The Essential Guide to Wrangling OKRs
The quarter is coming to an end. People are frantically sweating over their OKRs. They're staring at the screens, trying to figure out how to update and present the progress towards their goals.
Everyone raves about OKRs, but in practice, something falls apart too often. If you are comfortable running your OKRs and have made them work for you and your team, this article might not be for you. I’d be happy to hear your tips—send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those of you still trying to figure out how to run OKRs, here is what made them click for me. I even came to like them.
OKRs are pretty simple and quite complicated at the same time. Everyone has a different opinion on how OKRs should be run. If you start reading about creating and running your OKRs, you will quickly find contradicting advice and many differing opinions. You’ll go nuts trying to make sense of it all. This frustrated me immensely, until I realized a few things. Afterwards, everything else fell in place. After a few OKR cycles, I felt comfortable running OKRs. I even started liking them.
A disclaimer: these suggestions are opinionated. Think of them like you would think of learning how to ride a bike. You can disagree and do things your own way, but only after you’ve learned the basics. Until then, it’s two wheels, butt in seat, feet on pedals, hands on the steering wheels, and eyes on the road ahead. Once you get a feel for it, go ahead and tow a trailer, stand up on the pedals, ride hands free. With OKRs, many don’t get through the first part before they start doing wheelies, and everyone ends up with scraped knees and bent frames.
Here’s what made OKRs work for me.
The three rules of OKRs
The three rules of OKRs are:
- The objective part of the OKR describes where you want to go
- The key results define the distance you want to travel
- You must update your OKRs every week, come hell or high water.
If you stick to these basics, you’ll figure the rest out over time. Hopefully, these three rules will not conflict the opinions of your managers, HR folks, and the books and blog posts you’ve read. If they do, listen to them, not me, since your job likely depends on it.
The first two rules are about defining OKRs and help you think about how to write them. The third is about how you should operate your OKRs week over week. It's the most important one. It is the forcing function that makes your OKRs improve over time.
The objective part of the OKR describes where you want to go
The objective describes where you are going. It can be worded as a destination:
Fill the conference venue to the brim.
Or it could be worded to describe a direction:
Drastically improve the customer satisfaction of the onboarding experience.
Pick what works best for a situation. Either way, make sure to paint a picture. It lets your team, and you, vividly visualize where you want to end up.
Do not sweat the details. If you’re starting out, do not worry about nailing the objective perfectly. The cold hard truth is that when you first try your hand at writing objectives, they won't be great. And that’s OK. You just need to get started. If you follow the other rules, over time, everything will get better, and your objectives will resonate with you and your team.
The key results describe the distance you want to travel
To make OKRs work, you need to measure your progress. You need a ruler, some measuring tape, or an odometer to see how far you're going. You need a tool that will tell you how far you’ve gone in the direction that the objective spells out. The key results are that tool. They describe that distance.
Key results need to be trackable. What does that mean, exactly?
- They need to contain a number and a unit.
- It needs to be possible to update each key result each week.
Each key result needs to contain a number that describes the distance you want to go in the direction your objective defines.
For example, if your objective is “Improve the quality of the admin dashboard to improve customer satisfaction”, then one key results could read: “Reduce the count of bugs in the backlog from 93 to 75.”
Here are tips to get a good start:
- Before you decide on a key result, write down the starting point. This is where you are right now. Make sure you have the tools needed to measure that number each week. If you don’t know what the starting number is, you’re probably not ready to have this as a key result. You don’t know where you are, you don’t have a way of measuring progress, and you won’t be able to track it. Instead, set up a key result to build a measuring system for your objective!
- You can have “hit or miss” or “binary” key results. These are essentially checkboxes. Wherever possible, turn them into “percentage done” key results that track progress of a mini-project.
- Don’t mix two or more numbers in a single key result. You shouldn’t have a single key results that says you will get 50 new customers with a 90% satisfaction rating. It will not be possible to update it each week in a way that will allow you to track progress. Make it two separate key results.
- You can, and probably should, have more than one key result for an objective. But you should not have too many. There’s no hard limit, but past three, they begin to be less valuable.
I had a hard time with this at first. Quarter after quarter, I sweated the details. Only once I understood the direction and distance breakdown of objectives and key results, things began to make sense.
You need to update your OKRs every week.
This is the most important rule. It might be hard to stick to it at first. If it's' painful to update your OKRs each week, it means that you need to change something. But you need to ;ush on, and visit your OKRs each week. It’s better than the alternative, where people make believe things are OK, ignore their OKRs, wastes a lot of time, and gets no benefit from the effort. Too many companies do that. Don’t be like them.
Each week, on the same day of the week, update your OKRs. Most people choose Friday to be that day. Monday mornings work well. Any day of the week is fine, as long as you do it reliably.
An update is either entering the new number for each key result for this week, or a note on the key results describing what you will do in order to update the number next week.
How to update the OKRs? It’s simple. But that does not mean it is always easy:
- update each of the key results and provide the new value for it
- if you can not update the key result value, write a note about what you will do so that next week you can update all key results
- Commit to doing one concrete thing to ensure that your OKR update next week is smother.
If you can confidently update each key result this week, success! You’re already running your OKRs well. But if you’re just starting out, you’ll face the sad reality that the world is a cruel place, and OKRs are harder than they seem. Don’t fret it. Chin up, and see what you can do about it. Write down what you need to do to have a more successful OKR update next week. These are the kinds of things that I've had to do to make an OKR useful and usable.
- build a way of measuring the key result, because you did not think of that when your defined it
- leave space in your schedule to drive the OKR progress
- redefine the key results, because the way that you stated them, makes it impossible to measure and update them each week
- change the whole OKR, as it is no longer relevant, or was defined incorrectly.
- write documentation for this OKR that describes the steps you take each week to update it, as it is not as simple to remember as you thought
When writing your update, be bold. Don't shy away from the reality and don't sugarcoat things. Describe the reason why you did not update the OKR, and spend the following week fixing it. Keep doing this, and within one to two OKR cycles, running your OKRs will be effortless.