A guide to OKR check-ins

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31 March 2019

DRAFT - This post is still being refined. You can make comments here or contact me. Thanks for your suggestions!

While setting your Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) can feel like a daunting task on its own, the real value of OKRs comes through regular check-ins. This is where you get to see how your daily work impacts your Key Results or, more accurately, how it impacts your confidence in delivering those key results.

The OKR check-in provides an opportunity to synch up, identify issues, define next actions, and see how those actions are affecting your confidence.

A good OKR check-in is a microcosm of the whole OKR process.

A quick overview (for the impatient)

Want some basic steps to get you started? Look no further…

  1. Nominate an “OKR Champion” to facilitate the check-ins. Rotate this role.
  2. Start checking in at the start of the quarter, while your OKRs are still in draft form.
  3. Check in with the team every week (even if the whole team isn’t present)
  4. Every week, for each key result:
    1. Review last week’s confidence, narrative, and actions
    2. Measure current confidence with a quick fist-to-five vote
    3. Hear from the high and low voters
    4. Re-vote for greater consensus (optional)
    5. Brainstorm actions to improve confidence
  5. Record this info and share it widely
  6. Do it again… and again… until it’s a habit

Expect your first check-in to take about an hour and feel pretty awkward; the second should take around 30 minutes and feel more useful. Aim to get check-ins down to around 15 minutes.

Check-ins are the most important part of OKRs

Good OKR check-ins (like OKRs themselves) are light-weight, informative, and actionable. Much like daily stand-ups, they:

  • identify issues
  • propose solutions and next actions
  • unify the team
  • connect actions to outcomes
  • strengthen ownership and accountability
  • celebrate incremental wins
  • create powerful momentum

Setting up for success

As with any new habit, adopting regular OKR check-ins requires gentle, constant pressure, and strong team commitment. With practice, check-ins will become quick, relatively painless, and valuable.

Nominate an OKR champion for each team who, a bit like the Speaker of the House of Commons, facilitates the discussion, captures outputs, and ensures OKRs work hard for the team. Usually a project/delivery manager will start in this role and then hand over to different people throughout the quarter, giving others valuable experience and sharing the load. Try letting the current OKR Champion nominate the next one each week.

The weekly check-in can happen any time. Some teams like using it to kick off the week, or wrap it up, or put it in the middle. See what feels right to your team.

Like any new habit, OKR check-ins will feel cumbersome at first. Persist and they’ll get easier and more valuable.

Measure confidence (not progress)

Remember, OKRs are not tactics. They’re not a roadmap or a plan. They don’t describe the activities you want to do but rather the change you want to see because of whatever you do.

As such, I believe it’s more informative to report on confidence rather than progress. Reporting progress on key results should be boringly easy. If it isn’t, then your key result probably isn’t sufficiently measurable. Discussing confidence, however, invites team members to get into the why (and the what next?) behind their progress.

Use a “fist-to-five” vote

I first discovered the “fist-to-five” via the handy Spotify retro kit. It’s a terrific, easy, way to get instant feedback from a group on almost any topic.

Start by reading aloud the objectives. Then for each Key Result, ask “On a scale of zero to five, how confident are you that we’ll deliver this key result?” On the count of three, each team member holds up some fingers with a fist showing zero confidence and an open hand showing 100% confidence. This is a gut reaction, not a precise scientific measurement. Don’t think too hard.

Once you’ve voted, ask the person with the highest confidence to explain their rationale. Then ask the same from the least confident person. A short discussion may follow. Based on this, you could vote again to see if consensus improves. Once you have a rough consensus (or even if you don’t), pick a number that the group can live with. Write it down and move on to the next step.

Pick some next actions

If we’ve picked difficult key results (of course we have! 😄) then, at some point, our confidence will dip. This is a natural part of growing and taking on hard things. Low confidence is a great teacher of what we need to do next.

Whatever the result of our confidence vote, it’s critical to ask the team what we can do to improve that confidence in the next check-in. The team is in the best position to decide what to do next. No one else — not some external stake-holder or advisor — but the team. Keep this in mind to get the most from OKRs.

Quickly brainstorm options and pick one or two which can be owned by a team member. Write them down and do them this week.

Check-ins close the loop between ideas, actions, confidence, and outcomes.

The best part about picking these actions comes the following week (when they’ve been done). This is when the team gets to vote again and see how much confidence has improved. Once they see how checking-in leads to constructive actions and how performing those actions improves confidence, teams will look forward to repeating the cycle as often as possible.

You can improve confidence through careful action. This is the whole crux of OKRs and effective goal-setting, in general.

The struggle is real. Share it!

Do this for each key result and each objective. Capture confidence, narrative, and next actions in a spreadsheet or tool. Share the results with everyone you can: other teams, senior stakeholders, anyone who would otherwise read a weekly status report. This shows everyone:

  • what’s working
  • where we’re still struggling and need help
  • what we want to do next
  • How likely we are to deliver our Key Results
  • And that we’re all doing hard stuff and we’re all in it together!

Celebrate the teams who have taken on tough goals and are struggling. Let their struggle inspire others to do the same and to find creative, empowering solutions.

Common check-in problems

We don’t like our OKRs, anymore!

Sometimes your OKRs look great on paper at the end of an OKR-setting session but once you actually start checking-in, you discover some OKRs that don’t make sense or are impossible to measure, or don’t actually tell you anything. This is just fine, and it’s why I recommend teams start checking in as soon as possible while the OKRs are still being tweaked.

Within the first few weeks of the quarter, feel free to change and adjust those OKRs. If you’re half-way through, think carefully about why these issues are only now coming to light. Is it a problem with the OKRs or some dependency that we didn’t see before? Is it more valuable, at this point, to change the OKRs in question, drop them, or continue and see what lessons we can learn?

Do this as a team and ensure the experience is valuable.

We can’t get consensus!

If the team frequently struggles to get consensus around confidence and next actions or the discussion simply requires too much time, it’s possible you have too many OKRs, they’re not measurable enough, or you’re not actually in a cross-functional team. You may be in a work group. 😱

OKRs are great at exposing this kind of dysfunction/opportunity. It can be scary because it often requires changing the team’s structure and how it looks at work. This likely also means rewriting the team’s OKRs but it’s extremely valuable and can enable even stronger outcomes and better working arrangements. Don’t ignore these signals!

We already have too many meetings!

While a weekly check-in sounds like yet another meeting (YAM), many teams have reported that starting their weekly progress meetings with an OKR check-in makes them much more productive. Some have even replaced their other weekly status meetings, emails, and reports with a 15 minute OKR check-in. Remember, your OKR check-ins reflect your confidence in delivering your most important goals for the quarter. What else is there to talk about? 😉

Keep going!

This stuff is hard.

Setting goals is hard, making them measurable, measuring confidence, brainstorming ideas to solve complex problems and performing those actions in less than a week before doing it all over again is hard.

Giving up is easier. Giving up usually leads teams to conclude that OKRs don’t offer real value. I’ve seen teams jump to this conclusion and stop checking-in, and I’ve seen other teams set ambitious OKRs, check in when it felt awkward, distracting, and dumb, and continue checking in and sharing results, until they got to a point where the check-ins were a vital tool for staying in synch, identifying issues, brainstorming and taking ownership of solutions, and enabling them to deliver outcomes that, previously, seemed impossible.

How are you checking in on your OKRs? I’d love to hear from you.

Tags:  OKRs 

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