A guide to OKR check-ins

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Updated: 17 May 2023

OKR check-in explainer video

I’ve recorded a short video below explaining the concepts in this blog post. Thanks for sharing this page and please let me know what you think!

While setting your Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) can feel like a daunting task on its own, the real value of OKRs comes through doing regular check-ins.

Besides helping us focus our energy where it matters most, these conversations teach us two really important things: how valuable these OKRs are to our team and how each of us interprets events in the team context.

Good OKR check-ins improve our OKRs, improve how we invest our time, and help us understand the work, the world, and each other more deeply.

OKR check-ins provide a regular opportunity to review our goals and our impact towards reaching them. They ensure our goals are still relevant, show us how recent events have impacted our confidence, and help us discover and commit to taking the next, most critical actions to improve that confidence.

A good OKR check-in is a variation on What? So what? Now What? and 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. For each key result:
  2. Measure current confidence with a quick fist-to-five vote
  3. Hear from the high and low voters
  4. Discuss & capture key observations
  5. Optionally, re-vote to see if consensus increases
  6. Brainstorm actions to improve confidence
  7. Let people volunteer but don’t assign to own actions
  8. Record this info & share widely
  9. Do it again… and again… until it’s a habit.

Things to remember

  1. Nominate an “OKR Champion” to facilitate check-ins for the team. Rotate this role regularly.
  2. Start checking in while your OKRs are still in draft form. This is the best way to edit your OKRs.
  3. Be consistent: check in regularly even if the whole team isn’t present every time.

Expect your first check-in to take about an hour and feel quite awkward; expect disagreement, confusion, and a desire to stop using OKRs ;-). They’ll get easier with practice. Aim to make weekly check-in sessions around 15 minutes.

As with any new habit, adopting regular OKR check-ins requires gentle, constant encouragement, and strong team commitment. With practice, check-ins will become informative, fast, and energising.

Check-ins are the most important part of OKRs

Check-ins are where the real learning happens for teams. They’re where teams reflect on the value of their OKRs, how things have changed, why they’ve become more or less confident that they’ll reach their goals and what commitments – or experiments – they should adopt next. To do this, I use an adapted version of What? So what? Now what?

Good OKR check-ins are lightweight, informative, and actionable. They do the following:

  • Unify the team
  • Visibly link actions to outcomes
  • Build shared understanding
  • Strengthen ownership and accountability
  • Uncover opportunities & issues
  • Identify potential solutions
  • Determine changes to behaviour and next actions
  • Celebrate incremental wins
  • Create powerful momentum and learning loops

Good check-ins create 3 key outputs:

  1. Confidence score: How confident do we feel about reaching this goal?
  2. Evidence: What observations make us feel this way?
  3. Action: What will we do next to improve our confidence?

Enthusiasm for checking in

Our enthusiasm for checking in provides additional valuable insights into the usefulness of our OKRs and how the OKR process has been introduced to the teams.

If we look forward to checking in on our OKRs, that’s a clear sign that our OKRs represent a truly compelling vision of the future that the team is excited to invest its skill, time, and energy in achieving and an agreed, clear way to measure how well we’re reaching that vision. It’s also an indicator that the check-in process, itself, provides useful feedback that the team uses to make vital decisions about what to do next. If we dread looking at our OKRs, that’s a sign that the OKRs themselves need tweaking, the check-in process is too heavy, or that we don’t see the OKR framework as relevant to our success. It may be that we’re simply not empowered enough as a team to use OKRs effectively.

If we don’t have consistent urgency and excitement around checking in, then our OKRs and the entire OKR process are largely useless.

Getting Started

To begin, nominate an initial “OKR champion” for each team to bring people together, facilitate discussion, capture and share outputs, and to generally ensure that OKRs work hard for the team and not the other way around! 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. Consider inviting the current OKR champion to nominate the next one after each check-in.

I recommend a weekly cadence for quarterly OKRs but experiment and see what fits. Weekly check-ins can happen any time during the week. Many teams do it on a Monday and use it to kick off the week’s work, some do it at the end to wrap up the week, and others put it right in the middle. Respect the flow of energy, information, and other commitments within your team.

Find a check-in cadence that matches your rate of team decision-making.

