A pretty frequent query we have from clients is ‘How do I write effective Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)?'. Getting your head around the different elements can be tricky at first, and with such a huge range of guidance and styles out there, it can be hard to know whether you’re getting it right.
In this article, we’ll look at why writing effective OKRs is so important, how to do it (with a range of good and bad examples) and some common pitfalls to avoid. If you’re completely new to OKRs, it might be worth reading our What are OKRs? article first.
Why getting it right is so important
OKRs remain central to the management style and culture of companies such as Google, Spotify and LinkedIn and have been a crucial factor in their huge success. Their stories show us that when adopted and executed correctly, OKRs are a powerful way to boost productivity, foster collaboration and innovation and ultimately increase the rate a company can grow and disrupt.
But writing OKRs can be deceptively time-consuming. To be effective they need to be aligned, well-constructed and focused, and teams need to be trained and processes followed to make them consistent across the board. Because if your OKRs are confusing and uncoordinated, the people trying to execute them will find it hard to know what to get done, or how to do it.
Defining the wider strategy first
OKRs sit under the strategy and they must connect to it. This is what creates the alignment which makes them so powerful. So, before you start work on writing OKRs, it’s essential the company’s strategy is defined.
As the image shows, this strategy consists of a 1-10 year vision for the business, covering different areas, for example, revenue, culture, product. The OKRs will then align to the relevant strategic pillar.
Once you’ve defined your strategy and pillars make sure it remains visible and accessible to everyone.
Other questions to ask upfront
As well as defining your strategy, asking these questions upfront may provide some useful insight and inform your process:
Have OKRs been attempted before?
We sometimes see companies start out adopting OKRs, fail (or feel like they’ve failed) and abandon them. If this has happened, it can be really valuable to have a conversation with a person involved in that attempt – find out how they managed OKRs, what went wrong, and use this to inform your implementation.
Is there any useful insight to hand?
Some companies find it challenging to set their OKRs because they don’t have obvious sources of information available to base them on. For example, if they haven’t set targets before it, coming up with achievable metrics in their KRs can feel like a finger in the air. Often, it’s not being sure which areas of growth they should be concentrating on. Things like KPIs, reports, or simply talking to the workforce may help you find some of these numbers and identify where the opportunities for growth are.
A closer look at Objectives, Key Results and Initiatives
🎯 Objectives (what we aspire to do)
An Objective is a short, aspirational statement of intent to change and improve something. It breaks down the wider vision or strategy into smaller chunks that are achievable in a timeframe.
📊 Key Results (what success would look like)
Key Results or ‘KRs’ help you track and measure whether you’ve met your objectives. They are always outcomes defined by a number, for example, 30%, 30 points, or £30,000. Key Results don’t need to be written in inspiring language like Objectives, but they need to be specific and make the Objective tangible.
🔬 Initiatives (what we can do to get us there)
If you know exactly how you’ll see progress in your Key Results, then think of Initiatives as large tasks. If things aren’t quite so clear, then it might help you to think of Initiatives as experiments – however small – to help achieve the KR. We’re really passionate about Initiatives because they often stimulate new ways of thinking about work.
OKR examples (done well and not so well)
Things to avoid when writing OKRs
Don’t create a laundry list of tasks to be done
OKRs drive change because they are linked to the wider strategy and are measurable. This means they will always challenge the status quo and success can be monitored. A list of tasks, on the other hand, inevitably leads to a series of outputs (rather than an outcome) which may or may not lead to growth. Either way, it won’t be easy to tell as they aren’t measurable.
Don’t make your OKRs overly ambitious
OKRs should be inspiring, but realistically achievable in the timeframe. For example, a new brand of sunglasses setting out to: ‘achieve £500K sales in Q1’ is unlikely to be achieved. (However, achieving it by Q3 could be a great aspirational OKR.)
Don’t make your OKRs too complicated
OKRs should be written in plain English, be concise and jargon-free. This reduces the risk of ambiguity and means they can be understood by anyone in the organisation.
Don’t confuse Initiatives and Key Results
Key Results measure an outcome. Initiatives are experiments that help you achieve the KR, or the ‘work being done on the ground’. It sounds simple, but when an Initiative includes a number – which they often do – for example: ‘Send out 12 customer surveys’, against the KR of: ‘Achieve NPS score of 8’, the Initiative can sometimes find themselves wrongly categorised as Key Results.
Don’t confuse OKRs and KPIs
KPIs are metrics used to monitor something. So they represent only the KR part of an OKR. Another key difference is that an OKR should be used for changes that you want to happen, whereas a KPI is used to monitor how things actually are in a continuous way. E.g. Net Promoter Score is a KPI as it’s just something that’s measured. An OKR might be to improve customer satisfaction and the KR for it might measure a change in it.
Things to aim for when writing OKRs
Do separate aspirational and committed OKRs
OKRs marked as committed should be aimed at around 100% success within the timeframe. If it’s marked as aspirational it should be aimed at around 70%. This clarifies how much you’re likely to achieve and removes ambiguity around progress. If they’re labelled incorrectly, the OKR may not be prioritised, or morale could be affected if it is not achieved.
Do make sure you include a way of measuring your Key Results
Being able to track your progress, and measure your success in meeting the objective is essential. That’s why KRs should include a numerical measure.
Do aim for quality over quantity
You don’t have to create 50 new objectives every quarter. It’s better to take some time to work out which areas you want to innovate and drive change and focus on them. On top of the volume of OKRs, only the essential people involved should have to check-in, own, contribute and mark progress, although all should be able to view them.
Spending a bit of time upfront understanding how to write OKRs, (and making sure everyone else responsible for writing them does too) means your OKRs are far more likely to succeed. Make sure your strategy and planning is in place first, and start small – perhaps with just the Senior Leadership Team to see how it goes. Then you can learn from the experience before rolling it out more widely.
Wherever you start, be sure to understand the context properly, set the stage for everyone involved and don’t be afraid to refine as you go.
Need some help?
If you have any questions or need further guidance around this topic, feel free to contact your J3T representative by clicking on the blue speech bubble icon to the bottom right of the page and initiating a conversation, like this:
Or alternatively you can also send an email to 'firstname.lastname@example.org'.