Do Objectives and Key Results arouse your curiosity? It doesn’t surprise me! More and more often, several people, linked to startups as well as established organizations, ask me how to get started with OKR.
That’s why I decided to give them all the answers, creating this new guide: a practical tool to effectively approach the OKR methodology.
What, how, and why of the OKR method
“Is the OKR method difficult?”: Is one of the most frequently asked questions. I like to answer this question like this:
“Objective Key Results are simple, but not simplistic. The success of their implementation in your organization depends on the right mindset for OKRs”.
What do I mean? That OKRs are not a witchcraft remedy.
Imagine starting a climb. If you think that taking a supplement is enough to boost your stamina, you won’t go very far. Conversely, if you train consistently, if you equip yourself with the necessary tools, if you have planned the stages, it is very likely that you will climb to the top.
Metaphorically, I mean that OKRs are not a substitute for corporate culture or enlightened leadership, but they enhance its benefits. No methodology can magically transform an organization: it takes time and clarity of purpose. In other words, we need a strong, shared, and open culture.
And OKR’s performance begins with the seed of culture. What am I referring to? To some key concepts with which I recommend you start to familiarize yourself.
1. Getting started with OKRs: the improvement focus
Focus is one of the superpowers of the OKR methodology. By applying it, you learn to keep track of goals worthy of attention. “Measure what matters” is the title of John Doerr’s OKR book and a perfect synthesis of their ultimate purpose: to measure what matters.
Losing the focus on normal and routine activities risks getting us bogged down in lists of to-do and tasks. This is not what we want! The OKR manager wants the team to be focused on mission-oriented goals and performance aimed at improvement.
To develop OKRs in the company, we must create a purpose and align the focus on achieving goals that are useful for the progress of the organization.
For this reason, the culture of Objectives and Key Results goes hand in hand with the concept of innovation. We must not stop at what we know (AS IS), we must push ourselves in a targeted and measurable way towards improving progress. Fearless. And here we come to the second point.
2. Zero fear: the best way to start with OKRs
The word failure in the OKR philosophy is not scary. It seems like a paradox but it is really like that. Stretch is in fact another superpower that you will make yours. By setting ambitious goals and aiming for the Moon (Moonshot), you will allow your organization to progress, but you will also take into account the possibility of failure. Does it scare you? Perhaps it will reassure you to know that this is a programmatic method, tested (successfully) in big companies. I have talked extensively about the OKR examples from Google, Linkedin, and Microsoft in my ebook “OKR in 5 days”.
I will briefly summarize the lessons that can be drawn from it:
- The error is your learning zone: it is essential to learn from the mistakes made because they represent the best learning opportunity. If the team does not reach the goal (possible, given that you are aiming for the Moon to land among the stars), it will in any case have the opportunity to identify areas for improvement and growth.
- 80% is the new 100%: the goals are so visionary that reaching 80% is considered a complete success, as long as all team members have committed 100% of their resources.
- Watch out for the ‘sandbars’: do you know what sandbagging is? This is a bluff used by some poker players, but also golfers. You play below your ability to deceive your opponents. A similar mechanism can also be triggered in companies. Employees knowingly set low goals so as not to make mistakes. It is the management’s job to ensure that team members feel confident in taking risks and that they are equally honest in declaring when they are not up to par.
This last statement takes me directly to the third aspect of OKR culture that I want to highlight.
3. Communication transparency and involvement in OKRs
Intellectual honesty towards the commitment assumed is guaranteed by the flow of communication. This communication is based on three pillars:
Set aside the old attitude of apology, linked to unclear objectives, attention is now turned to mutual support in achieving each one’s mission. Individual goals are multiplied by the largest and most strategic goal, in the OKR team and in individual OKR. Everyone is called to give their contribution and this encourages honest and regular conversations at all levels of the organization.
To give continuity to communication, the OKR meeting agenda is structured in weekly check-ins that focus on the progress achieved and the improvements to be achieved. By doing so, each member of the organization is aware of the exact point in which the project is located and of how their contribution is essential.
The OKRs formula
At this point, before proceeding, I suggest you memorize a formula. Nothing complicated.
The formula in question is this: W4H1. I promise you that at the end of this chapter you will have a clear idea of what it means and you will be able to use it for a scientific and functional approach to the OKR methodology.
First, let’s break it down into individual elements. Then we will analyze the first 3Ws in order to frame the organizational context. After that, we will deepen in the next chapters every aspect of the Objective and Key Results.
