Objectives and Key Results provide a great way to organise your teams and propel your company into action. You’ve already considered where they could take you; but that leaves you wondering where you should start.
We spoke to the founder of the UK’s top OKR consultancy Roger Longden, a seasoned OKR coach with experience helping companies implement OKRs and speaking internationally on performance culture. Longden learned from Brett Knowles, who is a leading expert globally on putting strategy into practice. We've broken down the takeaways from our conversation with Longden into following six steps.
Define your long-term business priorities
“Ideally you should have a three year forward-looking business plan,” Longden advises. This long-term vision will provide the basis for recognising your business priorities for the next 12-month period. Three or four business priorities over a 12-month period is a good figure to go for.
Translate business priorities into annual OKRs
Once you’ve highlighted your business priorities you can convert them into separate OKRs, such as revenue OKRs or organisational OKRs. “I usually call these the ‘strategic’ OKRs,” Longden notes.
Break down annual OKRs into quarterly OKRs
Now you’ll need to downsize your annual OKRs into quarterly OKRs to work out what your agenda for the next 90 days will be. Longden refers to these as ‘tactical’ OKRs, and notes that while you could of course go for a shorter or longer OKR cycle (such as tertiary OKR cycles) most companies tend to go for a quarterly timeframe. Quarterly cycles are easily divisible into a working period of 10 weeks where each week represents 10% of a goal, plus a 2 week grace period to get up and running.
Managers should be mindful of setting objectives in a way that is both productive and easily comprehensible - but don’t get stuck in the planning phase! It might take a few cycles to understand how best to set objectives, and they can always be fine-tuned along the way. Longden recommends setting no more than three key results for each objective (although it’s worth noting that other perspectives accept up to five key results per objective. These objectives should be owned by someone from the senior team.
Convert company OKRs into team OKRs
Now for the engaging part. Rather than simply bequeathing your shiny new quarterly OKRs to each team, you should also take a bottom-up approach by asking teams to define how they can best contribute to achieving those OKRs. Once that’s done, teams will be able to set their own OKRs to fit their envisioned contribution. Longden recommends between one and three team OKRs per quarter.
“It is important to set good OKRs; but it is equally important not to get paralysed by trying to set 'perfect' OKRs."
This will take a bit of back and forth between the leadership team and team members, but that discussion provides a crucial opportunity to bring up pain points and pertinent questions, as well as clearing up any ambiguities. Still, don’t dwell too long on the discussion. As Longden remarks, “It is important to set good OKRs; but it is equally important not to get paralysed by trying to set 'perfect' OKRs." In my experience it is a learning process and OKRs get better quarter by quarter as the company learns.
Convert team OKRs into individual OKRs
Finally, we arrive at the smallest level of OKR setting - formulating individual OKRs based on the aforementioned processes. You can implement these using the same methodology described between company and team OKR setting: ask individuals what they can contribute to each team OKR. Providing a clear role for each team member helps them stay focused and motivated. In rare cases such as a special project, individual OKRs might align closely with a wider company objective rather than their team objective.
Longden stresses the importance of clear OKR ownership: “Every company and team OKR should always be owned by at least one person. This doesn’t mean that only this person contributes, but alongside other contributors there should always be at least one defined owner.” For example, a CEO would own the ‘strategic’ 12-month OKRs, while a 3-month ‘tactical’ team OKR might be owned by a team manager with the most relevant skill set.
Track - tweak - praise - repeat
“I believe a default-to-transparency approach is best so that all OKRs are visible to everybody, but leaving the option to make one confidential if there is justification to do so.” Longden recommends. Being able to track progress will make it easier to align OKRs at each company level and get a sense of the bigger picture. Longden also notes that OKRs won’t produce tangible results until a rhythm is established, so it’s good to organise routines and check-ins at the beginning (he recommends OKR digital tools over spreadsheets for this aspect).
Remember that during the OKR process, momentum and flow are more important than micromanagement and 100% completion rates.
Bi-weekly sprint meetings can be an effective method for keeping everyone focused and on the same page, and allows teams to air any grievances or share key learnings as they go. Senior level meetings should also be held every month to check the alignment and progress of all the OKRs. Indeed, in Google's younger days it's co-founder Larry Page would spend two days every quarter to analyse and cross-reference the OKRs of each software engineer. "As the company expanded, Larry continued to kick off each quarter with a marathon debate on his leadership team’s objectives," Google investor John Doerr wrote with admiration.
Progress can be tracked simply by attributing each OKR with a confidence status: is the OKR on track (green); does it need attention (amber), or is it actually off track (red)? The simplicity of this approach makes it easy to update on a weekly basis, and to continuously evaluate and respond to shifting, short-term priorities. Finally, each OKR period should be concluded with a comprehensive review on both progress and process. How close did each team get to achieving their goal? Could the process have been more efficient and/or pain-free? What can we celebrate and keep doing; what needs to change?
Remember that during the OKR process, momentum and flow are more important than micromanagement and 100% completion rates. Although OKR selection and evaluation are undoubtedly key parts of improving the OKR process, the process should feel ambitious and stimulating - so don’t get too bogged down in these stages. Try to start each OKR period on time, with new objectives and key results firmly established by the first day of that quarter.
For more on OKRs, check out our other blog posts!