Objective and Key Results (OKR) is a goal setting framework made famous by Andrew Grove at Intel and made popular by Google. It allows you and your team to effectively set and align ambitious goals and reach them.
If you are not familiar with OKRs we have written an introduction to OKRs.
Successfully implementing OKRs into an organization or team can be a challenge and unfortunately leads many to give up on OKRs.
That is why we have decided to share our implementation plan. It is down to earth, hands on and works every time.
This is how to successfully implement OKRs:
Set a fixed rhythm
One of the most powerful things about OKRs is that they force you to commit to fixed deadlines.
Most internal projects fail because deadlines are allowed to be pushed over and over again. This leads to forever projects that waste a ton of time on getting the last (and probably the most) low-value things checked off.
Most organizations pick a quarterly rhythm following the business calendar but don't be afraid of having shorter or longer rhythm.
A great rhythm has the following characteristics:
Predictable: It is short enough that you can do semi-accurate forecasting. If it is hard for you to predict quarterly results and hit them with a OK certainty then you need a shorter rhythm. Nothing drags the energy out of goals than working on unrealistic time scales or goals that have gone so far off-track that there is no way back.
Actionable: Is has to be long enough for you to do meaningful work and measure the results of that work. A monthly rhythm might be easy to forecast but to short to implement changes and measure results.
If you are in doubt then start with quarterly and tweak from there.
Set aside good time for planning
Set aside a week or two every cycle for planning.
The main reason goals don't works is that people are not given enough time to think and reflect. Many leaders think that it is when executing the plans that you make progress but most of the hard work is in identifying the best goals and how to best get there. You can run as fast as you want but if you don't follow the best strategy you will waste a ton of energy. Work smart, not hard.
Here is our suggestion for scheduling a good planning period (we assume a quarterly rhythm using the first 2 weeks for planning):
Planning Day 1: Reflection
Start out by reflecting on the last cycles results. For each goal the goal owner should go through the following with their manager:
Did we make it? Simple yes/no
Was it too easy or too hard? Was the goal realistic or did you get it wrong? You don't want to set easily reachable goals. The point of OKRs is that it should be ambitious enough that you only have around a 80% success rate. Is it below, then maybe lower expectations for this cycle and if is it higher, then turn up your ambitions.
What specifically did we do successfully? The most important thing when evaluating is being super clear about what worked. Those learnings are what you need to use again and double down on in the future. Being clear about your strengths and actively re-using them is how you compound your results. Many ambitious people tend to skip this too quickly (cause we all know what worked) but it is key that you as a leader double down on these learnings (and it is a great situation to praise).
What did we fail at? If you try out new things, you will fail at some. Failure is not in itself bad - but being scared of talking about it and thus learning from it just to repeat the mistake again is really bad. If you are uncomfortable giving negative feedback this step in the OKRs really gives you a great way to provide it. Take your learnings and apply for the next cycle.
The important thing on this day is not whether or not we hit our goals - it is learning from them and taking those learnings with us into the rest of the planning period.
The learning should be summed up at the end of the day by each leader and shared with their team and shared upwards. This way all the best learning goes all the way to the top of the company as a feedback loop.
Planning Day 2-4: Set high level goals
Based on the learnings from the last goal cycle your senior management team should set the next cycles high level goal.
Again give yourself good time to discus what good goals are and have a realistic idea of how they should be accomplished.
This does not need to take all day for 3 days but if the top management team meets daily to discuss and then have a day to think things over or check in with their team it creates much more thoughtful goals.
On the last day the next cycles high-level objectives and their key results should be decided and with a top level executive personally responsible for each one. This should then be shared with the entire organization.
Planning Day 5-10: Break goals down to bite-sized actionable to-dos
Once the top objectives and their key results have been set, it is time for the individual departments and teams to figure out how they can best contribute.
Since each key result is owned by top level executive they will take that to their teams and recursively decide upon the OKRs and actionable tasks they need to get done to achieve that key result.
This is then done recursively by leaders in the organization down to the individual contributor level. At the individual contributor level it is important they you have a mix of both key results but also actionable tasks that brings concrete change tied to those key results. Otherwise you don't have a plan of how to get there.
Execute and follow through
After the planing phase everyone now have a clear idea of what they need to do in order for the entire company to achieve their goals.
The only job for leaders from here on is to support their teams in actually getting things done. As a leader you should at least weekly check in on your team members progress and help where needed.
An important thing to note here is that you should not interrupt them or have a weekly status meeting if this is not needed. Systems like Workjoy are designed for you to know exactly where your team is without interrupting.
Make OKRs easy to work with
This is where most OKR implementations fail. They live in separate systems far from the individual contributors daily life.
This next section is super biased but one of the reasons we build Workjoy is exactly because we were tired of this exact problem.
If you want to succeed with any goal setting you need to use a system that:
Your employees use every day. Otherwise they will forget your OKRs in the day-to-day work schedule. This leads to fatigue in the organization and a feeling that OKS are "just not working for us" but the fact is just that you have failed to make it easy. So no spread sheets and no external systems will work.
Is combined with the actual tasks. A classical mistake is using a system just for goals that doesn't also function as your day to day task manager. This detaches your OKRs from the actual work and hinders progress.
Is designed for the individual contributor. Most goal systems are build for managers and reporting - not for actually making progress. No wonder leaders find it hard to implement when the system is cumbersome for employees to use.
OKR success is all about constantly having them top of mind and easy to work with.
OKRs are an effective tool for aligning a organization but they need to be integrated into the day to day activities to work.
To do this you must
Work in fixed rhythm so goal settings and execution is predictable for employees even if your goals change.
Spend way more time planning than you think you need. This is where you actually do your job as a leader.
Help your team execute on their OKRs by getting things out of their way and implement a system that makes OKRs easy to work with for them.