If you’re unsure whether you need a weekly, twice-weekly, fortnightly, or some other cadence, try to find a check-in cadence that matches your rate of team decision-making. In other words, how often does your team need to make team-wide decisions about how to respond to new information? In some teams this is several times per week for other teams, it can take months to get feedback. This will also impact the cadence you use for setting the OKRs, themselves.

In Radical Focus, Christina Wodtke proposes two weekly ceremonies: A sobering Monday morning check-in and a Friday afternoon celebration. This can be a lot of fun and really motivating but most teams I work with struggle to make time for two ceremonies, at the beginning of their OKR practice.

Remember the goal

Effective OKRs will be literally too good to ignore. They’ll have had enough discussion to be well-etched into our consciousness with no confusion or disagreement. This is why they should be short, obvious, and few in number. Nevertheless, at the start of the check-in for each key result, make sure the team has the key result handy and in front of them. Consider asking someone to read it aloud before the next step.

Measure confidence (not progress)

A quick note for organisational development nerds: a typical What? So What? Now what? debrief starts with observations, moves into meanings, and then actions – just the way Chris Argyris would’ve wanted it 😉 In the case of OKR check-ins, however, I’ve discovered that starting with emotional connection rather than just a “report” on recent events is a much more fun and energising way to begin the conversation. It helps us tap into our emotional selves and find a spark of passion about this particular key result. If folks struggle to have a strong opinion or feel anything about the key result, that’s also useful data. Notice that as an important early indicator that this key result doesn’t resonate with them. In exceptional cases it may be okay for a key result or entire OKR to be owned by a single individual or small sub-group within a team but we generally want key results that resonate with the entire team for which everyone feels a strong sense of ownership, responsibility, and excitement.

Remember that OKRs describe the change you want to see, not the activities you’ll do to enable that change. OKRs are not tactics or even a roadmap or a plan, although those things are also critically important for delivery. As such, I believe it’s more informative to report on confidence rather than progress. Reporting on key result progress should be boringly easy. If it’s difficult then your key results probably aren’t sufficiently measurable. By discussing confidence, we invite team members to go deeper into the why (and the what next?) that enables the progress. This is the basis of creating a learning organisation within your team.

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.

For each key result in each objective, ask “On a scale of zero to five, how confident are you that we’ll deliver this key result as it’s written?” Remember, language matters. Metrics matter. Targets matter. On the count of three, each team member holds up fingers to represent their level of confidence (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.

I’ve seen teams use partial fingers for decimals, holding up signs, and even get into brief discussions on proper finger-counting technique. 😁 I encourage anything that makes the voting fast, easy, and fun!

Cultivate diversity of opinion

Don’t rush to consensus. After each person casts their simultaneous vote, look around the room – or video call – and take a moment to appreciate the diversity of your feelings. The reason for this “rock-paper-scissors” voting style is to ensure everyone doesn’t just look at the team lead and agree with them. We want to diverse viewpoints and opinions.

Some weeks will produce strong consensus, others will create wild deviation. I love when I see fists and ones along with fours and fives in the same check-in. I smile and encourage the team to celebrate and enjoy this moment. It is an invitation for the team to have a truly valuable conversation with each other and become truly skilled and powerful at delivery while growing closer together as a team. Take the time.

Share observations

Now that we’ve shared our feelings around confidence and noticed the different scores, it’s time to understand why we each feel this way. What have we observed that creates these feelings? If there’s some variation in confidence scores, start with the person who had a higher confidence score and ask “What have you observed since our last check in that gives you this level of confidence?” Perhaps we’ve squashed some bugs, received great customer feedback, welcomed a new team member, etc. It could be anything. Just help the team to find concrete observations. Take brief notes – just a few bullets.

Now ask the person with a lower confidence score what they observed. Record some bullets. Seek clarification where needed but make no attempt to change the person’s mind. Just listen. Try marking positive observations with a “+” and negative ones with a “-” for easier scanning. Does anyone else have observations to add? Make sure people feel safe to share even the smallest most random things that they’ve noticed. Those can be the most interesting!

Applying meaning

After capturing these observations, have a brief team conversation about what those observations mean. Notice how different people interpret the same events in wildly different ways.

