Using Objectives and Key Results with your team
Are you looking to try out Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) with your team, or want to improve how they are put into practice? In this post I will address practical tips I have picked up whilst working with OKRs. I’ll start off with a recap, so skip to the bottom if you can’t wait to read the tips!
These tips come from my experience working with OKRs on a team level (small, cross-functional product teams who work in quarterly cycles), but the principles can apply to other types of teams at different levels of an organisation.
What are OKRs?
Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is a goal-setting methodology.
It has its origins in Management by Objectives (MBOs) developed by Peter Drucker in 1954, and later developed by Andy Grove into the current OKR model. John Doerr, who worked with Andy at Intel, later went on to popularise the model at Google in the late 1990s.
An objective is a motivational goal; it sets a clear direction of where you want to go. This is a qualitative statement. To keep things focused, set one to four objectives in a determined period of time.
Key Results are metrics, they signpost the progress we have made towards our goal. These are ideally quantitative. We usually set three Key Results for each Objective, so that combined they give us an indication of whether we have met our objective. Key Results should be ambitious and contain enough stretch that the team are confident that they have a 50% chance of achieving them.
At times, people may refer to Initiatives, which describes the work necessary to drive the Key Results forward.
OKRs are time-bound. For small teams, I have found that they work well if they are set every three months. This allows enough time to explore a problem whilst keeping risk at bay as you can easily change direction if the right progress isn’t being made. For organisations, it is common that they are set annually and each OKR represents part of its strategy.
To bring this all together and understand what OKRs look like, here is John Doerr’s example OKR when he presented the methodology to Google’s leadership in 1999:
One of the main drivers for adopting OKRs is the ability to focus on and prioritise what is most important. OKRs mark a shift from an output to an outcome-based approach to setting objectives, which means that you are driven by the value being delivered by your work.
As previously mentioned, Google has been using OKRs since 1999 to set goals for the company. In Startup Lab workshop: How Google sets goals, GV partner Rick Klau speaks about the power of OKRs in promoting alignment on an organisation-wide level. Embedding strategic objectives through all levels of the organisation accurately communicates priorities and helps everyone to move in the same direction.
On a team level, OKRs are easy to remember, meaning that team objectives will be at the forefront of everybody’s mind. As OKRs are actionable and measurable, teams feel more motivated to get the work done together as they clearly see the progress being made.
Practical tips for using OKRs with your team
Set ambitious goals. Start the quarter 50% confident that you will reach your objectives. Develop objectives that have enough stretch to them that the team needs to pull together to achieve them. You will achieve more than if you had aimed lower.
2. Don’t set Key Results that are out of the team’s scope
Make sure the team owns and can influence each Key Result, and independently fulfil each initiative. This doesn’t mean that you cannot work alongside other teams, it means that each team should have full autonomy to determine how and what they want to work on to achieve their objectives without being blocked by another team.
3. Finish writing your OKRs before the start of the next quarter
I suggest drafting a first version of your OKRs a couple of weeks before the start of the quarter. This way, during quarterly planning you can focus on discussing the initiatives that will help you achieve your OKRs.
In teams I have worked with, at the end of a quarter, we displayed a draft version of our next quarterly OKRs in our kitchen space for a week and asked passers-by to give feedback and ask questions about them — we then iterated our objectives before writing our final version.
4. Take ownership
Assign owners to Key Results or even to whole objectives. This doesn’t mean that this person will be responsible for all the work, or the one to blame if it doesn’t get done. Instead, they will be the ones to make sure progress is being reported on and facilitate the discussions around what work needs to be done.
5. Be visible
Make sure you keep your OKRs somewhere visible, both digitally and physically.
On the digital sphere, I would suggest tagging your tickets with its corresponding OKR label. This way, people will understand how this discrete piece of work fits in with the overall objective. You can also post your OKRs onto the team’s wiki or your organisation’s intranet.
If your team has a physical board, print out a copy of your OKRs and stick it next to your work in progress. Take it to the next level by colour-coding OKRs with your kanban cards.
Being vocal and visible about your objectives will help with staying motivated and being accountable for progress.
6. Review progress regularly
Avoid delays, blockers and other surprises by keeping the team and the organisation up-to-date with your progress.
I use the spreadsheet below to track progress against each Key Result. Frequently, the team get together to assess their confidence in achieving each OKR by the end of the quarter on a scale from 0–1 (or 0 to 100%). Red, amber and green status has also been used to visualise overall progress at a glance.
If you work in 2-week sprints, review your OKRs at the beginning of each Sprint Planning. This way, your team can make adjustments to the backlog of work depending on the progress you have made towards your objectives.
Lead by example and be transparent about your progress by sharing your confidence levels with your peers. Being open and having honest conversations about the good and not-so-good things about your work will encourage others to do the same. Hopefully, this will set the tone for continuous improvement.
7. It’s OK if you don’t get it right the first time
It takes a couple of iterations to get the hang of setting OKRs at the right level for your team. Don’t give up! Hopefully, after trying it out once, you’ll have enough insight to tweak the process of setting goals in a way that works for your team.
It is also OK if a Key Result or a whole OKR loses its importance mid-quarter. Challenge your assumptions as a team and don’t be afraid to stop if you believe it isn’t taking you down the right path. You should be focusing on what matters.
If you’d like to dive deeper into OKRs, here are some resources I find useful: