Running an OKR setting workshop


9 April 2018

It’s OKR season again! If you’re like me, your teams are probably in the middle of setting quarterly (or even annual) OKRs. Over the past year, I’ve helped dozens of teams at a large media organisation to adopt Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and (as you’d expect) I’ve run a lot of OKR workshops and trained a number of facilitators. Here are some of the techniques I use. Many thanks to Christina Wodtke and her book Radical Focus.

Ground rules

One of the great strengths of OKRs is that they force teams to get really clear on what they want (and don’t want) to achieve and how they think they can achieve it. Setting the team’s OKRs requires plenty of passionate debate until things are precise, robust, and well-understood. This is the time to iron out any confusion or ambiguity; not half-way through or at the end of the quarter when you’re evaluating what you’ve delivered.

Ideally the OKR setting session should be small (10 people max). Put phones and laptops away. This is a time to really engage with your colleagues and understand what they think is important and why. More focus means higher quality OKRs and a shorter meeting. Ideally, you’ll have a facilitator from outside the team who can guide the conversation and take notes so the team can be fully present with each other.

Before the session

A day (or two max) before the meeting, invite everyone on the team to submit their top objective for the team to achieve in the next quarter. For large teams, you might do this via a survey. Appoint someone to collect, analyse, and surface the most popular ideas to bring to the workshop.

Set aside about 4 hours to run the session. If you really focus, you can do it in two hours and give people a couple of hours back, but it’s important not to feel rushed, especially the first few times a team does this. Find a quiet room with plenty of wall space.

Running the OKR session

It can be helpful to check in and create a bit of space at the start of the session. I usually do this by asking everyone to take a few deep breaths on their own. This can really help to centre the group.

Pick the objective(s)

To begin, put each objective on a sticky note on the wall. Do some affinity mapping: put similar objectives adjacent to each other and duplicates on top of each other. Debate, dot-vote, and debate some more until you determine your top objective (or two or three if you must 😬).

Pick some metrics

Now that you have a single, inspiring, important, scary objective (or maybe two), it’s time to figure out what metrics will show that you’re getting closer to achieving this thing. Spend 5-10 minutes free listing as many metrics as you can think of but using place holders for specific targets.

For example, if your objective is to “Become the world’s foremost expert on classic synthesizers”. You might have a metric around “Number of synth models played this quarter” or, to start forming it as a Key Result: “Play X different synth models”.

A good test of your metric is to pretend that you’re mid-way through the next quarter. Does looking at this metric help you decide what do do this week? Or does it feel silly, irrelevant, or even annoying in the context of your “real” goals? If you don’t think it would feel important and empowering to talk about this every week, pick something else.

Once you’ve written these down, do some affinity mapping and dot-voting, then discuss as before to narrow your metrics down to 2-3 per objective.

Add targets to make metrics into Key Results

Once you’ve agreed the right metrics for your objectives, it’s time to set some specific targets. This is what sets a metric or KPI apart from a Key Result. It’s also the place where you can really dial up or down the level of challenge to achieve the right level of “motivational discomfort”! 😉

Remember that Key Results should be a little scary. If the team has a metric to track “Unique synth models played this quarter” then the Key result might look like “Play X different synth models this quarter”. Setting X to 3 might not be very challenging. I could probably nail that with one trip to the music shop. Setting it to 100, however, might be unrealistic and demotivating. The challenge is to find a number that feels scary but which kickstarts our creative thinking for how we can meet the target. Maybe it’s 10 or 20 or 50… Discuss each metric with the team until you’ve identified the right targets to make each one feel like an exciting and useful challenge. Remember that on day one, you should feel like you have about 50% confidence in achieving each Key Result.

Disagree and commit

One more thing… it’s okay to disagree! It’s okay to have a different viewpoint and enough backbone to express it. It is NOT okay to let that viewpoint prevent you (or the team) from committing to a clear course of action. Use the OKR workshop to explain your position as precisely, fully, and openly as you can. At the same time, commit to really hearing the viewpoints of others. Then get out of the way, make the best decision you can, and commit to it.

In his 2016 Letter to Shareholders, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos talks about “High Velocity Decision Making” and the importance of not killing momentum with consensus. He invites us to practice saying “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?”

Test it out

Look at that crisp, beautifully crafted OKR. Exciting, isn’t it? Before you run off and start delivering, quickly ask:

  1. Is the Objective big and aspirational?
  2. Do the Key Results make sense?
  3. Are they clear and unambiguous?
  4. Are they easy to measure?
  5. Are they actually results and not just “tasks to do”?
  6. Are they tough and inspiring?
  7. Are you happy to measure your team’s success this quarter based on reaching 70-90% of this goal (and nothing else)?

Share, align, and clarify

If you’ve answered “yes” to most of the above, they’re ready to show to other teams and stakeholders for feedback. This is your chance to gather valuable feedback, give feedback to others and generally align your goals across the entire organisation. You might discover that you need to tweak some of the language or the targets themselves. You may have missed something major or included something which another part of your organisation didn’t expect or is already doing. Spend a couple of weeks debating further within your team, across teams, and with other stakeholders to achieve precise alignment and crystal clear language. Remember to disagree and commit at scale if necessary. Warning: this is easier said than done!

Summary

A good OKR is almost like a hard, smooth stone you could sharpen steel against. It expresses a clear hypothesis and uses precise language to powerfully steer your daily activities. Keep the OKR setting session small and focused. Start big and then add enough detail so it’s completely clear what you want and how you’ll get there. Debate with the team, debate with other teams and stakeholders. Tweak and adjust until they’re just right. Then stop debating, commit, and deliver!

I hope this post helps you in your own OKR setting workshops. Drop me a line and let me know what worked well and what you’ve been able to improve!

Thanks for reading! I'm always looking to raise my game and meet like-minded people so if you have questions, ideas, or suggestions, please contact me.