- Why we exist (Mission)
- What our future will be (Vision)
- Which are our priorities (Strategy)
- What will be the focus on in the near term (Objectives)
- How we know we’ve achieved the objective (Key Results)
What is the corporate mission?
The mission of an organization is its raison d’être. In the business area, the mission answers the questions: “Who am I?” and “What is the purpose of my company?”. All companies aspire to make a contribution to the reference sector. To achieve something great you need people, talents, and skills. Their contribution brings value.
The mission is not an empty slogan, but it is the declaration of intent on which the corporate culture is based: it is the reason why that organization exists and does what it does.
What is the vision of an organization?
How many times have you heard of visionary entrepreneurs? A lot, I guess. And I could even venture their names: Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg. What do they have in common? An extraordinary vision, out of the ordinary. All of them boldly imagined the future of their business: the idea that turns into a unique and desirable product.
The corporate vision anticipates where the organization will be in 3, 5, 10, 20, or 50 years. It is the dream to be realized and the goal to be achieved.
Let’s say someone asks you: “Who are you and what do you do?”. You might reply: “I am a Product Manager in a medium-sized company”. But if the question were: “What would you like to do in 10 years”, the answer would already be different: “Cover a managerial role in a multinational company that produces ethical software in the financial field”.
The difference is evident and substantial.
What are the priorities in the business strategy?
As I told you, OKRs allow you to set ambitious goals by measuring what matters. To put it another way, they allow you to focus on medium and long-term priorities – those that are important to your business strategy.
This also leads us to see an advantage in implementing OKRs: if we are 100% committed to important goals, we are able to say no to everything else.
In this way, the organization defines the strategy by priority and begins to manage itself through objectives and key results.
Find out what OKRs are and how they are born
Let’s take a time and space leap. We are located in the heart of Silicon Valley, at the time when Andy Grove is the CEO of Intel (1987-1998). Grove transforms Intel from a large chip manufacturing company to a global leader in microprocessor supply.
He succeeds because he is a capable manager with above-average intelligence. But also because it uses a method borrowed from Peter Drucker’s MBO (Management By Objective) system. The system in question is OKR (Objective Key Results). Here’s how Grove sets it up:
- The objective is the goal. It answers the question: “Where do I want to go?”.
- The key results are the milestones. They answer the question “How do I get there?”.
In the OKR methodology, the difficulty is apparently minimal. In reality, as I explained to you, this method requires a continuous commitment and a deep knowledge of the organization.
But let’s go back to Grove. One of his biggest admirers was John Doerr, his co-worker at Intel. Doerr liked OKR so much that, having become a successful venture capitalist, he promoted them to several startups. Among these, is also the one founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin: Google.
It was the year 1999 and Google had just 40 people in its staff.
Over time Google has implemented the key objectives and results and has become Big G. In 2014 it disclosed the methodology behind business management and in recent years the OKRs are in the hype. The rest is history and it is also the reason why you are probably here right now.
Definition of OKR (Objectives and Key Results)
The meaning of the OKR acronym is now clear:
O (Objective) = Final goal towards which we are heading. The objectives are qualitative and answer the question “What is the goal?”.
KRs (Key Results) = Key results that give us the measure of progress towards the goal. The key findings are quantitative and provide the answer to this question: “How do we know if we have reached the intermediate milestones for progress towards the goal?”.
“The OKR framework is a critical thinking system that aims to ensure that employees work coordinated, focusing their efforts on measurable results that propel the entire organization forward.”
All this provides the elements useful for creating OKRs aligned with the vision and mission of the organization. When you have a goal expressed in a clear sentence and three key outcomes, specific and quantitative, attached to it, it becomes very easy to understand what needs to be done and how to do it.
I like to tell a story.
During the construction of the Notre Dame Cathedral, a man wandered among the stonemasons at work. Intrigued by their art, the man asked two nearby artisans what they were doing.
“I earn my wages,” replied the first. To the same question, the second stonemason replied: “I am building the most beautiful cathedral in the whole country”.
While both doing the same job, the two had a very different awareness: one was thinking only about how to earn his bread, and the other had linked his goal to the overall vision.
What are the OKRs for?
Which companies use the key goals and results and when do you use the OKR coach? In my experience, companies in the process of change are the ideal subjects to implement this method.
We think of organizations such as startups that need to be particularly responsive to threats, or organizations undergoing rapid and non-organic growth. Even companies that operate in smart working can think of OKRs to align work based on deadlines and objectives.
