okr: Objectives and Key Results

A Guide to OKRs

Table of Contents

What are Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)?
What are the Main Benefits of OKRs?
How to Create OKRs
Common Pitfalls When Writing OKRs
Examples of Good OKRs
Don’t Cascade your OKRs
How to Roll Out your OKRs to Your Organization
How to Track Your OKRs
How to Choose the Right OKR Tool
Additional Information About OKRs

What are Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)?

The Objectives and Key Results goals framework was created by Intel’s Andy Grove and then popularized by venture capitalist John Doerr in his New York Times best-seller Measure What Matters. Companies from Google to Adobe have rolled out OKRs to accelerate growth and drive innovation by helping teams see how their work fits into the overall company’s objectives. 

The OKR methodology is a collaborative, goal-setting framework that helps teams and organizations reach their goals through identifiable and measurable results. By design, the OKR framework works across teams to create a standard the whole company can adopt. OKRs give purpose to teams and organizations.

Objective: what you’re trying to accomplish.
Objectives are qualitative, and should be inspiring, e.g. “Ship an amazing MVP!”. An Objective can be long-lived, or you might set the deadline to be the end of the year, the next quarter, or even the next month (especially if you’re a startup where things change very quickly). The objective should be hard; the point is to push yourselves as a team or organization.

“When properly designed and deployed, they’re a vaccine against fuzzy thinking — and fuzzy execution.” - John Doerr

Key Results (KRs): how you’ll measure whether you achieve the objective.
A KR is measurable and verifiable; there’s always a black and white answer whether it’s achieved. When possible, use a metric with a number, e.g. “Grow to 1000 active users in our private beta”. Setting around three KRs for an Objective is a reasonable place to start, and you’ll want to assign a specific person to lead the KR and be accountable to its’ success. Completion of all the key results means you’ve achieved the Objective.

OKRs are a statement of intent by any team in your organization. It’s a public way of announcing what the team is going to work on and who will be accountable for its success or failure. At the company level, OKRs act as a north star for your business-- goals that are counting on efforts from every level of the business. Setting company OKRs allows individual teams to set goals that help drive those overarching objectives while preserving their autonomy and enabling their own development and growth.

What are the main benefits of OKRs?

The Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) framework can be a superpower for creating an environment where employees are able to work with purpose. Companies like Intel, LinkedIn and Airbnb have achieved amazing results with OKRs, but less often discussed is the fact that deploying a goal framework in the right way can create a vastly better working environment.

The venture capitalist and OKR guru John Doerr writes about four “superpowers” of OKRs:

  1. Focus and commit to priorities: setting OKRs forces the conversation of what’s most important and makes it easier to let go of all the things that aren’t.
  2. Align and connect for teamwork: committing to transparent OKRs across the entire organization means everyone knows the priorities and can self-organize to achieve the goals.
  3. Track for accountability: regularly and transparently measuring progress uncovers problems earlier and drives the team to win.
  4. Stretch for amazing: setting and then achieving or failing at hard OKRs will let you accomplish more than you ever thought possible.

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How to Create OKRs

When it comes to creating and writing incredible OKRs consider the following formula: We will __(Objective)__ as measured by __(these Key Results)__.

Objectives need to be clear, inspiring, and easy to rally around. The golden rule of writing Objectives is that any reasonable person should be able to understand the Objective’s aim and motivation at a glance. When writing your objectives, make sure they are actionable, time-bound and ambitious.

You can ask yourself several questions to help maximize the impact of your objectives. 

  • Are there too many? Too Few? Ideally, the entire set of any single employee’s team, department, and company objectives should fit easily on the back of a napkin-- typically 3-5 objectives per level. 
  • Are they actionable? Whoever’s accountable for an objective also needs the resources to deliver it. While a sales team can commit to filling the order book for a not-yet-finished product, they probably shouldn’t be on the hook for actually shipping the goods. Likewise, even company-wide OKRs need someone who is driving them and can answer questions about how things are going. Without accountability for those resources, goals are meaningless.
  • Why should anyone care? The best litmus test for if you should keep something as a company level OKRs is to ask yourself “Why would anyone care about this?” OKRs should be high-value, with their results easy enough for anyone to understand (see above). If your objective’s value isn’t easily apparent, it’s best to rethink it.

Key results determine whether an Objective has succeeded or failed. The golden rule of writing Key Results is that any reasonable person would agree that completing all of the Key Results would guarantee completion of the Objective. Be very clear when defining key results. Make sure they are quantifiable and whenever possible, use metrics instead of a binary result. When Key Results are measurable, it's effortless for the team to see their progress and whether or not the Objective has been achieved.

