Using Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) as a goal-setting framework can help your team to be more focused, and track your progress more easily.
This is because they provide an effective combination of an inspiring objective for everyone to commit to, and measurable key results. However, teams that are new to OKRs often have a hard time coming up with the right formulations and the right metrics to measure success.
If you’re in this position and looking to kickstart OKRs in your team, I suggest taking a more pragmatic approach to begin with. Rather than diving straight into metrics, try focusing more on general alignment around goals and the overall outcome. Once you’re up and running, then you can start to introduce those all-important metrics. Let me explain why.
At my current company, I belong to a group of so-called ‘ambassadors’ or ‘OKRs Masters’ with a mission to inspire and help product teams to drive organizational change by establishing and furthering OKRs in their teams. Based on what I’ve learned from working with these folks, I’m going to share tips for getting started with OKRs, sharing what works and what doesn’t, and why it’s best to hold on using metrics until your framework is up and running.
The fundamental factors for success when introducing OKRs
To start using the OKR framework with a team that has never worked with it before, there are three core factors needed:
- The right motivation: People need to be convinced of the benefits of adopting OKRs, or at least have an open attitude towards it so that they’re willing to give it a try.
- A basic training: Folks should have a grasp of how the objectives and key results should be formulated and what the process looks like, and they should be given some examples so they have a more concrete idea of how to proceed.
- A moderator or facilitator for the planning and review sessions: This is important to provide some guidance, facilitate the discussion, and provide input or impulses to point the conversation in the right direction.
The common challenges
However, even when all three factors are available, it can be tough for teams to have a good start. When things do go wrong, it’s normally because teams are facing one of these challenges:
- Death by discussions: Planning sessions can easily turn into long discussions as folks try to agree on the objectives to follow, especially if you haven’t attempted this kind of alignment before. People may start feeling that it’s too much work and question if it’s worth it.
- Complexity of finding the right formulations: If agreeing on the objectives is hard, finding the right key results is even harder. Formulating the measurable part is usually more complex because it’s where things get more concrete. Your team might run out of planning time before you set key results, leaving the project in a ‘draft’ stage with no buy-in from those involved.
- Difficult or poor progress tracking during the quarter: This can happen either because the OKR sets were not so good (perhaps they were too ambitious/too easy, or they depended on external factors rather than the team itself) or because they were not followed up on (perhaps due to a lack of commitment or a change in priorities).
How to overcome the challenges and achieve a sustainable adoption
Because of these challenges, some teams might just drop the idea of using OKRs. That’s why it’s important to introduce the framework in the right way so that you can achieve a sustainable adoption (when I say that, I mean one where the teams are able to pass the inflection point and start to fully enjoy the advantages of the framework). So, how can you get there?
Take a pragmatic approach
It’s more important to make sure that everyone is generally aligned than it is to get 100% agreement on the phrasing of your objectives. Rather than wasting your planning time searching for the perfect wording, take a ‘good enough’ approach. It’s also important to be realistic when defining the objectives; it’s easy to fall into the trap of overcommitting by overestimating the time available. This is always a balancing act that gets easier with experience (which is why it’s crucial to reflect on how everything went at the end of the quarter and have a review/retro meeting before the next planning session).
To begin with, focus less on metrics and more on outcomes
The only way to improve is to measure and review performance. Metrics are the core of the long-term OKR magic of being able to assess if the team is on track to meet the objectives and why. However, knowing how to measure can be very difficult, especially when the team is confronted with this task for the first time. That's why focusing less on metrics and more on outcomes can be beneficial for the teams when first getting started with OKRs. Here’s why:
- It helps to avoid demotivation: Too many follow-up meetings to refine the formulation of key results can lead to demotivation. Not aiming for perfectly formulated key results is a better approach. It’s more important to find ‘good enough’ key results that keep the focus on the outcome rather than on the output.
- It helps to get a better picture of what the team should aim for: Even if you do have ideas around how to measure progress, the numbers you put forward might be almost random values. To get around this, start by finding a baseline. for what needs to be measured; in this case, the key results will be more generalized. Despite this approach being against the traditional theory of the OKR framework, it can be useful in helping you to know where you are and get an idea of what you need to aim for.
After a few cycles, refine your key results with the right metrics
Focusing less on metrics can be helpful when first getting started with OKRs, but of course, at some stage you need to start measuring. At my company, most teams started to feel more comfortable defining their key results after the second or third cycle. This is a normal pattern, since we humans get better at anything with practice. I won’t explain why metrics are important for OKRs (there are enough articles already out there on this topic), but I will share some insights on how to set effective measurable key results, based on my experience. Here are my key takeaways:
- Think beyond KPIs: Don’t just focus on hitting business objectives. Instead, think creatively about specific things that your team can influence.(If you want to know more about the difference between a key result and a KPI, I suggest taking a look at this post.) To make sure your key results are more specific to your team, try to keep the following questions in mind:
- What can I personally do to contribute to achieving the objective? Asking yourself this question when generating ideas with the team can help you to come up with actions that you can quantify and hence, offer a measurement of the progress.
- Is the key result something I can completely influence?Do I have the resources, skills and possibilities to achieve my key result? Or do I depend on something/someone else to fulfill it? Ideally, your answers are ‘yes’, ‘yes’ and ‘no', respectively. Otherwise, it will be frustrating not being able to see progress.
- Are at least some of my key results really challenging and forcing me out of my comfort zone? But don’t exaggerate, try to stay realistic while you learn how flexible that comfort zone is. Overcommitment is a trap easy to fall into.
- Your key results shouldn’t be binary, but if they are, there is a workaround: Break the task down into milestones to measure progress. Yes, I know this is artificial and not ideal, but in my opinion, it’s a valid shortcut when there is not too much time left in the planning session to find a better formulation. It also helps to speed things up and get the cycle going if the team runs out of ideas.
- Keep in mind that fulfilling the key results gets you closer to the objective, but doesn’t automatically mean that the objective has been achieved. This all depends on how abstract or creatively formulated the objective is, and on how you and your team decide to approach success. Some people agree that achieving 70% of the objective indicates success, while others aim for 100%. Aligning on this expectation within the team is also key to come up with the appropriate metrics for the quarter.
- Don’t worry if your first round of key results isn’t a success: If this is the case, a cycle review can usually show what went wrong with the formulation, and you can draw on the learnings to set (and achieve) better results in the next quarter.
Introducing OKRs to your team isn’t easy but it’s a great way to help them stay focused and track their own progress. By adopting a ‘good enough’ approach when getting started and slowly defining the right key results and metrics once the framework is established, you can help your engineers to avoid the common challenges related to OKR adoption, and start enjoying all the benefits that it has to offer. Good luck!