How to write OKRs

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. 

How to structure OKRsDefining 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.

Objectives should: Objectives should not:

Be inspiring
Be concise
Be timebound
Be memorable
Be impactful
Be aligned with the wider strategy

❌ Be easily achievable
❌ Be one-off activities or projects
❌ Include jargon
❌ Be never-ending

📊 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.

Key Results should: Key Results should not:

Be metrics
Be specific
Be quantifiable 
Be challenging
Be tangible

❌ Keep you in your comfort zone
❌ Maintain the status quo

🔬 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.

Initiatives should: Initiatives should not:

Be positioned as hypotheses
Be considered experiments
Provide valuable learnings whether the experiment succeeds or fails
Be linked to a Key Result so that you can see what effect the Initiative had

❌ Be a to-do list
❌ Continue indefinitely
❌ A list of backlog items

OKR examples (done well and not so well)

Example 1: A personal OKR

Good Bad

Objective
✅ Get fit, so that I have more energy

Objective
❌ Lose weight

Key Results
✅ Resting heart rate of 40 BPM
✅ Lose 10 pounds in weight
✅ Sleep 8 hours a night

Key Results
❌ Eat more healthily
❌ Do more exercise
❌ Drink less alcohol

Initiatives
✅ Try the ‘Couch to 5K Plan’
✅ Read ‘Eat, Drink, Run’ 
✅ Try a vegan diet

Initiatives
❌ Go for runs a few times a week
❌ Don’t get takeaways
❌ Go to sleep earlier

Example 2: An online hotel booking website

Good Bad

Objective
Create a loyal tribe of delighted customers in 2020

Objective
❌ Always improve our customer service

Key Result
Achieve an average customer rating on the website of 4 stars by end Q1

Key Result
❌ Do some customer surveys to get a better average customer rating on the website

Initiative
Launch a reward scheme for hotel owners

Initiative
❌ Redesign our app

Example 3: A startup bank

Good Bad

Objective
✅ Create a cutting-edge app that works seamlessly across all devices

Objective
❌ Get 50% more app downloads

Key Result
✅ 10K app downloads in the next 6 months

Key Result
❌ A Webby award

Initiative
✅ Carry out competitor research to understand the latest trends

Initiative
❌ Daily Scrum meetings

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.

Final thoughts

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. 

 


 
 

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