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A Practical Person’s Guide to Writing Better OKRs

Pamela Schure Senior Consultant
Reading: A Practical Person’s Guide to Writing Better OKRs
A Practical Person’s Guide to Writing Better OKRs

The other consultant and I stared in amazement. We were coaching a small group on how to bridge the company’s strategic intent into a list of items that would be in this group’s work backlog. After talking through the general concept, one person’s idea of a strategic goal was what we would have defined as a backlog item. The topmost goal was, “This is what I am going to build.” And the rest of the model involved breaking down “How can I best build it?” And my experience shows that this scenario is not uncommon.

In fact, you or your team members may find yourselves in the category of not understanding strategy that well. If you don’t often work with strategy and the distinction between strategy and execution or tactics, your team’s delivery goals are seen as your strategy.

For companies in search of Business Agility, it’s important to track how efforts on the ground link to the company’s strategy. With the strategy to execution link in place, the organization has more ability to adjust to changing conditions. Leadership can update their strategy, and the systems managing direction and work will cascade change down through the organization. Many organizations are turning to Objectives and Key Results or OKRs to create this strategic alignment, and I’ve included a short description of an OKR below. However, the first step is often tackling (gulp) strategy. We’ll get to that in the second part of the blog post.

So what can the practical, non-strategic folks do when faced with a request to handle ‘strategy?’

The other Agility benefit comes from decoupling the problem to be solved, in this case as defined by strategy, from the solution that develops as the strategic aims are met.

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) As a Tool for Strategic Alignment

To better align enterprise strategy with execution, many organizations use the Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) framework. Once in place at all levels of an organization, you can draw a line between each activity, its associated strategic impact, and the overall goals and strategies of the entire organization.

OKRs have two main components:

  • Objective: What aspirational state do you want to reach?
  • Key Results: What is the measurable change in behavior or outcomes that the organization is making to progress toward the Objective? The behavior changes are not the act of ‘doing’ something. They often reflect the change in behavior of the groups receiving the work.

Once the Key Results associated with an Objective have been measurably achieved, the premise is that the Objective will have been reached. The reality is that when we begin a journey, we rarely understand that along the way, we will discover new and better ways to accomplish our objectives. So often, our Objective remains the same, while the Key Results we use to measure progress often change.

Getting Started With Objectives

But that’s all in the future. For now, at the start of your OKR journey, you may have been asked to create one Objective. Just one. And you can’t figure out where to start—nor when you will be done—not to mention how to ensure that you are doing it ‘right.’ It’s frustrating. Most of us spend our careers focusing on getting the right answer. Then OKRs come along, and we have to live knowing that OKRs may only give you the right focus until you determine that something else makes more sense. OKRs are humbling that way.

Here are a few of our natural biases that trip us up on our journey to successful OKRs:

  • Most of us don’t think in terms of strategy. We organize our lives with tasks and To-Do lists.
  • How long should a strategy item take, anyway? What size of change will be meaningful?
  • Our long-term goals and how we keep score on achieving them is fuzzy in contrast to what is urgent today.
  • We don’t frequently re-examine our plans or strategies for getting from “here and now” to “there and then.” Once we head off in a direction, we don’t want to stop until we arrive at our pre-determined destination, whether or not it’s still worth reaching.
  • We don’t track our progress towards achieving objectives along the way. Our focus is 100% completion – whatever that means to you. We don’t stop to check how much progress we’ve made.

Here are a few ideas for getting started that address these stumbling blocks.

Objective:

Write one. You know where you want to go or have a pretty good idea of how your contribution makes a difference in the organization. Don’t agonize. Write one. Keep it short; I recommend under 14 words. Purists go for five words; I am not a purist. One hint: Don’t focus on numbers like sales increases—that’s a goal. Focus on the change that will make your numbers happen. Maybe: “Open up a new market in Thailand.” What’s your Objective?

A note on the size of an Objective: every organization has its guidelines. The length of time it takes to complete an Objective also varies with where you are in the organization. Top-level OKRs may take years. At the division level, less than 12 months, and for smaller teams, a quarter is likely to be a good-sized objective.

Key Results:

Key Results are tough cookies to tackle. And everyone has their own journey as they find Key Results that make sense for them. If you have either a list of process steps or a To-Do list, those will make really poor Key Results. Why?

  • Process steps apply to any work you do. They don’t explain why doing them is valuable. And no matter what task comes in, the process takes over completing the task. Avoid using them as KRs because you’ll have to rewrite them.
  • Task lists are also poor Key Results. They are not strategic in nature but tactical. If you have your task list and want to work backward into strategic intent, start by asking yourself the following questions:
    1. If I finish these tasks, what valuable thing happens that is visible as valuable to the organization?
    2. What behavior changes do I expect to occur from my users? Do my users move more quickly through getting their job done? Do people spend more time on my site? Do they buy more?
    3. Focus on the outcome of what you create. Our task lists are usually a list of outputs; they answer, “I did this.” An outcome focuses on is the impact of completing a task. If you don’t know the outcome of your work, bring in someone who knows that part of the picture. For larger efforts, it can be hard to see the impact of a small part of the puzzle. Once you understand how your work fits into the whole, your motivation to complete your part of the picture—and your level of satisfaction in your work increases.
    4. Can I measure interim steps in achieving my Key Result? Yup. Can I tell how far I’ve progressed toward a Key Result in real-time? How many people have been trained? How many databases will I have set up? All of these are good Key Result tracking metrics.

This list above is the trick to turning your task list into Key Results that address strategic intent.

Key Results: The Measurable Part

In step 4 above, I mentioned measurable Key Results. Let me clarify. Every Key Result should be measurable. Yes, every one. And most people struggle to find a measure of their Key Results. A couple of tips here:

  1. Select measures in Key Results that you can track at any time. The official name for these is “LEADING indicators.” At any time, you can check and see how far you’ve progressed. Your Key Result shows a 10% decrease in processing time. Great. Your systems should allow you to create a baseline and check progress.
  2. Avoid Key Results that are incomplete until they are finished. Revisit your Key Results until they have interim measurable steps.

Key Results Review

When you have your Key Results, look through them carefully.

Through the process of moving from a task list, often several task items roll up into one measurable Key Result with a user behavior change. This is typical. Instead of a LOOONG list of things to do, you now have a way to check on actual results that your company cares about. The better news: if, along the way, you discover a better way to achieve your key results, you simply change your task list without an impact to the OKR.

 Putting It Together

Once you have your Objectives and Key Results, put them aside overnight. In the morning, look at them with fresh eyes and answer these questions:

  • Does my Objective still look like it will create a positive change in my company?
  • Does the wording need to be tweaked for clarity?
  • Have you found a better measurement for your Key Result?
  • If all the Key Results are reached, will the Objective be closed? If not, what else would close the gap? If I will more than achieve my Objective, which Key Result can I remove?

OKRs are written both as individual endeavors and group challenges. Either way, bring fresh eyes to your OKR until you are pretty happy with it. Then, submit it—and keep checking on it to check your progress.

Good luck!

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