These characteristics lead me to affirm that OKRs are suitable for different types of organizations (startups such as big companies). I say this because I was able to see the benefits of the OKR method, which I summarize below.
- They create an agile culture
OKRs are established on a monthly or quarterly basis (Quarter). The process is therefore monitored progressively and in a planned manner. This allows you to adjust the game at the team and organization level, so as to remove obstacles and identify threats in real or near real-time.
Wondering why tech giants are using OKRs? The answer is easy: because they help them keep the navigation bar fixed, even when the sea is rough. Staying alert and being ready to catch the new winds is essential when the market is highly competitive.
- They favor alignment
Once set, the OKRs are transparent and leave no room for doubt. No gray area! Everyone in the organization can see them and know what the other teams are working on. The sharing of objectives on a scale, from the macro-level to the levels below, ensures that each individual is an active part of progress.
The organization will thus be able to count on the best stonemasons in the country, all perfectly aware that they are builders of the most beautiful cathedral ever seen.
- They increase engagement and trust
OKRs oblige employees to think outside the scope of their comfort zone. It is not simply a matter of cascading objectives in a bottom-down manner. No! The OKR system becomes all the more performing, the more widespread, and the more participated.
Multidirectional thrusts are expected: collaborators have the opportunity to contribute to what they will then be responsible for. And delegation is understood as an act of trust, that increases employee involvement.
- They feed a growth mindset
The Growth Mindset as opposed to the Fixed Mindset is an attitude that makes some people have confidence in the development of their basic skills. In practice, these people think that intelligence and talent can grow with time and experience. With practice, goodwill, and perseverance, each individual can continue learning and learning.
Nothing better than OKRs to fuel the Growth Mindset. The methodology for objectives and key results pushes individuals to stretch beyond their comfort zone and enables organizations to look beyond the AS-IS.
OKR how to do it? Learn to write powerful and effective OKRs
Now that you know how Objective Key Results help you to face the challenges of the market and those internal to the development of the organization, you just have to start creating your OKRs.
To do this you will need to consider the basic criteria for defining objectives and the characterizing elements of the key results. Let’s see them together in detail.
Getting started with OKR: Goal Setting
The goal represents the beginning and the end if you decide to start with OKRs.
It follows that OKR performance largely depends on your ability to write powerful and effective goals. In order for them to be such I suggest you pay attention to the following characteristics:
Qualitative: Goals are phrases and words, not numbers. Since they represent a goal to be achieved and an aspiration to satisfy, they are qualitative and not quantitative.
Aspirational: the objectives are the beacon that guides navigation, and the port that promises wonders. They must therefore be stimulating to involve the group and push it to create value for the organization.
Stretch: remember to raise the bar more and more and pinch higher to give the right motivation to team members. How long will they have to stretch? Just enough to get into the learning zone, without being demotivated by failure. It is a precarious but extremely effective balance. Challenging, but not impossible, goals bring the company the benefits deriving from the involvement of the work team.
Three pills to create successful Objectives
I leave you three tips in a nutshell that I believe will be useful for getting started with OKRs, particularly when writing the key objectives.
- Use positive language
“Increase accuracy up to 90%” sounds much better than “Reduce the error rate to 10%”.
- Keep it simple
Be clear, concise, and understandable. Did you know that Lincoln’s second inaugural address is just 703 words long? If they’ve been enough to inspire a nation, you won’t need wordy concepts to drive your business.
- Start with a verb
Since the goal is the declaration of intent that pushes the organization forward, it implies action. This is why it is advisable to start with a verb that implies progress, such as “Arrive”, “Become”, “Reach” and the like.
Definition of results in the OKR method
You have defined your goals and now you know exactly what your business is aiming for. The time has come to write down the key goals that align with those goals. It is the objective factors that will give you the measure of your progress.
I draw your attention to the fact that these are ‘key results’, not ‘key performance indicators (KPI) and in this regard, I invite you to deepen the difference between OKR and KPI.
While writing key results seems easy, because we can connect them to a monitoring system, finding the ones that tell us if we are in the right direction is by no means a foregone conclusion. We can track what we want – outputs, outcomes, performance, goals – but to set and track the KRs that matter, we need to keep in mind that they fit the SMART definition.
S (Specific) = The key findings are unambiguous and uninterpretable. Conversely, they are concrete and clear for all members of the organization. Either you have reached the stage, or you have not reached it. Easy!
