Objectives and Key Results: Using OKRs to Execute in 2019

Earlier this year, a colleague of mine enthusiastically recommended a book to me. The book he mentioned was ‘Measure What Matters’ by John Doerr, a venture capitalist and partner with Kleiner Perkins, one of the early investors in companies like Google, Amazon, Sun Microsystems and Twitter (among many others). This book introduces an operational framework for business and personal life, called OKRs.

Before we go further, you may be thinking “What does a book by a Silicon Valley Venture capitalist have to do with My Business?” The answer is everything. Competently and rapidly executing on a well-vetted strategy is a pursuit that businesses, and leaders from all industries should commit to.

A couple of weeks ago I finally began to read ‘Measure What Matters’. Upon completion, it struck me as perhaps a simple (and affordable) way to take businesses to the next level.  Here is our breakdown of OKRs.

The History of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. The concept was developed by Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel.  Mr. Grove had a simple but effective way of looking at management – “The key result has to be measurable. But at the end you can look, and without any arguments answer: Did I do that, or did I not do it? Yes? No? Simple, no judgements in it.”

In Measure What Matters, Doerr notes that OKRs became central to Google’s culture as a “management methodology that helps ensure that the company focusses on the same important issues throughout the organization”. In the forward to Doerr’s book, Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), wrote “OKRs have helped lead us to 10x growth, many times over. They’ve helped make our crazily bold mission of ‘organizing the world’s information’ perhaps even achievable. They’ve kept me and the rest of the company on time and on track when it mattered the most.”

Doerr was introduced to OKRs as a salesperson working for Intel in 1975 when he attended a course at Intel that Andy Grove (regularly) taught. Leveraging this education, and practical application within Intel, Doerr used this method to provide the founders of Google to think big and to take action. The concept of OKRs quickly became part of Google’s culture, and is still the core of the behemoth. Other firms that have used OKR include LinkedIn, Twitter and Uber.  However, as mentioned above, the technique is applicable across all industries and organizational sizes.

OKRs: Simplicity in Action

Doerr’s (Grove’s) method can be distilled to the simple statement “I will achieve ‘X’ Objective as Measured by ‘Y’ Key Results.”  The objective is anything that you want to accomplish, that can be measured by numerically-based expressions that point to either success, or progress towards the objective.  An objective may seem easy to develop, however, knowing what the right objectives are can take a significant amount of time and discussion to come up with.

To start with, the objective needs to be something that can be completed by 2-5 key results or actions. You also do not want to have too many objectives, otherwise it will be too difficult to place enough effort at all of them.  Another thing to keep in mind is that an objective must be clear, ambitious, actionable and able to be understood by employees at all levels of the organization. This is important because it ensures that everyone understands the company’s goals and can get on board with them.

Key Results (the defined actions that result in a completed or re-considered objective) also need to be very specific, as they will guide people to ensure that all work is in line with the goals. It must be measurable, attainable, be more than a bit difficult to achieve, and most importantly, quantitative. Key results should for individuals and teams out of their comfort zones. These key results act as a scorecard to see how well the objective is being attained.

Marissa Mayer, a former Google Vice President (and CEO of Yahoo) put it succinctly “if it does not have a number, it is not a key result” (source: filipecastro.com). So, saying “increase the number of new customers” is not a key result, but saying “we bring on 30 new customers by Day, Month, Year” is because it can be quantified. In a lot of ways, it goes back to the old saying that you must be able to measure something in order to be able to manage it. In this case, quantifying makes the goal clearer.  In this case, having a second key result that says “$100,000 in gross sales from new customers” further clarifies the goal, but we aren’t done yet. A third key result that states, “operating profit of $20,000 from new customers”. In each case we have attached a number that defines if the key result has or has not been met. They go from “we want to increase the number of new customers we gain in this period” to “we want that mix of new customers to add up to a certain amount of sales.” This makes sense – if all your new customers only bring you one or two trips per quarter, it’s going to need more than just 30 of them to reach that sales target.  Going further, the new customers must be bringing in a certain average operating profit margin. This intuitively makes sense – bringing in new customers purely by using lower prices to compete is not going to reach the third key result. As you can see, what you choose as your key results has a significant impact on how the objective is tackled by either this level or by the levels below. Even in this example, they can have a very powerful impact on how the goals are achieved.

Key Results for one level of the organization can become the objectives for a lower level.  The concept of a contributing goal is that it contributes to a higher-level (macro) goal. The contributing goal is owned by someone lower down the chain in the organization and drives the progress of the senior goal.  Note that a contributing goal does not have to be less important, it just signifies that it is owned at a lower level of the organization. As an example, the CEO’s objectives are the top goals for the company. The VP’s goals will be contributing goals to the CEO’s objectives, just as a department head’s goals will be contributing goals to the VP. Depending on what the objectives are, they may continue to cascade down, or they may eventually stop at a certain level that is the lowest one that has responsibility to influence the attainment of that objective.  As an example, an objective that deals with customer service may flow to the most junior positions, but one to do with reducing overheads through the reduction of headcount will not likely go below a department head (or higher, depending on the company’s structure).

