Finding OKR success by balancing long- and short-term timelines
How long does it take to hit your goals?
When we set our personal goals, we give ourselves flimsy timelines-- accomplishing things “within a year” or as part of a 5-year plan. We allow flexibility in our schedule to make strategic decisions on when to make bigger efforts, to reprioritize our goals, or to decide if they’re still relevant the closer we get to the due date. For personal goals (“get a promotion,” “move across the country,” “write my novel”), this makes sense-- we’re not necessarily committed to our goals, so we can dream big and make ambitious, long term plans.
But for strategic company goals, this more ambiguous timeline doesn’t work. Numbers need to be hit, plans need to be set, and boards need to be reported to. And it can feel natural to align these goals to your annual planning cycle. If you’re tracking revenue numbers, shouldn’t that be an annual goal since you already know the overall target?
At Koan, we strongly believe that breaking your goals down into quarterly targets will do a far better job in letting your team see the payoff for their efforts, adapt to the process more easily, and ultimately better hit their goals. For the best OKR rollout, your team should:
Create a multi-year vision and strategy that acts as the north star for your organization.
Write yearly organization Objectives that serve as a “rough draft” for what you’d like to accomplish over the year.
Each quarter, create specific Objectives and Key Results for that time frame that will help you work towards your yearly Objectives and your vision,
Continually incorporate learnings and that adjust for what’s happening now in the business. (for example, quicker timelines)
Interested in finding out why? Read on for more details.
The allure of annual goals
Annual, company-level objectives are typically the first goals set at the annual leadership offsite and act as the north star for the rest of the organization’s goals. We need to hit $500mil in ARR to be a market leader, or We want to increase headcount globally by 25% to speed up our innovation. They show that, during the course of the next year, we want to move in this particular direction and that each team is expected to make efforts to help drive these goals.
It’s easy, then, to think that these make the perfect OKRs. They’re ambitious, actionable, and timebound. The key results all have easily measurable metrics. They have all of the keys to an incredible OKR, and yet many organizations fail to deliver on them like they expect. They put them into their OKR tool (or worse, a spreadsheet), and forget about them, instead of focusing on the things they can see in front of them. Does this mean those annual goals are bad? Absolutely not! It’s important to make long term plans. But this highlights the issue with long term OKRs-- they’re difficult to track the progress of.
Early efforts towards OKRs are for making meaningful decisions that will set the trajectory for the goals. With an extended timeline, that trajectory can be altered far too much, with early decisions having a deeply profound impact on the results in unforeseen ways. This is exacerbated by the fact that the results of those efforts won’t be seen for some time, the cause and effect decoupled by needing to wait weeks or months for another update on the goal. Work done in January isn’t an accurate predictor of results delivered in December.
Annual goals should be made visible, but not tracked in typical OKR fashion. Annual goals can and should act as guidelines–a living document that can adapt and change to the world depending on new factors or previous performance.
Enter quarterly targets
Compared to annual goals, quarterly targets provide a shorter cycle that lets teams see results faster without sacrificing their ability to experiment and make changes. Revenue targets are set annually, yes, but work done in Q3 doesn’t provide the same results as work done in Q1. Breaking the larger, annual goal into quarterly pieces gives teams more tangible results to drive towards and gives them the ability to set better targets based on their previous results. If they miss their numbers in Q1, you can increase the target for Q2. If they over-achieve in Q2, Q3 can be reduced or pushed further, depending on how the team is working. A quarterly cadence gives your teams more flexibility to adapt to new challenges more easily without needing to completely upend the annual plan
Of course, having moving targets is only the beginning of the changes your teams might see throughout the year. The longer the timeline on an OKR, the more unknowns that are introduced. In 6 months, will your goals still be relevant? Will there still be the same teams and team members working on them? Choosing a shorter timeline reduces the number of variables and helps the project stay more focused on the resources that are currently available.
Even quicker turnaround
A question we’re asked fairly regularly is if it’s OK to have OKRs on shorter timelines-- 6 weeks, monthly, even weekly. Typically, however, when exploring these shorter goals, we find that teams are likely looking to include tasks or initiatives. A telltale sign of a poor OKR roll out is a long list of Key Results under an Objective, all with varying due dates. Teams end up getting lost in their list of deliverables, and forget about the larger outcomes that they’re pushing for.
That isn’t to say that there are no reasons to have non-quarterly OKRs. Teams who have successfully implemented OKRs in the past and developed their OKR playbooks can find good results with shorter timelines. 6 week OKRs or monthly OKRs can be accomplished well if there are high impact projects that benefit from a higher focus on the results of the projects. Still, it’s much easier to fail with these shorter Key Results since there are less opportunities to re-strategize if things aren’t going well midway through the period.
Living with your OKRs
The timeline that you choose for your OKR can also have unforeseen consequences as well, like how much your teams interact with their goals. The best way to make sure that your team is living with their OKRs–that is, actively reviewing their progress and thinking critically about the best way to move forward–is by taking time each week to reflect on their progress on their goals. With quarterly goals, new information arises week to week, so maintaining a regular schedule for those check-ins is paramount. With annual goals, there can be large swaths of time where no new information is available and no new changes happen, making a weekly check-in burdensome. This prevents good habits from being formed, and, if your team moves to quarterly OKRs in the future, sets you back in the process. Short timeframes with regular check-ins can maintain the health of your OKRs, which means surfacing issues early and giving you ample time to find the best way to go forward.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to rolling out OKRs, but some consistency and intentionality around your timelines can help immensely when you’re beginning your OKR journey!