Crafting Great OKRs

I’ve had truly awful experiences with OKRs. I’ve had truly great experiences with OKRs. When crafted with care, the OKR model for goal setting is an effective tool for making sure you have the right resources and support to achieve what you want. My guide below can help develop OKRs that help you grow, achieve your goals, and communicate to others what your priorities are.

So what are OKRs? I’ll leave this as extra reading.

Philosophy

Communication and Accountability

OKRs are primarily a communication tool: They help others understand your priorities. This is the case regardless of the scope of the Objective (company, divisional, departmental, team, or personal). They need not be public to achieve this, just shared with your manager. Even totally private OKRs assist in communicating priorities by way of helping you articulate what you want to achieve.

Secondarily, OKRs make you accountable to your goals. Accountability does NOT mean you need to make your OKRs public. In the context of YOUR personal growth, you are accountable primarily to yourself (and likely to your manager, as well).

Good OKRs help you make decisions when there is a conflict in priorities or sequencing to the extent that you have that flexibility. They answer the question “what are you optimizing for?”. If you deviate from the OKRs, you should be able to document the exception for yourself.

Great OKRs

The secret to writing great OKRs lies in the easy to remember acronym: COOBRAMMTB!

Clarifying

OKRs should clarify your priorities, both to others and for yourself. They can often act as a forcing function for an activity or initiative that you tend to deprioritize or don’t enjoy. They are a good way to determine how you should fill your unallocated time (e.g., space between meetings, heads-down time away from Product development, etc.).

Keep your OKRs focused and clearly worded. Remember that you may come back to look at these a month or two from now, and will have forgotten the context in which they were written. It’s like commenting code or taking notes in a notebook; they are just as much for you as for a future consumer.

A confusing or duplicative OKR is worse than no OKR at all. If your OKR does not add clarity, delete it.

Outcome Oriented

A good OKR (in particular, the Objective) expresses the desired outcome. It is okay to start with an objective that is more tactical and iterate toward the higher-level outcome. Ask “why” over and over, until you arrive at a good outcome.

Example

Anything below the horizontal line is starting to look like a good outcome.

  • I want to learn Golang. Why?
  • I want to build backend systems. Why?

  • I want to learn about more complex architectures. Why?
  • I want to improve the performance of Button’s technology. Why?
  • I want to reduce the cost of running Button’s stack in AWS. Why?

Balanced

Balance specifically refers to balance across multiple Objectives or across multiple KRs within an Objective. The typical strategy is to balance quantity with quality, and vice versa. If you only have quantity-based KRs, the compulsion is to do the bare minimum to deliver as many of the thing as possible. If you only have quality-based KRs, then you might end up delivering only one thing, striving for perfection. Balancing the two requires limiting the investment in both metrics to achieve a maximal outcome.

Example

In the example below, quality and quantity balance each other out preventing focus on low-value partnerships and dependence on a single, high-value (and thus un-diversified) partnership.

O: Drive increased revenue to hit targets and diversify our client portfolio.

KR1: Sign 20 new partnerships

KR2: All new partnerships should have a median monthly net revenue of at least $10,000 and a mean of at least $7,500.

Realistic

In short, the Objective should be achievable. If there’s a snowball’s chance in a very hot, hot place of achieving the goal, why bother setting it? You wouldn’t start going to the gym with the goal of becoming the next Mr. Universe. Set yourself up for success with goals that you can achieve. Pacing the KRs is a very helpful tactic here, but we will touch on that later in COOBRAMMTB.

Ambitious

This is another element of balance. While we want realistic OKRs, we also don’t want to sandbag them. The whole point of the exercise is for each of us to grow individually ( It is not worth the energy to write ORKs if you’re not interested in growing). One good way to codify ambition here is to mark one KR as a stretch goal, one that you think is possible but will require hard work, leaning a new skill, or some other personal growth to meet.

Alternatively, you can write each KR with two target metrics, one realistic and one stretch.
One conventional wisdom around OKRs is that a KR was set properly if you achieved about 70% of the measure. If you average greater than 70% attainment of your KRs, they weren’t ambitious enough. I’ll do the math for you: take your previously realistic KR and multiply it by about 1.42x.

Milestoned

It is critical to know if you are on track to meet your Objectives before you hit the deadline. That way you know if you need to step it up or if you are in a comfortable place and can adjust your priorities. Setting milestones throughout the period covered by your OKRs is a great start. If you have quarterly Objectives, step KRs with monthly or bi-monthly milestones.

Regularly checking in on your progress toward the milestones is as critical with your personal goals as it is with any project you might work on. And as always, do not hesitate to escalate if you are stuck. Just because they are your personal goals does not mean they need to be accomplished totally alone.

Measured

Measuring an OKR is specific to the KRs. Poorly written KRs tend to lay out the steps that you will take toward achieving the Objective. In other words, they look like a roadmap. This can be problematic for a few reasons:

  1. The roadmap, or your external environment, can shift underneath you: the company goals could change, the project you’re working on could be reprioritized, there could be a global pandemic, etc.
  2. The KRs won’t tell you anything about whether you achieved your Objective (or by what margin). You’ll never definitively know if you met your goal.
  3. It is possible to check all the boxes on the KRs without achieving the Objective, or even coming close.

To avoid roadmapping, think about the observable effects of achieving your goal(s). Is it possible to have these effects without attaining the Objective?

Time Boxed

Set an overarching deadline, separate from the milestones mentioned above. Just like with a large project, if you have an Objective that is too big for a manageable time period, then you should break it up into smaller Objectives that cover shorter spans. Three months (i.e., quarterly) works well as a maximum for personal OKRs.

The Mike Wright Patented OKR Methodology ™©®

Thursday or Friday

Spend 15 minutes on Thursday or Friday spitballing 2-3 objectives.

  • JUST THE OBJECTIVES.
  • Ask yourself “why” 3-5 times until you get at the real objective. Make that the O.

The Weekend

Take the weekend to let the objective simmer in your brain. I highly discourage any active thought on OKRs during this time.

Monday

Spend 30 minutes on Monday writing down how you will measure the OUTCOME (i.e, the KRs).

  • Keep in mind that KRs should not express what you are going to do, but rather how you know you’ve had an impact w.r.t. to your Objective.
  • Come up with as many as you can.

Tuesday

Spend 15 minutes on Tuesday to truncate your KRs, leaving 2-3 of the strongest measures per Objective.

  • Find a buddy who can review them for you and where you can reciprocate.
    • It can also help to get the perspective of somebody who is outside of your reporting line.
  • Review with your manager.
    • Poke holes, think of how you could meet the KRs but miss the spirit of the O.

Wednesday

Final refinement and put it into your tracking system of choice.

Recap

  • Clarity first, then accountability.
  • C.O.O.B.R.A.M.M.T.B.: Your quick and easy to remember acronym for walking through the characteristics of great OKRs
  • Avoiding Roadmapping IN YOUR OKRs. Roadmapping is important but distinct from goal setting.
  • Working with a Buddy!

Bonus

OKRs should not be the starting point for goal-setting. The most effective way to seed growth is to start with self-reflection. I don’t expect people to pull goals out of the ether. Lean on your manager and your organization’s career ladder to help identify areas of growth that are related to your desired career trajectory (individual contributor, lead, manager, executive, etc.).

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