Thu Feb 23 2023

OKRs Training Outline

My notes and outlines on training I plan to deliver at work to my team mates. The goal is to help a team new to OKRs understand how the framework works, know why OKRs is valuable, and start writing their own OKR sets.

Training Outline

  1. Why are we here?
  2. Why OKRs?
  3. What are OKRs anyway?
  4. How do OKRs work?
  5. What about things that do not fit into OKR sets?
  6. Let’s write our own OKR sets

Why are we here?

We are here to have this discussion because the company as a whole has elected to adopt OKRs (short for Objectives and Key Results) across the company. This means that in our very near collective future we will be asked to deliver aggressive outcomes, and we must be able to justify our success or failure to meet provide those outcomes to the business.

I put together this training because OKR rollouts are hard, and we are likely not going to get as much institutional support as we really need. That is not to say we will get no support. I expected everyone will underestimate how much work adopting OKRs really is.

I also have been through a failed OKRs rollout, and it was a miserable experience. I do not want you all to have to go through that if we can avoid that pain with a bit of preparation and work on our own. There is no reason for us to injure ourselves in this way.

Why OKRs?

OKRs are a popular, well-tested, successful framework for setting and completing high impact goals. OKRs are a great tool to help well-performing teams find greater focus and produce bigger outcomes for the company.

They provide a relatively straightforward picture of what teams are working towards to support the company’s mission. OKRs also focus heavily on data to drive decisionmaking and determining how well you have succeeded in delivering on your objective. In addition, OKRs, when implemented properly, can give individual teams much greater stake and autonomy in solving problems for the business and for customers.

What are OKRs anyway?

OKRs stands for Objectives and Key Results. OKRs refers to a formal framework for setting and completing goals that has been adapted and implemented for use in many of the largest, most successful companies in the world, especially in technology industries.

The OKRs framework itself developed at Intel in the 1980s and 1990s and is credited with enabling Intel to pivot successfully from its struggling memory business to a wildly successful microprocessor business. Intel alumni then spread the OKRs framework to other companies who adopted OKRs hoping to repeat Intel’s success.

The framework consists mainly of the namesake objectives and key results and an organizational structure that helps teams maintain the focus they need to accomplish their objectives.

OKRs are not for every team or to help underperforming teams do better. Teams that adopt OKRs generally need to have a strong sense of psychological safety and individual empowerment in order to see the most benefit from adopting OKRs. OKRs depends on individual team members taking an active part in creating objectives and key results and achieving the objectives.

How do OKRs work?

Objectives focus and inspire you

OKRs works by focusing on a narrowly defined set of outcomes, called Objectives, to achieve meaningful positive results for the business or for customers. The narrow focus helps guarantee that your limited time and resources are used to provide the best outcomes, and you use data, called Key Results, to measure how well you are succeeding in achieving your objective.

Your objective should be something aspirational, inspiring, and exciting. Objectives are supposed to be difficult but not impossible. They should pose a challenge to you and your team that leaves you feeling eager to overcome the challenge.

Key results help you find your way

Key results are a small set of 3-5 metrics that should tell you at a glance if you are moving towards or away from completing your goal. They should be specific and numeric. You should also be able to compare your metrics against things that matter to you like how the metric changes over time or varies from one market segment to another. In addition, according to Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz, authors of Lean Analytics, good metrics are 1) understandable and memorable; 2) a rate or ratio; and 3) something that makes you change your behavior as the metric changes.

It is also helpful to pick key results that balance one another. Having balanced key results present a more complete picture of you team’s activity and can prevent behaviors that prioritize short-term gain at the cost of long-term harm. For example, if one of your key results involves increasing the conversion rate for sales, you should probably also have the retention rate of new customers or the revenue per sale as balancing metrics. Metrics like these will help you make sure that the new sales actually are good sales that make enough money or do not cancel immediately after the sale completes.

What about things that are not OKRs?

We care about those things, too! OKRs are meant to keep you focused on making the biggest impact, but you also have to watch out for your day-to-day business to create the space to work on your OKR sets.

