What’s an OKR? A Guide to Objectives and Key Results.

OKRs are the stepping stones that help you reach your long-shot goals. Here’s how to set them.

Written by Sunny Betz
Published on Sep. 08, 2021
What’s an OKR? A Guide to Objectives and Key Results.

Caitlin Collins takes her goals very seriously. As the principal implementation consultant at the Redwood City, California-based enterprise software company Betterworks, communicating company goals and delegating tasks to her team are her top priorities. Betterworks’ mission is to help companies unify and optimize their teams, so Collins thought it would be great to launch an ROI program that could give companies insight into their performance.  

But while her endgame was clear, the pathway there wasn’t. Instead of trying to come up with a plan by herself, she decided to hear what solutions her team had to offer.

What Are OKRs?

OKR is an acronym that stands for “objectives and key results.” OKRs are a tool to help companies plan how they’ll meet their goals. Objectives are detailed achievements or aspirations, and key results are the specific tasks employees must complete to reach their objectives.

“By not planning all the key results or each step of the approach, my team was able to have a robust dialogue and really take ownership about how they wanted to contribute, other people who should be included and creative ideas that I may not have thought of,” she said. “It would be a terrible injustice if I thought I had all the answers and not trust or coach my team.” This plan of attack, Collins said, did more than just help her team get their work done — it kept them excited.

Collins’ ROI project is an example of how a solid OKR can help goals become realities: the desired end result was clearly defined, and she worked with her team to set the tone for how they could reach it. OKRs are more than just goals — they’re tools with which you can track your success and growth in real time, and they keep your day-to-day work projects aligned with your company’s larger mission. 

How to Set Strong OKRs

  • Be specific about what you want to accomplish
  • Set deadlines
  • Come up with metrics to measure your progress
  • Communicate key details or changes to your team
  • Be flexible

As a leader, your role isn’t just to pass OKRs on to your team, but to help your team understand their value, and see themselves as crucial players in your company’s overarching wins. Even if core OKRs come from the top down, it’s still worthwhile to talk them through with your employees, and leave space for their input — they may have ideas that can help you reach them even faster. Either way, keep in mind that OKRs are more than just a way to reach a company checkpoint. They also help your team become stronger.

“Clearly define the objective, but don’t fall short of explaining the reasoning behind your focus,” said Allan Wintersieck, co-founder and CTO of Denver-based software company Devetry. “If the team knows the ‘why’, then they are empowered to pull further in your direction.”

Whether your company is trying to land on the Moon or on the Fortune 500, here are some tips on setting OKRs that get you closer.

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What Are OKRs?

Maybe you want to disrupt an industry, provide a never-before-seen product or become an undisputed leader in your market. Big ambitions are what make the tech industry so exciting, but without a plan, none of them can come true. This is where OKRs come in; they provide the necessary structure to make those dreams more achievable. 

Invented by Intel CEO Andy Grove, OKRs (an acronym that stands for “objectives and key results”) are a tool for organizing workplace goals. An objective is a specific goal, and the key results are the tasks your team must complete to reach that objective. More than just a goal, an OKR is an attainable step-by-step plan to help you achieve an outcome. 

Let’s say your company makes bath bombs. Your big dream is to become a household name across the country, but so far, you’ve only been able to get your product sold at a few local boutiques. To get closer to your dream, your objective could be to build a successful e-commerce site and market your products to customers nationwide. To reach that objective, you’ll need to create a shopping cart tool, use SEO keyword research to help your site traffic, and build a social media presence where you can launch a digital marketing campaign — all examples of achievable key results.

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 Be Specific

“One of the key things to remember is that each team member’s OKRs should roll up to the company’s overall objectives and pursuits,” said Wintersieck. “That way everyone on your team is pulling in the same direction and as a result, your company can create larger, more impactful initiatives.”

“Don’t set too many key results. Two or three should be more than enough to fulfill your objective.”

When setting key results, be specific and succinct. You should be able to explain what you want your team to accomplish in two sentences or less, so there’s little room for misinterpretation. If your overall objective is to improve your company’s web presence, cut the current number of bug reports in half this quarter, increase overall site traffic by 30 percent YOY and build a functional shopping cart tool by the end of Q3 are all examples of strong key results you could set.

