Tips for Writing Better OKRs8 min read

Objectives & Key Results is a management methodology famously known as the engine behind the explosive growth of many Silicon Valley start-ups including Google and LinkedIn. OKRs provide a framework for focusing on a handful of highly impactful Objectives and achieving them following specific and measurable Key Results.

An effective OKR is both unambiguous and actionable. It includes an objective plus 3 – 5 key results. A good objective needs to be inspirational and challenging, while the key results need to be specific, measurable and time bound. An OKR that isn’t written well is hard to communicate and even harder to achieve.

Difference between Objectives & Key Results

Understanding the difference between Objectives and Key Results is the first step towards writing clear and effective OKRs.

Here’s a link to an introduction to the OKR methodology and its history.

Objectives

Following the OKR methodology, your Objective needs to be both deliberately challenging, ambitious and impactful.

I find it easy to understand and explain abstract concepts, such as OKRs, using examples. So, I’ll use an example here as well.

Let’s say I want to learn how to bake my wife’s favourite strawberry pie from scratch for her birthday. In this case it’s Fazer’s Café style Strawberry Pie with Vanilla Custard filling.

Objective: Bake one Fazer’s Café style Strawberry Pie with Vanilla Custard filling from scratch.

Knowing how much she enjoys that pie, I know she’ll appreciate it (impact) and it’s a sufficiently challenging objective considering my own baking skills (ambitious).

Key Results

In the OKR methodology your Key Results are specific, measurable and time bound milestones that lead you towards your objective. Since I’m baking a pie, I’ve decide to commit to 5 Key Results. (For every objective you can set between 3 – 5 key results.)

  1. Find the right recipe for a Fazer’s Café style Strawberry Pie with Vanilla Custard.
  2. Get all fresh ingredients including strawberries, raspberries and blueberries berries.
  3. Bake the pie base with the right consistency and flavour.
  4. Prepare a flavourful vanilla custard using real vanilla pods and jelly topping from scratch.
  5. Pie must be ready at least 24 hours before the birthday.

I’ll use this example later on.

Practical tips for writing good OKRs

In this article I will share tips on writing effective OKRs inspired from Google’s OKR Playbook [PDF].

Let’s start with some tips on writing a good Objective.

  1. A well written objective expresses goals and intents.
  2. A well written objective is aggressive yet realistic.
  3. A well written objective is tangible and unambiguous.
  4. A well written objective clearly communicates it’s impact on your business.

Next we’ll take a look at what makes for a good Key Result.

  1. A well written key result expresses a measurable milestone which when achieved will advanced towards the objective.
  2. A well written key result describes an outcome not an activity. Avoid words such as ‘analyse,’ ‘help,’ ‘participate,’ or ‘meet,’ instead use words such as ‘deliver,’ or ‘publish,.’
  3. A well written key results always includes a deadline.
  4. A well written key result must also state the desired outcome or end result. For example, instead of just stating ‘Book more sales meetings,’ you should say ‘book 5 more sales meeting this month.’
  5. A well written key result ideally includes both qualitative and quantitative metrics. For example, instead of stating ‘Get 10 new customers.’ you should say ‘Get 10 new customers (quantity) with average order value of 50 € (quality).’

Let’s use my example OKR for baking a Fazer’s Strawberry Pie with Vanilla Custard filling for my wife’s birthday and see how it fares against the OKR writing guidelines.

Objective: Bake a Fazer’s Café style Strawberry Pie with Vanilla Custard filling from scratch.

Includes a specific goal/intentCheck
It’s aggressive yet realisticCheck
It’s tangible and unambiguousCheck
Clearly communicates its impactCheck

Let’s look at the Key Results the same way.

Expressed as measurable milestones. Check
Describe outcomes not activities.Check
Includes a deadline.Check
State the desired end result.Check
Include qualitative and quantitative metrics.Check

Or at least that’s what I think. Do you think my OKRs hit the mark?

Common mistakes to avoid when writing OKRs

Well written OKRs is just the start. You also need to put the same amount of effort in communicating them to your team.

The good news is that as you and your team get better at stating and achieving OKRs your process of creating them will improve at the same time.

Here are some common mistakes that crop up when writing OKRs . Avoiding them will help you improve communication and remove ambiguity.

OKRs that are Business-as-usual

Writing and committing to an OKR based on how easy it is to achieve. This is a very common mistake that teams often make when getting started with OKRs.

