management by objectives used by some of the most innovative companies in the world such as Google, Intel, Oracle, Twitter and LinkedIn. The OKRs framework has helped organizations to connect employees with the business objectives, eliminate silos across departments and most importantly help companies identify and focus on what matters most in their organization. We have created a guide to help understand the OKRs framework and to give you the right tools you need to implement it in your organization.
If you’ve found this guide, you likely are aware of the importance of setting goals. Whether they are personal or work related, goals can help motivate and inspire us to be our best selves. But one of the reason why many people struggle to set and achieve their goals is because without structure our goals lose meaning, become vague or can start to overwhelm us. The OKR framework is guide to setting our goals that help us define and track our progress. In this short guide we’ll talk about the history and principles behind the method as well as some practical advice on how you can start setting (and achieving) your goals today.
Just a few notes at the beginning:
While the principles of OKRs apply to any goal or initiative you might have, we’ll focus today on their use in company and team settings.
If you already know about the history, importance and definition of OKRs you can jump to Section 2: How to create an OKRs system for your organization or team.
And if you’re ready to implement OKRs or need help adding structure, visibility and tracking functionality to your system, PeopleGoal offers free consultations on using OKRs as part of our cloud-based, modular employee experience platform.
A sample of a goal cycle including a timeline of the process steps.
OKRs is short for Objectives and Key Results and setting goals with the framework is just as easy as remembering this acronym.
While we will talk more about the origination of OKRs in the next section you can fast track your goal success rate by using this simple formula for setting OKRs:
“I will < > as measured by < >.”
The first blank here is your objective. It could be something inspirational or a little more mundane but should describe exactly what you want to achieve. For our first example, let’s say our objective is to “write an amazing blog on setting goals.”
The second blank here is the key result. Without this second part, we might end up with goals that are too subjective, so thinking about the desired outcome and quantifying it helps keep us on track. I might add a key result for the objective above of “getting 100 page views in the first week,” for example.
And while you may initially think of these goals as coming off binary (like doing x = y) the framework really shines when we make multiple key results. This could be a way of adding alternative criteria or complementary criteria to our goals. For example, I might also want to track how many times the blog post is downloaded so I would add “have 50 downloads per week for the first 2 weeks” to my key results.
Once we have the basics down on setting goals we should add more key results to set stretch goals - multiple levels of achievement that all equal success but push us to do the best we can. My stretch goals in this case might be “500 page views in the first week” and “1000 page views in the first week.” The second and third key results may be very difficult to achieve and that's the point! Instead of setting binary goals that only 100% complete or else we assume failure, stretch goals have us reach for the stars with the understanding that we can't also complete everything. Start with an assumption that 70% is an awesome result - somewhere between fully completing Key Result 2 and 3. We may not be able to fully predict how much we can really achive, so why limit ourselves at the start of the race?
The reason why this method can be so beautifully simple is because the two sides of the equation balance each other out like a see-saw. Adding quantification to our aspirations helps us choose goals that are attainable but also give us something to strive for. While some goals might be very straight-forward and only have a few means of going about them, other goals might need creativity and more planning to get the results you want.
Now you have all the information you need to start thinking about your goals in the OKRs framework. But understanding the history of the methodology and seeing how companies large and small are using it can help take our goals to the next level.
Andy Grove is widely considered the “Father of OKRs” in addition to having a large impact on the Silicon Valley and management methodology. As he rose the ranks at Intel during the 70’s and 80’s, becoming the Chairman and CEO in 1997, he focused on continuously striving for excellence and adapting and transforming processes in order to grow. His management led to great strides in both innovation and market capitalization. He also taught internal classes on his techniques including goal setting with OKRs and documented the approach in his book High Output Management.
And although many of the methods of managing and motivating still ring true today, it’s the OKR framework that is often first remembered. One Intel employee, John Doerr, adopted the framework and when he left to work elsewhere introduced it to two gentlemen looking for venture capital for their startup based out of a garage in California in 1999. Today over 60,000 employees at that company - Google - use the framework to set goals that help organize the world’s information.
Since then the framework has been used, adapted and taught at Fortune 500 companies, top-ranked business schools and motivational retreats across the world. And while new suggestions and additional constraints have been offered by experts, the basic structure has remained the same:
“I will < > as measured by < >.”
