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.
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 dialogue 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 a cycle when you’re evaluating what you’ve delivered.
Ideally the OKR setting session should be small (up to 10 people). Minimise distractions. This is a time to really engage with your colleagues and understand what they think is important and why. Practice reading their body language and intonation as they discuss the team’s goals. Greater focus in the session 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.
A day or two before the meeting, invite everyone on the team to submit their top objective for the team to achieve in the next quarter. Larger teams 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.
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.
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 if you must 😬). Remember that the objective should be powerful and inspiring but not necessarily measurable. Avoid soft language like “help”, “improve”, “support”, or “continue”. Refine this language until it feels inspiring and gets the team leaping out of bed in the morning. The objectives are your rocket fuel.
Now that you have a single, inspiring, important, scary objective (possibly two), it’s time to figure out what metrics will prove that you’re getting closer to achieving it. Spend 5-10 minutes free listing as many metrics as you can think of but using place holders (e.g X%) for specific targets.
If objectives are your rocket fuel, key results are your guidance system helping you make good choices about daily activities.
For example, if your objective is to “Have a terrific staff onboarding process”, you might have a metric around “% of staff who can log into a laptop on their first day” or, “time required to complete new-joiner training”.
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 to do this week? Or does it feel silly, irrelevant, or even annoying in the context of your “real” goals? If it won’t feel essential and empowering to talk about this every week, pick something else.
Once you’ve written these down, do some consensus building (maybe using affinity mapping and dot-voting) and discuss as before to narrow your metrics down to 2-3. In some cases, you might have a single metric which proves you’ve hit your objective.
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”! 😉
The best key results have two numbers: a baseline or current value for the metric, and a target to hit by the end of the OKR period – usually a quarter.
Remember that key results should be a little scary. If the team has a metric to track “% of new starters with a working machine on their first day” then the target might be 100%, 80%, or something else. If the current baseline is 20%, getting to 50% might be plenty tough and 100% is just demotivating and impossible. Find a number that feels scary but which kickstarts our creative thinking for how we can meet the target. On day one, you should feel like you have about 50% confidence in achieving each Key Result.
Sometimes you have a great OKR in the making but no idea how to measure it. You might not be ready for this great OKR in this quarter. You may need a prerequisite initiative to make sure you can measure this thing and then tackle it in the next quarter. If you like, you can try creating an OKR around ensuring you can measure the KPI you want to use in your “real” OKR. For example, if you don’t know what percentage of new staff have a working laptop on day one, you could create an OKR to get 100% of new starters to fill out an onboarding survey about their experience including a question on whether they were able to log into their machine on day one.
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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 – worse – an entire 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?”
Look at that crisp, beautifully crafted OKR. Exciting, isn’t it? Before you run off and start delivering, quickly ask the following:
If you’ve answered “yes” to most of the above, then they’re ready to share our OKRs with 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!
Finally, the very best way to strengthen your OKRs is to start using them to perform your weekly check-ins. Doing a real check-in will immediately tell you if an OKR is too fluffy, impossible to measure, not relevant, too ambitious, etc. When this happens, you should change your OKRs.
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!