Tips for Writing Better OKRs

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Objectives & Key Results is a management methodology famously known as the engine behind the explosive growth of many Silicon Valley start-ups including Google and LinkedIn. OKRs provide a framework for focusing on a handful of highly impactful Objectives and achieving them following specific and measurable Key Results.

An effective OKR is both unambiguous and actionable. It includes an objective plus 3–5 key results. A good objective needs to be inspirational and challenging, while the key results need to be specific, measurable and time bound. An OKR that isn’t written well is hard to communicate and even harder to achieve.

Difference between Objectives & Key Results

Understanding the difference between Objectives and Key Results is the first step towards writing clear and effective OKRs.

Here’s a link to an introduction to the OKR methodology and its history.

Objectives

Following the OKR methodology, your Objective needs to be both deliberately challenging, ambitious and impactful.

I find it easy to understand and explain abstract concepts, such as OKRs, using examples. So, I’ll use an example here as well.

Let’s say I want to learn how to bake my wife’s favourite strawberry pie from scratch for her birthday. In this case it’s Fazer’s Café style Strawberry Pie with Vanilla Custard filling.

Objective: Bake one Fazer’s Café style Strawberry Pie with Vanilla Custard filling from scratch.

Knowing how much she enjoys that pie, I know she’ll appreciate it (impact) and it’s a sufficiently challenging objective considering my own baking skills (ambitious).

Key Results

In the OKR methodology your Key Results are specific, measurable and time bound milestones that lead you towards your objective. Since I’m baking a pie, I’ve decide to commit to 5 Key Results. (For every objective you can set between 3–5 key results.)

I’ll use this example later on.

Practical tips for writing good OKRs

In this article I will share tips on writing effective OKRs inspired from Google’s OKR Playbook [PDF].

Let’s start with some tips on writing a good Objective.

Next we’ll take a look at what makes for a good Key Result.

Let’s use my example OKR for baking a Fazer’s Strawberry Pie with Vanilla Custard filling for my wife’s birthday and see how it fares against the OKR writing guidelines.

Objective: Bake a Fazer’s Café style Strawberry Pie with Vanilla Custard filling from scratch.

Let’s look at the Key Results the same way.

  • Expressed as measurable milestones. Check
  • Describe outcomes not activities. Check
  • Includes a deadline. Check
  • State the desired end result. Check
  • Include qualitative and quantitative metrics. Check

Or at least that’s what I think. Do you think my OKRs hit the mark?

Common mistakes to avoid when writing OKRs

Well written OKRs is just the start. You also need to put the same amount of effort in communicating them to your team.

The good news is that as you and your team get better at stating and achieving OKRs your process of creating them will improve at the same time.

Here are some common mistakes that crop up when writing OKRs . Avoiding them will help you improve communication and remove ambiguity.

OKRs that are Business-as-usual

Writing and committing to an OKR based on how easy it is to achieve. This is a very common mistake that teams often make when getting started with OKRs.

The usual rationale is believing that you’re starting small. That’s a folly. Committing to an objective that isn’t sufficiently challenging won’t prepare you for achieving more ambitious goals in the future.

OKRs without a clear destination

An OKR that doesn’t specify a clear and specific destination often leads to no where. I’ll borrow a famous sentence from Alice in Wonderland.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”

Lewis Carroll

Stating an OKR such as ‘Improve customer satisfaction.’ doesn’t tell you how and by how much. This objective has no clear destination. Instead a better OKR will be to ‘Improve NPS to 70+ for all existing customers by [date].’

OKRs that enable Sandbagging

In management ‘sandbagging’ happens when a team deliberately sets lower expectations with an intent to deliver better-than-expected results. This is a common practice in many corporate cultures that tolerate managers who want to ‘look good’ by setting a low goal and trying to exceed it.

Thankfully sandbagging has no place in a culture of high performance.

Research proves that teams perform a lot better when pursuing goals that are aggressive yet realistic. High performance and failure are a packaged deal. Encourage experimentation, celebrate failure and proudly learn from it.

OKRs that don’t have any impact

Another common mistake is committing to an ambitious goal even though it doesn’t deliver any real business value.

I’ve seen this type of objective repeated in multiple organisations where a team might get committed to increasing the volume of their mailing list. It’s often sufficiently challenging and requires resources from marketing and development teams.

Still at the end of the day improving the volume of your mailing list isn’t as impactful as increasing engagement per subscriber or average order value per newsletter.

OKRs that include insufficient Key Results

An effective OKR includes both a destination and meaningful milestones. A common error is writing Key Results which are not sufficient to achieve the objective. It’s a very common error and often made due to lack of knowledge or understanding of the objective.

When committing to an ambitious objective you might not be able to see every possible problem and fail to properly account for skills or resources required. Here’s how you can avoid it.

When committing to an ambitious OKR always openly and honestly discuss with your team if you will be able to achieve your objective in time by accomplishing every single key result. If not then it’s better to reevaluate your key results and avoid wasting time and resources.

The ultimate responsibility for drafting, writing and committing to OKRs fall on the team leader. In my experience getting more confident as setting effective OKRs takes practice. However, your job is made easier if you adopt and practice managerial discipline for OKRs.

Evaluating OKRs

You’ve followed the advice for writing effective OKRs, you’ve avoided every mistake and you’re getting ready to share your Objectives and Key Results with your team. Before pressing send on that email use this quick list to quality check your OKRs.

Main points

OKRs is a team sport. It’s the team leader’s responsibility to address and eliminate any ambiguity or misunderstanding around the core objectives the team must deliver on. Communication and trust are the bedrock of high performance teams.

When writing and committing to OKR keep these tips in mind.

Link to an OKR Worksheet I put together in Google Sheets. I’ve purposefully kept it simple and included an FAQ to help you quickly get up and running.

Originally published at https://aliyarhussain.com on July 20, 2019.