Based on their experiences and perspectives one person might get a real boost of confidence and another person might be much more conservative. Use this conversation to really understand each other and how each of you thinks, what’s important, what’s scary or exciting? Afterwards, 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 for a week, write it down, and move on to the next step. By the way, the more often you talk this way, the more in-sync you’ll become with each other and the more quickly you’ll uncover these differences in how you read the world and the more quickly you’ll get on the same page to decide what’s next. It’s kind of magic! ✨ 😄

If we’ve picked challenging key results (and of course we have! 😄) then, at some point, our confidence will dip into scary territory. Don’t panic. This is a natural part of growing and taking on hard things. Besides, low confidence is a great teacher of what we need to change and do next.

Commit to next actions

Now that we understand how we feel and why, it’s time to decide what we’ll do with this information. Whatever the result of our confidence vote, and observations we cited, it’s critical to brainstorm and commit to actions that we believe will improve our confidence before our next check-in.

Remember, the team is in the best position to decide what to do next. No one else — not some external stake-holder, not a friend or advisor — the team. Keep this in mind to get the most from OKRs.

Before moving on from this key result, quickly brainstorm options among the team. Write them down and find a directly responsible individual (or DRI) by letting people volunteer rather than assigning things to them.

Remember to consider these actions in the context of all the other commitments the team is making, including actions related to other objectives and other key results. This is another reason I recommend having a single objective with just a few key results in any given time period.

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

Closing the loop

The best part about agreeing and doing these actions comes the following week when the team gets to see how much their confidence has improved based on completing these actions. Remember to point out the previous week’s confidence and agreed actions, gently follow-up and figure out if they were done or why not and then use the check-in to figure out if they had the impact we had hoped. They may not, and that’s useful feedback, too!

Once a team sees how checking-in leads to constructive actions and how performing those constructive actions improves confidence, you’ll create a virtuous cycle leading to greater learning, greater improvement, and ultimately – greater delivery.

Tips & traps

The struggle is real. Share it!

Check-in for each key result and each objective. Capture confidence, narrative, and next actions in a spreadsheet or tool. Remember to 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!

Just as you shared your observations with other team members. Sharing the collective team observations and meanings will help your stakeholders understand how the team makes decisions and what challenges it’s up against.

Celebrate all the learning

Be sure to celebrate with teams who have taken on tough goals and are struggling. Be compassionate and offer genuine help. Let their struggle inspire others to do the same and to find creative, empowering solutions. Read more about my experience of how sharing OKR confidence led to amazing organisational growth, trust, and psychological safety.

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 entirely, or continue and see what lessons we can learn?

Do this as a team and ensure the experience is valuable. It’s okay to tweak your OKRs during the quarter.

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. 😱

If you’re not truly in a team with mutual accountability for shared outcomes and shared measures of success 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? 😉 Remember, if the check-ins don’t feel useful, it might be your OKRs.

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 in under 15 minutes is incredibly hard.

Giving up is easier. I’ve seen teams conclude that their OKRs aren’t useful, that OKRs in general are too heavy and irrelevant. They stop checking in, they miss their OKRs, they stop setting new ones and they move onto another acronym or framework that promises to make everything easy.

If you’ve made it this far, I have a confession. OKRs aren’t actually magic. They don’t make everything smell like roses. What they are is a a highly structured path to putting every interaction and every event under the microscope of the team and helping that team to decode the universe and figure out how to have the greatest possible impact.

And yes, I’ve seen other teams who didn’t give up. Teams who set the best OKRs they could, checked in when it felt awkward, distracting, and dumb, figured out how to improve their OKRs and improve the OKR process to work hard for them. Teams who shared their results, learned from their mistakes, and learned from each other until they got to a point where check-ins were a vital tool for staying in synch, identifying issues, brainstorming and taking ownership of solutions, and ultimately enabling them to deliver outcomes that, previously, seemed impossible.

Go be that team.

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Originally published: March 2019 and updated in May 2023 and again in February 2024. A previous version of this article recommended the traditional steps of "What? So What? Now What?" but, since early 2020, I start with the confidence vote, then narrative, then actions.
Tags:  OKRs   checkins