“Don’t set too many key results. Two or three should be more than enough to fulfill your objective,” said Helen Virt, head of business development at Las Vegas-based LGBTQ+ dating app Taimi. “Multitasking wears your brain off and doesn’t let you focus, so having too many key results means some of them will probably get left behind.”

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Set Deadlines

There are several factors that distinguish OKRs from other workplace goals. One of these is the deadline. An OKR is designed to be completed, and identifying a timeline requires teams to make a commitment and hold themselves accountable. Depending on the weight of your goals, determine a realistic time frame within which your team can meet them. Loftier goals will naturally take more time, so set short-term OKRs as well to help your team see tangible evidence of their progress.

“I find setting OKRs quarterly gives a reasonable time frame,” said Wintersieck. “Any shorter, and your team will spend more time figuring out what their goals should be rather than pursuing them. Any longer and your team will likely set their OKRs aside in pursuit of more pressing issues.” 

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Come Up With Metrics

Think about the vision you want your team to carry out. Are you trying to make your company’s website more popular? Increase customer engagement and satisfaction, or successfully launch a new app? Whether it’s website visits or revenue growth, every goal you set can be measured through some kind of metric. Identifying those metrics is the key to meeting your OKRs and tracking your success.

 “Your key results should be measurable and specific to enable you or your team to regularly provide progress updates.”

“Once the correct objective and key results are identified, it becomes clear and easy to track progress,” said Collins. “Your key results should be measurable and specific to enable you or your team to regularly provide progress updates.”

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Over Communicate

Once you’ve told your employees about what OKRs you want to achieve, don’t let the discussion end there. You can’t meet your goals without your team’s help, so they deserve to know as much about ongoing changes, new opportunities and new wins as managers do. Make OKRs a continuing conversation topic, so that your employees feel comfortable providing feedback and coming up with new solutions.

“OKRs have to be incorporated into your team’s everyday work process,” said Wintersieck. “They need to be visible so each individual has to think every day about what they can do to push those OKRs forward.”

“OKRs have to be incorporated into your team’s everyday work process.”

If you keep members of your team in the loop about their progress, you’ll help them feel a sense of ownership over their OKRs. It also makes it easier for you to discuss direction changes, because you won’t be taking them by surprise, and can get their input to steer a new course.

“These changes are often very reasonable and don’t need additional explanation,” said Virt. “However, if you know that one employee was particularly enthusiastic about a certain goal that was changed, it’s worth discussing it one on one to make sure that person stays enthusiastic and motivated.” 

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Be Flexible

Even on established timelines with the end goal set in stone, it’s possible for your team to miss an OKR. Many factors are at play when your company works toward its goals — there are market fluctuations to take into account, and budgetary changes to adapt to. As evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, even current events can majorly impact your bottom line. Once the lockdowns started, businesses shuttered their physical offices, restaurants halted indoor dining and many employees had to adjust to working from home. Some startups had to shift gears quickly so they could focus on building new products for an increasingly remote world. While achieving your OKRs should be your main priority, having a backup plan never hurts.

“OKRs don’t exist in a vacuum,” said Collins. “To be successful, we have to be able to negotiate and strategically prioritize our focus.”

 “You have to expect that if your team didn’t achieve their OKRs there is a good reason for it.”

Even the best laid plans can be foiled. Instead of fighting the changes, let them inform new strategies, and don’t come down too hard on your team for missing the mark. Instead, ask your team questions and find out what may have contributed to the shortcomings: was the OKR less realistic than you thought? Could you have been more clear about expectations? Did your team feel overworked and distracted by stress? Being an effective leader means not only celebrating your team’s wins, but also being honest about the losses, taking accountability as a leader and accepting that certain things are out of your control.

“Performance issues and not reaching goals are not the same thing. You have to expect that if your team didn’t achieve their OKRs there is a good reason for it,” Wintersieck said. “You’ve got to trust your team.” 

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