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"Working on the right thing is probably more important than working hard!"
– Caterina Fake, Flickr Co-Founder

OKRs are a valuable tool for reaching your company goals. They break down ambitious objectives into manageable key results, setting out a clear path to success. But defining success isn’t as easy as it sounds. Yet it’s essential for anyone setting out on an ambitious project to define their objectives well. As Caterina Fake memorably puts it, “working on the right thing is probably more important than working hard.”

So how do you set the right objectives? Here are some simple guidelines to keep you on track. 

Aim high

Even if it feels daunting, make your OKRs ambitious (in fact, feeling daunted is usually a healthy sign that your objective is challenging enough to make it worth your while!) Your objective should never boil down to maintaining something you’re already doing. If it includes words like “keep doing” or “continue to…” you know you’re shying away from setting a Big Hairy Audacious Goal that would actually test your efforts. 

Look at it like growing a new skin. There’s no point undergoing such a process unless you’re gaining something new, otherwise you might as well just stick with what you have. Furthermore, experiencing discomfort as you transition from A to B is perfectly normal - it’s often a sign of progress. Finally, Harvard Business Review research states that “in some situations people perceive higher goals as easier to attain than lower ones — and even when that’s not the case, they still can find those more challenging goals more appealing.”

Keep it simple and set 3 to 5 objectives

Set between three and five objectives for each designated OKR period. This is a realistic amount of objectives to keep teams stimulated without feeling overwhelmed. Any fewer and the objectives may feel limiting; any more and you risk focusing on too much at once. 

Of course, depending on the company’s natural rhythms, some organisations might work better with OKR periods that are shorter or longer than a quarter. However, bear in mind that a 13 week timeframe allows you to aim for 10% progress each week, with a handy 2-3 week grace period to get going.

Be specific

A common drawback of ambitious planning is being too vague. Vague objectives can look deceptively similar to specific goals - but in reality, there are big differences between the two. For example, you could set the vague objective “have amazing social media reach” or the specific objective “get to 1000 followers,” and at first they might appear to mean the same thing. In reality, fuzzy objectives make it difficult to pinpoint your progress. 

Imagine this: on the same day your company gains 400 followers, you have lunch with a shareholder who’s interested in the progress of your objectives. Can you give them a clear, firm answer? If your objective was vague, probably not. If your objective was “get to 1000 followers”, on the other hand, they immediately have a good idea of how your objectives are going. You just hit 400 followers so you’re 40% of the way to your objective. This leaves no room for confusion; no room for misinterpretation.

Clarify & communicate

Your work isn’t done yet just because you thought of an objective! You still need the understanding and cooperation of others to ensure the objective makes sense in practice. For instance, if your objective is somehow linked to another team’s objectives, it’s important you understand the way they set and manage their goals, as that will have an effect on the way you manage yours. 

If your company is embarking on setting OKRs for the first time, it may be wise to focus on setting company objectives first. That way smaller scale team objectives can easily fall in step with the overall goals of the organisation, aligning your goals on every level. And make sure the wording is clear and unambiguous - the last thing you want is to be slowed by easily-avoidable misunderstandings!

Track objectives & recognise success 

A surefire way to keep your objectives in shape is to monitor them and celebrate any objectives that have been achieved. Remember how apprehensive you felt when you first set that team objective? And look how far you’ve come! Congratulating the power of objectives keeps them from becoming a meaningless aspect of your quarterly routine. 

Remember that objectives really don’t have to be fully achieved in order to be celebrated. In fact, according to Google the perfect OKR grade is between 60 and 70% - more than half, but clearly still challenging. If teams always achieve 100% of their objectives it means you have room to think bigger. Stretch your teams’ potential!

In summary, objectives and key results exist to provide clarity on the way to realising ambition, so define your objectives with those qualities in mind. If your objectives seem uninspiring or confusing, you might need to stop and reassess them - the prospect of reaching them should be exciting!

To learn more, check out our other blog posts on OKRs.  

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