“It’s not a Key Result unless it has a number.” - Marissa Mayer

Just like with objectives, asking a few questions about your key results will help make sure they’re describing the outcome you want: 

  • Are there too many? Too few? Just like with Objectives, you don’t want to overwhelm your team with too many competing measures. If you do, you can run into the paradox of having so many priorities that you end up with no priorities. With Key Results, you should keep it to 5 or fewer. 
  • Are Key Results tasks rather than outcomes? Key Results describe the optimal outcome that needs to be accomplished in order to complete the objective but doesn’t constrain how it might be achieved. The metrics in a Key Result should be quantifiable outcomes and not individual tasks (capture 1000 new MQLs rather than send updated sales playbook to SDRs) 
  • Are they ambitious enough? Key Results should extend past the status quo, pushing your team or company to do more than they did the quarter before. Otherwise, you’re sticking to business as usual.
  • Are the targets realistic? When a Key Result’s ambition vastly exceeds reality, you’re setting your team up for failure. The goal is to push for more, not to overextend. 
  • Is a single lead accountable to each Key Result? Do they have the agency and the resources they need to deliver it?

When it comes to setting OKRs, it's a good idea to conduct a team brainstorm. Brainstorming gives your team a level of ownership and drives accountability for those results. Brainstorming engages your team and inspires them to care as much about the OKRs as you do. When crafting Key Results for each Objective/goal, get out the sticky notes. Have each team member jot down suggestions and take turns sharing and debating their metrics until you find the right level of difficulty to push the team. During the brainstorming, give your team the freedom to contribute and to incorporate their perspective into the OKRs. This helps team members to stay aligned and inspired while working on the tough challenges tied to the objectives and key results.

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Common Pitfalls When Writing OKRs

Setting great OKRs takes practice, and early in the transformation towards a more dynamic, outcome-based culture, it’s easy to go off the rails. Some frequent mistakes when planning with OKRs include:

  • Focusing on tasks rather than outcomes. There’s a tendency to skip from an outcome to the specific steps you expect will be needed to achieve it. Don’t overspecify. A watertight plan at the start of the process will choke out creativity and innovation as new information becomes available down the line.
  • Not sharing OKRs publicly. OKRs are all about transparency, and hiding them away makes it impossible to builds accountability or alignment.
  • Waiting on “Cascading” OKRs. The most effective OKR rollouts start with executive buy-in, but once high-level company objectives are set and clearly communicated, teams shouldn’t have to wait for departments (or anyone else up the org chart) before setting their own.
  • Having too many OKRs. Planning allocates resources where they’re needed most. Organizations, teams, and people that split time between too many objectives are necessarily less focused on the ones that really matter.
  • Setting easy and/or unrealistic OKRs. Objectives should always stretch the organization, and if they’re achievable through “business as usual” they probably aren’t hard enough. Nor should they feel impossible. Employees know absurdity when they see it, and goals set too far over the horizon won’t fool (or motivate) anyone.

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Examples of Good OKRs

The formula for writing OKRs is simple: Objectives are goals and intents, while Key Results are time-bound and measurable milestones under the Objective. But what are some good examples of OKRs to communicate this goal-setting equation? 

Let’s start with an example for when you’re planning a meeting about setting OKRs. John Doerr, author of Measure What Matters, recommends these OKRs:

Screenshot from Koan — Start managing your OKRs today with Koan

There are three Key Results in this OKR, but according to best-practices, the maximum you should have is five.

Company OKR Example:

Screenshot from Koan — Start managing your OKRs today with Koan

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Don’t Cascade your OKRs

It's tempting to cascade OKRs down through the organization. But if all your goals fit together into a pretty parent/child tree, teams almost by definition aren’t thinking creatively, taking risks, or showing initiative. It hinders alignment and collective buy-in across the organization, too. It’s far better to allow your teams to set their own goals, aligning theirs to the company objectives in their own terms. 

“Cascade goals are a top-down, one-way, irreversible flow, with no feedback cycles that end crashing on the rocks. Everything an agile, innovative organization does not want to be.” - Felipe Castro

Instead, consider aligning OKRs development through a bottom-up process. Invite teams at every level define their OKRs before bringing the organization together to understand and challenge their alignment with your overarching vision. Not all OKRs within the organization will align to the company-level, and that's OK. 

Ultimately, you want to create a process where teams feel empowered to create their OKRs and then challenge teams across the business to ensure they’re focused on the right priorities at the right time. This process encourages creative thinking and informed risk-taking, all to push your business forward.

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How to Roll Out your OKRs to your Organization

How you communicate your OKR strategy to the rest of the org is an important factor in the success of your OKR implementation. Your teams already have their hands full with their day-to-day operations, and asking them to add an additional layer to their work will only work with a compelling reason why. Some common things to address when communicating with the rest of the organization:

  • Focus on the benefits for the team. Everyone wants to know that the things they’re doing drive a larger impact and that they matter to the overall organization. Teams that work with purpose work better. 
  • People need three things to be motivated: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Reminding your teams that you trust them, and then codifying that in how you work towards your goals, gives them that motivation.
  • Set your team up for success-- the main factors that drive both adoption and successful completion of OKRs are a regular review cadence, transparency, and understanding of how their work impacts adjacent teams. 