You might wonder then if the principles still hold true for the current business environment - from the disruptive tech startups to traditional brick and mortar retailers. Are OKRs still relevant?
Want your company or project to be as successful as Google? Intel? Spotify? Airbnb? Target? ING?
These are just a few of the large corporations who put OKRs to use in everyday life. Ofcourse you don’t have to 1000’s of employees to see the benefits. It’s continued use from small to large organization is a testament to the power of goals that provide direction and objectivity.
Using OKRs will give you the edge to getting things done and holding yourself and others accountable. As the Father of OKRs said “at the end you can look, and without any arguments: Did I do that or did I not do it? Yes? No? Simple. No judgments in it.”
While we've touched on some of the benefits along the way, there’s 4 reasons you should starting using OKRs referred to as the 4 Superpowers of OKRs by John Doerr:
Having defined and measurable goals help use spend our attention on what is important and makes it easier to get support when we need help. Having a shared format and expectation helps everyone to stay up-to-date and on track.
Sometimes even when we're working towards the same goal, it can be difficult to see the big picture. Using and aligning with OKRs helps us work together to accomplish both individual and high-level goals.
If you can't measure, you can't improve. And if you can't track it, you can't be surprised when it isn't done on time. Holding ourselves (and others) accountable helps motivate us to achieve and OKRs make it easy to track at a glance.
Setting goals that challenge us but still have full buy-in from the team/individual are key to high performance. When we're empowered to set our own goals that take into account our skills and interest, self-motivation is much easier.
Still on board? Let’s take a look at how OKRs can implemented into a system that gets the results we are targeting.
Depending on the size and composition of your organization, setting up a process for OKRs alignment can require varying amounts of effort. In this section we will cover the basics you need to consider when planning for success. After reviewing the following 6 considerations for setting up the process, you can use the example OKRs cycle at the end to plan out how to start right away.
One important thing to consider in setting up the process is timing. Not only do we need to set goals in a timely manner, but we should also evaluate in such a way that provides us with feedback while we can still apply it. The basic mantra is that goals should be set often and monitored continuously. Many organizations use a quarterly process, but it’s crucial to include time for planning, execution and evaluation.
Before rolling out to teams, have a schedule of at least the next 6 months prepared to communicate when goals should be set and what period they will be measured over. Just like setting up any other organizational initiative, there will be some expectation setting needed up front and establishing hard deadlines will help give structure the program from the start.
Accountability is also an important part of the framework and one for the ways we achieve this is by offer visibility into what we are doing. Often, giving others a view of our goals can help motivate us to work harder at them. Like any other successful organization effort, this process needs to start at the top.
While you can certainly share the list of example OKRs in Section 4, why not take the company objectives and KPIs or convert the goals of your top executives into the framework. These will serve as concrete reminders that your everyone is responsible and contributing to a common goal. The amount transparency of provided to individuals is a decision that must be made by leadership, but some amount of upward visibility is essential to get full buy-in.
Similarly, the amount of alignment may depend on how much insight is given to top-level objectives. Software can allows individuals to attach their goals directly to related company objectives, but even if this isn’t possible, you can still provide guidelines for the creation phase to make sure goals are aligned. Compile a list of questions to consider that will ensure OKRs are relevant to both the individual and company level such as “Do the results I want to achieve contribution to the continued success of the team/company?” or “Is this objective in keeping with the vision and values of the organization?”
If you’re not ready for a full rollout to all employees/team members, try a pilot to gauge the reception. Or start with an annual goal setting process before moving to quarterly. As mentioned in the alignment section above, it’s important to first set higher level KPIs or objectives to give a clear vision of what departments or teams should be aligning to. Since OKRs are designed to be collaborative and visible, try setting up dedicated time to brainstorm, develop and get feedback on goals together in small groups or teams. You might even consider goal-based team building events where your OKR champions can offer tailored, group based goal setting workshops that also improve moral and help team members bond.
Consider online systems that allow for quick entry, tracking and dashboard level views of the goals. Platforms like PeopleGoal also offer news, timeline, and reminder functionality that help keep even the busiest employee informed and ready to start the OKR approach. Integrating with or choosing a service that also covers core Human Resources functions can ease the transition for end-users and eliminate any feelings that the initiative is only another performance metric to be afraid of.