M (Measurable) = While the Objectives are expressed by a verb, the Key Results are numbers formed by a detection metric. Only then do you know if you have hit the target, or how far you have missed it.
A (Attainable) = Is the target close to 100% achievable? If it isn’t, you should simplify it by breaking it down into other key results that are realistic and achievable in the medium term.
R (Relevant) = The result must be key, meaning relevant to the final and superior purpose.
T (Time-Bound) = The KRs have an ‘expiration date’, that is a term (monthly / quarterly) within which they are measured and declared to have been reached or not.
Three pills to create successful Key Results
Also for the Key Results, I close with some suggestions in a nutshell. Write them down as a checklist when you start with KR.
- Only key results, not all results
Be careful to create key results that support progress towards the goal. You won’t have to measure everything, because it would be counterproductive, but only what matters.
- Benefits of value, not functionality
It is about results, not about the activity. The activities and tasks are functional to achieving valuable benefits for the organization.
- You are what you measure
The decision-making process in setting priorities and objectives is what defines the organization, but also the product, or the body. What you decide to measure defines not only what you want to achieve, but also what you want to become. In other words, they are the founding milestones of the corporate culture.
OKR errors: what they are and how to avoid them
When an organization or an entrepreneur decides to start with OKRs, it must be clear that it is a continuous process over time. Depending on the complexity of the organization, it can take months before the OKR culture becomes part of the organizational DNA. During this journey, there is some hitch.
To prevent this from happening, I’ll list some examples of very typical OKR mistakes when starting to implement key objectives and results
Too many focus objectives
When starting out, focus on one goal. It is not cheap believe me! Many organizations have a single statement to guide their course. In this way, the direction is clear to everyone.
Goals confused with results
Numbers are required, but not when writing an Objective. The goal is what motivates people to get out of bed and face a new job challenge every day.
Key Results confused with aspirations
The aspirations are contained in the goal. In the key results, it is the numbers that command. Measurable facts and nothing more.
The time frame is one of the constituent elements of the OKR method. You are implementing a process that, however long-term, must have periodic checks.
Set and Forget
As you will have understood, it is necessary to plan the OKRs and set up a tracking system. However, if there is no follow-up and focus only on planning, the plan is doomed to fail. Monitoring and follow-up are crucial to successfully implementing key goals and results.
OKR error correction
As I told you OKRs are an agile framework. Errors in the implementation are somehow expected. What is important is to identify them promptly and correct them effectively.
If you proceed in this way, the ‘stumbles’ along the way will be less painful.
Find the right number of Goals and KR – for starters, the optimal ratio is 1: 3, which is one goal and three linked key outcomes.
Be ambitious with O: if when you write an Objective you already know how to go about achieving it, it is probably the wrong goal.
Be realistic with KR: Avoid realistically unattainable key results in the reporting period.
Stay on course: do not constantly change direction. Once you’ve defined the OKRs, learn to say no to what doesn’t matter.
As an OKR coach, I know perfectly well that anyone who starts implementing a new methodology is hungry for practice. For example, learning is much easier and more effective.
Reference scenario: company supplying pasta for restaurants.
O (Objective) = to increase revenues and become a stable reference point as the best suppliers of excellent quality pasta
KR 1 = 60% reorder rate
KR 2 = at least 35% of the reorder rate is in automatic mode
KR 3 = annual revenue of 195K
OKR and Human Resources
O (Goal) = improve employee engagement and make work as rewarding as possible
KR 1 = implement corporate culture performance management software across all corporate teams
KR 2 = achieve the monthly employee satisfaction score of 8/10
KR 3 = ask all managers for a monthly report on corporate culture management software
Reference scenario new company that produces recycled travel bags with the registered prototype.
OKR startup development sector
O = make a successful Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
KR 1 = reach 150 active users per week on the site
KR 2 = make at least 6 orders per month for the first two months
KR 3 = obtain a Net Promoter Score greater than 45
OKR startup marketing sector
O = prepare a space launch for the product
KR 1 = have 5 industry influencer posts on launch day
KR 2 = receive at least 10 reviews in magazines and newspapers in the first month
KR 3 = attend at least 5 major trade shows in the quarter following the launch
KR 4 = create a mailing list of 500 people
All the examples of OKR shown above are useful for the progress of the company and the startup. But not only numerically correlated. They could become so using a technique called OKR cascade.