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How to Track Your OKRs

One of the biggest indicators of failure for OKRs is if a team doesn’t establish a regular cadence of reflections or check-ins on their goals. Too often, teams fall into the habit of setting their OKRs, putting them into a spreadsheet, and then only rediscovering them at the end of the quarter when it’s too late to make any changes that would have helped achieve those goals.  Or, only the Owner or Department Leader is responsible for updating a shared spreadsheet, without input or context from the team that is responsible for delivering. 

If a regular team-wide cadence for input doesn’t exist, there’s no mechanism in place for the team to think critically about the progress they were making towards those goals or how to better strategize or prioritize so that they see success. 

Teams should consistently be prompted to provide their confidence scores and updates to their OKRs to have open and honest conversations on the likelihood of hitting their key results. This helps teams better surface leading indicators of failure and find ways around them, and also serves as a reminder that OKRs are learning opportunities, that hitting or missing their targets has value.  By the same token, consistent review of progress allows for a celebration of successes along the way, and recognition of work well-done.

Creating a positive and proactive team culture around your OKRs helps not only with the likelihood of success, but also makes the process of closing out and having a retrospective for your OKRs easier since the process around learning from them has already been established. 

Closing out OKRs

The process of closing out OKRs should be a team effort -- everyone worked together to deliver the results, and everyone should come together to see the results. An ideal process would be: 

  1. Have the lead on each key result score is based on the metric that was being tracked. 
  2. As a team, go through each key result and have both the lead and the contributors explain what went well and what could have been better. Ask why the OKR was hit or missed, and continue drilling down into the reasons why until you’ve found the core reasons for success or failure. This makes it easier to avoid the same pitfalls or replicate the same success in the future. 
  3. If an OKR was missed, decide as a team if it should be rolled forward into the next quarter or if new OKRs should be set. If it’s being rolled forward, change the due date and adjust the metrics as needed. If it’s not, mark the OKR as complete. 
  4. Decide which closed OKRs provide a worthwhile context for your new OKRs. Sometimes, seeing the progress you made in the past helps color the goals that you’ve set moving forward. For instance, the previous quarter’s revenue numbers might give you insight into why this quarter’s numbers are set as high as they are. For OKRs that don’t offer additional context, archive them so that your team can focus solely on the goals that are most relevant. 

Turning the process of closing your team’s OKRs into more of a ceremony can make it into a milestone moment. Moving slowly through each key result and taking a moment to celebrate the wins and dig into the growth opportunities in an end-of-quarter meeting takes OKRs from a theoretical goal setting exercise into a way to come together and truly see all of the progress that has been made as a team.

Additional Resources

How to Choose the Right OKR Tool

Not using a modern OKR management tool can provide a variety of challenges. Spreadsheets don’t scale and ultimately where strategies, goals, and progress disappear. Teams who use a software-based OKR tool have better alignment and work together with purpose.  By having purpose-built software for the job of goal tracking, you’ll avoid a ton of time spent running around and getting updates. Here are a few reasons why you should use software over a spreadsheet:

  • Greater visibility, better focus:  Never lose sight of strategic objectives and OKRs across teams—focus on what's important and report on what’s working and what's not. Get OKR best practices out-of-the-box.
  • Improved team engagement: Team members and managers give and receive direct feedback—increasing engagement and collaboration with objectives and key results.
  • Reduced meetings and process: Weekly reflections eliminate status update emails and reduce unnecessary meetings. Turn on Slack and email notifications to keep everyone informed the way they want.
  • Deliver outcomes, not tasks: Align teams to strategic outcomes with measurable key results. Teams use the OKR tool to stay focused on measurable progress, course-correct and celebrate wins.
  • Curate qualitative confidence: Teams share qualitative confidence ratings tied to objectives and key results. Improving accuracy and accountability with OKR tracking.
  • Less stress, more enjoyable work: Reduced employee stress through better alignment and focus. Eliminate wasted efforts. Raise concerns and catch issues before fires start.

An ideal OKR tool will build and reinforce great practices while fitting in seamlessly with the way your team already works. And a successful evaluation should always begin with the results you’re out to achieve. Some of the questions you should be asking as you evaluate different OKR tools include:

  • is it easy to use?
  • does it tell the whole story?
  • will it scale?
  • does it reinforce OKR best practices?
  • does it inspire the right conversations?

The OKR framework is a powerful, flexible way to align your business strategy. A great OKR tool should never hold it back. As you’re considering your options, asking a few simple questions will lead you to a fantastic tool.

Additional Resources

Additional Information about OKRs

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