Because our OKRs should stretch our perceived limits, it’s important to set thresholds for success and de-couple these from the performance review process. Google and others, for example, use 70% as a measure of success. If we’re always hitting 100%, then we’re simply not aiming high enough. However, it can be discouraging and intimidating if we it seems like we’re not performing to our fullest because we don’t achieve the highest level of our OKR.
If your employees or team members only associate OKRs with a performance review at the end of the year or quarter, they’re incentivized to choose goals they know can easily be achieved. While quantification helps us benchmark and find areas for improvement, our overall performance is more than just a few data points. You can read more about to how to run a successful performance review in our the essential guide to performance reviews, but suffice it to say that while goals are absolutely part of what we all do, OKRs work best when they aren’t viewed as simply another metric to rank employees at the end of the year.
Similarly, while it might be tempting to add in a rewards system to OKRs and under some circumstances this can be beneficial, it's important to consider the underlying source of motivation behind achievements. Success is certainly worth celebrating and rewards are one way of recognizing hard work, but linking directly to OKRs can lead to unhealthy competition and a focus on personal achievement at the cost of inclusivity and overall team success.
Closely related to the performance piece mentioned above, there are certain environmental factors that can make or break an OKRs system. OKRs are meant to make us strive to do our best, really shooting for the stars but still being safe to fall on a cloud. While some pressure can motivate, too much can distract us, and cultivating a culture where everyone feels comfortable to try things outside the box and occasionally failing but learn from mistakes goes hand-in-hand with a successful OKRs system.
Company culture isn't something you can change overnight, but it’s possible to initiatives like OKRs to solidify and position your culture in the desired direction. Think in terms of how setting high-aspiration goals fits in to “who you are” as a company or a team. If you translate your core values or mission statement into a high-level objectives then it will be easier to align key results at the department or team level. Creating goals, providing meaning and fostering social connections are all expert-recommended ways to grow a positive culture and these are all achievable through a successful OKR program.
Lastly, but most importantly, communication is key. You need to plan communications out to the group that explain the benefits of setting OKRs, the reason they are being implemented, and what to expect in terms of changes of software and/or operating procedures. From the perspective of management, this communication doesn’t cease once the initial OKRs are set. Occasional reminders and updates on high-level objectives should continue throughout the year should set the pace to march for team and individual goals.
Not only should we be communicating about OKRs, but also communication using OKRs. When each individual has goals that share an objective with everyone else we can use the framework to talk about where we need help, celebrate success and updating our priorities. One easy way to increase goal-centric communication is to use business tools that facilitate, and even encourage collaboration. Services like Slack and Notion are great ways to foster communication by centralizing work documents, groups, and important links.
Especially if you’re able to give full visibility of OKRs across your organization, consider tools that allow easy viewing, updating and commenting on goals. While you might start off with a paper/online document for tracking OKRs, once you begin to have many cycles and iterations of goals, it can be helpful to have an online system that organizes and provides further insights into the data. Bonus points if you can quickly comment on your own, to your team OKRs! Quick communication like this can bridge the gap between weekly and monthly check-ins to get this back on course before the end of the performance period.
Start of quarter - Communicate and finalize Team Level OKRs, begin
Now that we have some principals to follow and some structure for the process, let's go back to the 4 drivers of OKRs to highlight some practical advice for running a successful process:
In order to produce real results, our OKRs need attention over the course of the performance period. Whatever timeline you use for setting OKRs, it’s important to at very least have a midpoint check-in to evaluate if the goal is performing to plan or needs corrective action. Goal owners should of course be evaluating much more often, entering progress as it happens or at the end of each week.
Although it might feel a bit like a loss to change your OKR, at times this makes the most sense to continue working towards your objective. If we find that our key results are no longer attainable or have already been achieved halfway through the cycle, it’s ok - and important to update. Unexpected events, outside pressures and new information will always be a part of the work environment, but the beauty of the OKR framework is that we can use the goals as a communication mechanism to explain these unpredictable parts of life. As long as we document and discuss changes to our goals, it’s not a failure; in fact it’s growth in terms of being able to adapt, synthesize new information and persistence in the pursuit of our goal.