The usual rationale is believing that you’re starting small. That’s a folly. Committing to an objective that isn’t sufficiently challenging won’t prepare you for achieving more ambitious goals in the future.

OKRs without a clear destination

An OKR that doesn’t specify a clear and specific destination often leads to no where. I’ll borrow a famous sentence from Alice in Wonderland.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”

Lewis Carroll

Stating an OKR such as ‘Improve customer satisfaction.’ doesn’t tell you how and by how much. This objective has no clear destination. Instead a better OKR will be to ‘Improve NPS to 70+ for all existing customers by [date].’

OKRs that enable Sandbagging

In management ‘sandbagging’ happens when a team deliberately sets lower expectations with an intent to deliver better-than-expected results. This is a common practice in many corporate cultures that tolerate managers who want to ‘look good’ by setting a low goal and trying to exceed it.

Thankfully sandbagging has no place in a culture of high performance.

Research proves that teams perform a lot better when pursuing goals that are aggressive yet realistic. High performance and failure are a packaged deal. Encourage experimentation, celebrate failure and proudly learn from it.

OKRs that don’t have any impact

Another common mistake is committing to an ambitious goal even though it doesn’t deliver any real business value.

I’ve seen this type of objective repeated in multiple organisations where a team might get committed to increasing the volume of their mailing list. It’s often sufficiently challenging and requires resources from marketing and development teams.

Still at the end of the day improving the volume of your mailing list isn’t as impactful as increasing engagement per subscriber or average order value per newsletter.

OKRs that include insufficient Key Results

An effective OKR includes both a destination and meaningful milestones. A common error is writing Key Results which are not sufficient to achieve the objective. It’s a very common error and often made due to lack of knowledge or understanding of the objective.

When committing to an ambitious objective you might not be able to see every possible problem and fail to properly account for skills or resources required. Here’s how you can avoid it.

When committing to an ambitious OKR always openly and honestly discuss with your team if you will be able to achieve your objective in time by accomplishing every single key result. If not then it’s better to reevaluate your key results and avoid wasting time and resources.

The ultimate responsibility for drafting, writing and committing to OKRs fall on the team leader. In my experience getting more confident as setting effective OKRs takes practice. However, your job is made easier if you adopt and practice managerial discipline for OKRs.

Evaluating OKRs

You’ve followed the advice for writing effective OKRs, you’ve avoided every mistake and you’re getting ready to share your Objectives and Key Results with your team. Before pressing send on that email use this quick list to quality check your OKRs.

  1. How long did it take you to write down your OKRs? OKR selection and evaluation on average can take one month. I’d be cautious if it took you less than that to finalise your OKRs. (You can read this article to discover an OKR Cadence that works for you.)
  2. How many sentences did it take for you to describe your objective? An effective, well deliberative and well written objective should be more than a sentence. If you have more than one objective then each objective should be communicated in one sentence each. Objectives that take longer than a sentence are often ambiguous and lead to misunderstanding.
  3. How well are you measuring your key results? A good key result includes both qualitative and quantitative metrics for evaluation. Often when key results are quickly jotted down they end up missing one or the other metric.
  4. Does everyone in your team understand the metrics? Metrics are funny things. Often the same metric could mean different things across different teams or even the very same metric across different time frames lead to very different results. Make sure that you provide a definition for the metrics you include in your OKRs.
  5. Do your key results include one or more specific deadlines? Key results need to be time bound even if your objective isn’t. A key result without a specific date as a deadline is headed for unscheduled delay.

Main points

OKRs is a team sport. It’s the team leader’s responsibility to address and eliminate any ambiguity or misunderstanding around the core objectives the team must deliver on. Communication and trust are the bedrock of high performance teams.

When writing and committing to OKR keep these tips in mind.

  1. An effective OKR includes both an ambitions objective combined with time bound and measurable key results.
  2. A well written objective clearly communicates an ambitious goal and its impact on the business without any ambiguity.
  3. A well written key results is result-oriented, time bound and includes a qualitative and a quantitative metric for evaluating success.
  4. There are some common mistakes that often creep into your OKRs. Knowing what they are makes it easy to avoid them.
  5. Writing good OKRs takes practice. The best practice when writing OKRs is to check their quality and substance against a simple evaluation criteria.

Photo by Justin Veenema on Unsplash

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