Long Pressed #2: Objectives and Key Results

This week’s featured pattern is Objectives and Key Results. While simple, powerful, adaptable and motivating, OKRs can also be misunderstood and abused. Be sure to pay special attention to the “avoid” section of this pattern. Lastly, feel free to reach out to us on Twitter with comments and don’t forget to subscribe!

Objective

Improve transparencyalignmentfocuscollaboration, and motivation of cross functional organizations in the next six months.

Key Results

  1. Set ambitious monthly objectives for each team and identify three to five weeklymeasurable key results to get them there.

  2. Transparently report weekly progress towards objectives and monitor each team's key results.

  3. Meet bi-weekly to evaluate the efficacy of the key results and adjust as needed.


Objectives are meant to be ambitious, and even failing to reach them, through the underlying activities and measurement of key results, will oftentimes deliver substantial value anyway.

Key Results are measurable activities and can be noted as completed or not at each check-in interval. In the case of Google OKRs, each key result is ranked from 0.0 to 1.0 as a measure of progress.

The objective time scale should ideally be several times longer than the key results check in interval, allowing for evaluation of the efficacy of the Key Results as a catalyst of progress.

An OKR program and its underlying data should be transparent to cross-functional teams.

Problems

  • People have a difficult time with priority, focus, and alignment, being pulled in different directions because they don't have a single Source of Truth that says "This is what I need to be working on instead".

  • Transparency between cross functional team activity

  • Activities on a smaller time scale do not add up to goals at a larger time scale

  • Organic Engagement and collaboration across teams

  • Reporting progress towards goals feels subjective

  • Lack of measurable results means relying on Gut Feel

Bigger Problems

Trust and Accountability - let's say you want to set an objective for inbound leads and a key result to drive traffic to your website. The expectation is that team members will strive to understand and iterate on a useful definition of "high quality traffic" in pursuit of the overarching objective, rather than cheap ads in pursuit of the key result. If leadership thinks the latter will occur, there is a trust problem, if the latter does occur, there is an accountability problem.

Claims

  • Clearly communicated, ambitious team goals can help attract the best talent

  • First Level Explanatory Concepts are the easiest to understand catalysts of action. The mechanisms underlying balanced goal settings result in changes to individual plans, intentions, tasks, etc.

Tools

Basecamp for Product Teams

If you're already using Shape Up to track projects in cycles, you can use Basecamp teams to track objectives at a higher level. You can then use hill charts to measure the progress of objectives and OKRs in general to help understand which pitches to bet on based on whether they'll progress a team objective. Here is an example. Note you can even change the to-do list title to be called "Objectives".

Notion for Cross Functional Teams

Notion has a Template Gallery where you can find plenty of templates to build and track OKRs. You can also set permissions on individual pages to share progress towards objectives and key results with external teams. If you choose to use Notion, consider also making the underlying data for key results available to others as well. For example, if a Key Result is to interview 3 customers per week, create a template for interview notes, capture key customer information and attributes, and share it with other teams that can benefit!

Spreadsheets and Docs for Business Teams

You can always start with the simplest approach to OKRs and just use spreadsheets, just make sure you're committed to measuring, scoring, and reporting. Spreadsheets are a particularly easy approach if you intend on evaluating and reporting OKR statuses live during meetings or conference calls. You can find a simple OKR template here, and scorecards here. If you use Office 365, those tools should be easy to replicate or find online.

Avoid

Tying OKRs to compensation and Employee Evaluation. They're meant to be iterative and evolve to find an optimal balance of activities to achieve goals and make progress.

Objectives that maintain Status Quo. Watch out for words and phrases like "continue", "keep doing", or "maintain". If the objectives aren't exact then aim to use scaling words like "accelerate", "increase", "expand", "reduce", or "eliminate". Make sure the current state is clear and your magnitude of scale is ambitious.

Categorizing objectives. Don't set several objectives related to "Get Better At Sales" and communicate the category externally. This can unintentionally have a distracting Anchoring effect and result in the subjective analysis of OKRs - "Well we made progress on sales so we're good". The objective should be the highest explicit goal that is communicated as part of this pattern.

Prescribing the underlying activities required to achieve results. This can make all the difference, especially for Independent Thinking. For example, "write 3 blog posts" can accidentally prescribe who writes them, whereas "3 new blog posts" opens up possibilities for guest writers, cross posting, etc.

Producing unstructured data from key results that you can't leverage later to iterate and improve outcomes. For example, if your key result is to contact X qualified outbound leads, you need to track simple things like the message used for outreach, the company attributes used to qualify, and whether the contact was successful. If you can track enough attributes and outcomes, we can start talking about multivariate regression! (No we're not writing about that pattern. Actually maybe)

Furthermore

It's important to remember that OKRs are meant to be dynamic. Let's say you start with a "simple" objective: Lose 10 pounds this year. There are a number of ways to get there, but you have to decide your specific approach, your key results. You might say "exercise daily at least 30 minutes" and "eat less than 2000 calories each day". If you're not achieving the key results, you can't reasonably expect to achieve the objective, that's Accountability. If you are achieving the key results and not making progress toward the objective, you look at the data underlying the key results and iterate on what you think can get you toward the goal. This is where trust and Transparency plays a role and why key results have to be measurable.

Related Patterns

Further Reading


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