We’ve covered the basics of setting OKRs, but to recap they should be simple but descriptive, flexible but quantifiable and easy to set but difficult to achieve. Your process may vary, but you can also use the Rule of 3’s: no more than 3 OKRs per person at a time, and around 3 key results per objectives. And though some people view the two as competing methodology, don’t be afraid to make your goals S.M.A.R.T. While the measure aspect (M) is covered by the key results, the principles can help you flesh out and hone in your goals: make it as specific (S) to the team/individual working on the goal; make it attainable (A) by including at least one key result that is very likely to be achieved; make it relevant (R) to the role/department or project at hand; and be timely (T), in terms of regularly setting, evaluating and getting feedback on your OKR. Putting all these together will result in goals that get you where you want to be:
Increase customer satisfaction as measured by a NPS of XX this quarter/YY this quarter.
Develop the best calculator app on the App Store as measured by 1M downloads per month.
Write the most comprehensive OKR guide by writing 3000/4000/500 words while maintaining high quality content.
Good goals, no matter the framework, do take time to develop. You might think of a bad OKR as something that’s inappropriate, not related to the company objectives or impossible to achieve but more likely than that the type of bad goals you will see are boring. Think of goals in terms of your resume - not necessarily as means of selling yourself for a new position, but more as a reflection of yourself and what you have done. Experts suggest your resume contain achievements, not just rote descriptions of what you did. Chances are lots of people are capable of doing the day-to-day tasks, but what sets you apart is what you do above and beyond that. Try to avoid OKRs that are just a line in a task list like:
If you’re having trouble making your own OKRs, try to take these three examples and turn them into better, measurable goals. Then just apply the same thinking to the things you want to achieve.
Now that we’re up and running on OKRs let set some aspirations for how this system will work in the working environment:
As an employee at any level in the organization, you have clear insight into how your company is performing and where they want to be positioned in the future. You have direction to set goals for yourself and your team that are meaningful and allow you flexibility to achieve them. You have support from your team and manager to accomplish these goals and you feel that everyone, not just the people you normally work with, have your back and working towards the same thing. Regular feedback from management and colleagues alike feels constructive and gives you useful information to help you accomplish your goals.
As a manager, you have the ability to easily see what your direct reports are involved in without remembering it all or asking at every check-in. In addition, this means you can intervene and offer assistance as necessary, even if you aren’t working directly with individual team members on a daily basis. You have clear direction from leadership and as a result can disseminate and explain the “why” behind certain task, projects and initiatives. Communication is easy, natural and consistent across teams, projects and departments.
As demonstrated by executive leadership, the company has a whole share both successes and failures as means to identify areas of improvement and to celebrate hard work. Personal growth and development is highly encouraged as it is linked to performance and overall company growth. High amount of trust in individual responsibility means that being accountability isn’t something to fear, but an opportunity to shine. Thinking outside of defined limits is encouraged and providing structure and support leads to a work environment where any aspiration seems possible.
Sound like a place you want to work? If the ideal environment is your objective, the key results can be measure by implementing a OKR-based culture of continuous improvement and growth, supportive feedback and transparency.
Finally, here are some more examples of OKRs to help you brainstorm your own goals. They don’t have to look exactly like this, but remember to look beyond tasks and think about what you truly want to accomplish, something you would be proud to tell to your friends and colleagues. No matter the team size, industry or competition OKRs can help you get there.
Objective: Increase the number of qualified leads for Q3
Objective: Increase brand recognition
Objective: Improve customer acquisition process
Objective: Improve on last month’s number of outbound leads.
Objective: Learn a new programming language
Objective: Improve customer experience
Objective: Improve quality of team output
Objective: Become industry leader in perfume sales
Objective: Gather quality performance information for analysis
Objective: Maintain high quality customer experience
Get the picture? Remember that it takes time and reflection to make goals that challenge and motivate people. So don’t rush the process! Having something we believe in and want to achieve is the key to being engaged in our work - whether it’s a personal endeavor or a game-changing business project.
We hope you’ve found this guide both useful and a bit inspirational as well. If there’s anything you feel is missing or you have general feedback, contact me directly here. When you’re ready to learn more about OKRs, drop us a line to see best practices in action in our cloud-based, modular HR platform. Or if you have any other questions contact us here: email@example.com