How to develop OKRs in the company: cascading
Cascading is a lens transmission technique not to be confused with alignment. While the strategic objectives are communicated in a bottom-down manner, on the other hand, each team makes its own through the implementation of OKR teams and individual OKRs. The approach, therefore, becomes multidirectional: each team takes a key result of a greater goal and endorses it.
In this way, it is possible to transform corporate OKRs into team OKRs. From the intermediate level to scaling, we pass to the micro-level, that is individual. The implementation and alignment process is identical to that of the higher levels. To set up individual OKRs ask team members how they can contribute and assign responsibility for the role in a shared way. This will allow you to raise the level of concentration and involvement. Always remember that every OKR has an owner.
OKR cascade examples
Again, I resort to a practical example. Funapp is a company that develops game apps and wants to expand its market in Europe. To do this, the management cascades the following corporate objective: “Launch our offer in Europe”.
O = Conquer the European market and entertain as many users as possible
KR 1 = 25% of new sales come from Europe
KR 2 = 45% of the press review is from Europe
Funapp’s sales department takes the KR 1 and turns it into their lens.
O = 25% of new sales come from Europe
KR 1 = recruit at least 3 sales people on the European territory
KR 2 = at least 50% of Sales Qualified Leads (SQL) are European
Funapp’s PR department takes the company-level KR 2 and transforms it as follows:
O = achieve incredible brand recognition in Europe
KR 1 = get 12 qualified press articles in the next month on European territory
KR 2 = have twice as many influencers talking about us in Europe in the next quarter
Final tips for those starting with OKR and wanting to progress quickly
The introduction to OKRs is about to end. I will soon be preparing an advanced-level training guide. Companies are looking with increasing attention to professional profiles that simplify procedures and implement new agile methodologies.
For this reason, they turn to OKR coaches who train managers and teach how to implement OKR in the organization.
Within some companies, then, it may be necessary to identify a reference figure, custodian of knowledge and technique: the OKR Master.
The OKR Master serves to support teams in managing by objectives and key results. Here’s what it does in detail:
- Introduces OKR culture
- It ensures that managers and collaborators follow the agreed process
- Facilitates the adoption of the OKR framework through the adoption of a Canvas Model for OKR
- Administer the OKR software
The latest tips are the result of my experience in the field and are a summary of the approach I pass on to those who want to start with OKRs.
- Set your overall priorities with foresight
Establish a long-term course. Where do you want to go in 3 years, or in 5 years? The long-term view helps you identify priorities to set on an annual basis.
- Translate priorities into long-term strategic OKRs
Segment macro priorities into various OKRs, starting with strategic ones, for example, related to organizational management.
- Break down strategic OKRs into quarterly tactical OKRs
Proceed once again by scaling your OKRs from an annual to quarterly basis. The change of timeline also involves a substantial modification of the objectives that will become tactical from strategic, that is connected to KRs that can be reached in a shorter period. Functional to the strategy but oriented towards measurable progress.
- Monitor and modify
Monitoring is a crucial phase for the success of the methodology. OKR software aggregates data, allows analysis of reports, and allows members of the organization to stay updated on the point reached and on the direction. The operation is quite simple and intuitive: everyone can check the progress status.
What makes the difference again is the exchange of information on a cyclical and close basis. Weekly check-ins are for checking the point. If some teams are out of the way it is possible to change the KR values for example. In any case, the earlier the better, because team alignment could lead to large-scale damage.
- Celebrate successes
Challenging goals characterize the OKR method. When we reach 70/80% of a very large ambition, it is important to recognize the value produced by the team. By doing this we learn to consider the missing 20/30% as the area destined for the next improvement.
Who am I and why I am explaining to you how to get started with OKRs?
My name is Luciano Castro and I am a senior manager with over 15 years of experience as a CTO and CEO in multinationals and startups. I hold the role of president of the “Product manager alliance”: the first Italian and European association of product managers.
I learned about OKRs in my consulting business. My passion for this methodology has become an e-book entitled “OKR in 5 days”: a manual dedicated to those who want to know more about Objective and Key Results.
I collaborate with companies of various sizes to grow their business, investing resources and making my know-how available.
My team is made up of Project Managers and Product Managers, experts in Scrum, Waterfall, Design Thinking, and Lean. We have certifications in PMP, Agile, Scrum, ITSQB, ITIL, and Microsoft. We count more than 2000 successfully completed projects.
We plan, organize, and monitor every phase of the process and/or product. From strategy to action.
Get in touch!