 

As defined by OKRs, an objective is considered to be accomplished if the key results hits 70-75% of the target. Attaining 100% can indicate that the key results were not made ambitious enough.  This is where creating key results can be a bit of an art form.  Too ambitious of a target can be demotivating while at the same time, one that is too easy to attain will not result in enough effort being put forth to really move the organization forward.  It will not be enough to create ‘purpose momentum’ among the troops. If the key results and objectives are getting attained too quickly, then be prepared to restructure them to get the proper balance and address any issues.

Many sites offer best practices – here are a few common ones:

  • Separate OKRs from compensation and promotions to enable ambitious goals
  • Try to keep to no more than 3 objectives at any time
  • Each objective should have 3-5 key results
  • Set objectives on a quarterly basis as going much longer loses the team’s focus
  • Review progress at a minimum monthly, weekly is preferred so that corrections can be made before problems become too large
  • OKRs should be public – preference is for them to be online and in front of all employees. This allows all employees, regardless if they are included in the OKR, to align their actions with the overall goals of the organization.
  • Sweet spot is to achieve 70% of the results

So how do I get started? There are several software tools available on a subscription or traditional licensing basis (including many free options).  Commercial products include Asana, Weekdone, Perdoo, BetterWorks, 7Geese, 15Five and Atiim are cloud-based, subscription software solutions, each running between $0 and $20 per user per month, depending on the package of services that you require and the size of your team.  Most of these packages will allow you to visualize your objectives, key results and what progress has been made on them.

Personally, I am a big fan of Asana, and use this tool professionally and personally to measure performance on key results and objectives. Asana has a how-to guide (for more information, click here) and offers a pre-created template for creating a company goals and objectives project.  They make it quite user friendly to get up and running. The steps are straight-forward:

  1. Create a list or board project called company goals & objectives. This should be made as a public project so that everyone in the organization can stay aligned with these goals.
  2. Sections or board columns are used to categorize the objectives, such as by team or time period. Additional custom fields can be added to do additional categorization.
  3. Create tasks for the objectives and put them in the proper section for easy organizing.
  4. Assign the task to the primary person responsible for achieving it.
  5. Set a date range for each objective.
  6. Fill out any relevant custom fields and add any additional information so that its clear what the objective is about.
  7. Use the progress tab to communicate major updates on a regular basis so that everyone has a quick idea of how the entire company is progressing toward attaining the objectives.

If you have multiple OKR templates, Project Managers can use Portfolios to help monitor, report and see real-time statuses of multiple initiatives in one place.  Portfolios pull information from each project’s progress tab and quickly create a dashboard to help identify what objectives are on target and which ones are at risk. For more information, consult the Asana how-to guide here.

Springest is a company that has implemented OKR tracking (among other items) with Asana. To view a video where Springest founder Ruben Timmerman discusses how they use Asana to implement and grade their progress on OKRs, click here.

Want to get started on OKRs without incurring additional, external costs? There are several Excel or Google Sheets based templates that you can use to get started.  Most of these are free or are at a very nominal cost to acquire. These can generally be modified to suit your specific requirements. Most of these are suitable for small teams (depending on the template this is up to about 50 employees) and generally this is by design as many are offered by the same companies that offer the full featured software suites that we mentioned previously. Besides the price, there are a few other advantages with these spreadsheet-based templates:

  • You can get up and running quickly as the only real learning curve is creating the OKRs
  • No additional IT overhead is required beyond a shared folder where users can see the sheet
  • Because many of these are created by specific vendors, they do offer a limited view of what that vendor offers in terms of OKR tracking

A minimum amount of training is needed to show end users how to interpret the data.

They do have a few drawbacks that you need to keep in mind:

  • You will want to appoint a gatekeeper that maintains the master copy while sharing a different copy, possibly resulting in some people having the wrong version of the document
  • The data will only be a snapshot as real time will either be very difficult or impossible depending on what platform the sheet is kept on
  • There is a risk that data could get accidentally overwritten, possibly requiring reverting to a backup copy
  • Spreadsheets are portable so there is a risk that the objectives and their results could find their way outside of the organization.

Some of the available options include:

  • How-to-OKR.com that not only provides a template but also a short video walk through as well as an online class in how to get started with OKRs.
  • com that offers a template designed for up to 25 employees.
  • com offers an Excel based template (note, a registration form is required to get the download link)
  • me offers a pdf OKR tracking sheet that can be used manually (note – a registration form is required to get the download link). Recommended only for either a test project or very small teams
  • com offers a template in multiple formats as well as examples and other templates that may be of value to teams starting out with OKR
  • 50Folds offers a Google Sheets template for up to a 20-member team as well as a rough guide on how to use it
  • com offers a 6-step guide as well as an Excel-based template

There are many others that can be found with a quick Google search using “free OKR template”. Adding “Excel” or “Google Sheets” will help narrow down to your preferred spreadsheet program. Regardless of what method you use, put this technique to use!  It’s a very functional way to ensure that your entire organization is working together on the same mission, and towards the same horizon. Make the project public, keep people informed and you will find that even employees not directly involved in the OKRs will start aligning their tasks towards what the project has set as objectives.  You may not see growth as explosive as Google’s, but it’s like an Olympic rowing team. The teams that work together in unison, dipping their oars in the same direction and rhythm are who perform the best.