“A key result has to be measurable. At the end you can look at it and, without any argument, say ‘Did I do that or not? Yes? No? Simple.’” These are the words of Intel CEO and OKR pioneer Andy Grove, who popularised OKR in the 1970s.
Whatever your mission, key results are the milestones you pass on the way. They’re the signposts you’ll check to see you’re on the right track - and how far you have to go. And while they might look like just another list of tasks to tick off, there’s an art to choosing the right key results. Here are five things to keep in mind.
“It’s not a key result if it doesn’t have a number” -- Marissa Mayer
Give it a digit
Like real milestones, key results help you keep pace. With that in mind, it’s important that key results are measurable, so you’re best off giving them a number (or a due date, at the very least). It doesn’t matter whether you use numbers or percentages: as long as there are digits involved you can assess your progress much more objectively than if you set yourself vague, non-numerical goals.
If you’re working with OKRs that have an impact on the OKRs of other teams or departments, numerical key results will make life easier: with the help of AI tools you can more accurately keep track of the bigger picture. We recommend measuring key results on a scale of 1-10 simply because it’s ideal for percentage conversion.
Three is a magic number
Speaking of numbers, Google advises setting around three key results per objective; other experts say that three to five key results are fine, too. Consider the size of your team, the complexity of your OKR system and the scope of your objective before deciding how many key results to implement. You don’t want to set more key results just because it looks more challenging: remember that simplicity and comprehensibility are essential.
Importantly, your key results should cover enough ground to enable actually reaching your objective. If completion of key results constitutes only 40-50% of your objective, you know your key results are insufficient in some way. Don’t forget that key results exist to serve your objectives - otherwise they won’t have the intended impact.
Embrace the challenge
Like objectives, key results should require some elbow grit to accomplish. If they’re too easy, they probably won’t make a noticeable impact on the overall progress of the OKR. Hitting 70-80% of the key result is a good indicator of a high impact key result, while hitting 100% of a key results without difficulty shows that the key result was probably too unambitious.
Remember, key results are meant to push your team to go the extra mile. They should stimulate employees to draw on their resourcefulness and capacity for innovation. Be mindful of the fact that teams and companies change - what may have been challenging and exciting last year may not be challenging and exciting for this quarter.
Focus on outcome, not process
If in doubt, be guided by the ‘result’ part of key results. Sometimes key results make people think of processes on a to-do list, like ‘get advice; ‘help trainee’; or ‘research new software’. The problem with using processes like this is that theoretically there is no end point to any of them, making it easy to get stuck or lose a sense of progress.
Key results actually focus on singular milestones that may be part of an ongoing process, but are essentially finite in nature. For example, instead of setting ‘research new software’, you might write ‘pitch new software to management team by April 6th.’ Note that focusing on outcome doesn’t actually contradict the process in any way - you’ll still have to research new software, but now you’re envisaging the intended outcome more clearly.
Collect the evidence
Another great way to check the measurability of your key result is to consider whether it will leave you with any clear evidence of accomplishment. In the case of the vague example ‘research new software’, you might reasonably assume this would be hard to provide useful evidence for. Now if someone were interested in the completion of the improved key result, ‘pitch new software to management team by April 6th’, you can imagine having meeting notes, a powerpoint presentation, calendar event and the input of other people as your evidence that this key result was indeed achieved.
We know that setting the right goals - whether on an objective or key result - is just as essential as working hard on them. The type of objectives and key results you choose will provide a bedrock for your team’s ambition, out of which creative work can flow. And McKinsey research tells us that, of the many qualities good leaders have, operating with strong results orientation is one of the most important - so make sure you’re working towards meaningful results.
For more on OKRs, check out our other blog posts!