Day-to-day business includes but is not limited to responding to customer requests, conducting routine maintenance on your infrastructure, overall customer satisfaction, assisting other teams with their needs, and generally keeping the lights on. You do not want to ruin your existing business as you pursue your OKR sets!

The exact details can vary based on how your team implements OKRs, but you can incorporate updates on key non-OKR activites into your OKRs cadence. Christina Wodtke, a popular OKRs coach, in her book Radical Focus recommended picking 3-5 health metrics you score as red, yellow, or green in each OKRs planning meeting to monitor these activites. How you do this is up to you, of course, but you should pick the most important metrics for your business’s health.

Let’s write our own OKR sets

Writing OKR sets is not easy. It can take a good deal of trial and error plus practice to figure out how to write an objective that is aspirational but still possible. Many teams fail the first time they try to use OKRs. That is OK. One of the biggest overlooked parts of OKRs is the importance of trying something new and learning from what you did. Quickly learning what works and what does not work is a primary benefit of using OKRs.

Writing objectives

Writing OKR sets starts with writing objectives for you to achieve. Objectives should be something that are achievable but ambitious. They should be something you can do if you invest a high amount of effort and focus. If your objectives are too easy, you will not see any real benefit from using OKRs. However, if your objectives are too hard, you may feel overwhelmed instead of inspired.

Objectives should also result in some concrete outcome or change for you, your team, or you business. They should be relatively specific, easy to understand, and easy to remember. Part of keeping focused on your OKRs is constantly reminding yourself what your OKRs are. If your objective is vague, too long, or too hard to comprehend right away you should rework your objective.

Finally, when writing your objectives, think about the timeframe in which you want to accomplish your objective. Setting a specific timeframe anchors your focus and limits the amount of work you do before you stop to ask yourself if you were successful or not and if the work was worthwhile or not. You can set a shorter timeframe or a longer timeframe, but you will need to adjust your objective to be something you could actually accomplish within the given timeframe.

Now, what is something you would like to accomplish that would make a positive, lasting difference to you, your team, or your business?

Example objectives
  1. Become the top supplier for our market in the greater Chicago, Illinois area
  2. New customers fall in love with us thanks to our sales process
  3. Make OpenStack so easy to deploy a pizza delivery person can do it
  4. Transform the security hardening experience for the government private cloud market
  5. Establish footholds in 3 new international markets

Writing key results

Key results are the metrics you use to judge the success or failure of the work you did to meet your objective. Consider the data you already collect and what data you may need to start gathering for the objectives you have written. As mentioned before, you should aim for 3-5 metrics that relate to your objective and balance one another.

Key results should generally not be tied to the completion of projects or specific tasks. Tying key results to completing specific work commits you completing work that may not actually have a helpful outcome.

Example key results
  1. Increase daily website visitors by 30%
  2. $2 million dollars in annual recurring revenue
  3. Customer satisfaction scores increase 20%
  4. Reduce deployment time by 50%
  5. Decrease mean time-to-resolution by 35%

Example OKR sets

Your OKR sets combine your objectives and key results to form a compact, complete statement of what you are trying to do and how you are going to know if you were successful or not. You should also be able to remember what your OKR sets are for your team and for the company.

What’s next?

Once you have your OKR sets written up, share them with your team for further discussion. Your team should aim to find 1-3 OKR sets for the entire time to focus on collectively for the next quarter or year. After you have agreed on your OKR sets, start working towards accomplishing your goals and moving the key results towards success.

You should put your OKR sets at the center of every planning meeting and team discussion. The OKR sets should be prominently visible and reviewed every week or two weeks for the team to judge if you are moving closer or farther away from your objective. Ask yourself what is not working and what is working; stop doing things that are not working and double down on things that are working.

Around two weeks before the end of the time period, make time for the team to review the work you did and how successful you were. You should also consider if the work actually yielded a valuable impact and should continue in the next quarter or if you should try something else.