The Ultimate Guide to Launch OKR in 1 Day

April 18, 2023 • Dr. Paul Weber

Most companies fail to introduce OKR to their team because they prepare too much and lose momentum by considering too many details. Avoid long theoretical discussions and use this ultimate guide to launch your OKR in just 1 day.

The 4 common difficulties to start with OKR and how to overcome them

OKR is a beast. Feeling one's own struggle with the current way of goal setting and alignment, longing for the focus that OKR bring, seeing how it works, and yet being stuck. Wanting but don’t do is a painful and frustrating experience.

Here is what keeps us from taking action:

  • Insufficient clarity on what exactly needs to change
  • Difficulties to explain the benefits of OKR to the team
  • Team members with fixed mindsets and a we-know-it-all attitude
  • Lacking a simple step-by-step plan

Starting with OKR requires more than being unhappy with the current situation and some superficial OKR knowledge. The seemingly simple properties of the method create the illusion of an easy start, but a bunch of remaining questions in combination with the pressing needs of the day-to-day work make us drag and postpone.

Insufficient clarity on what exactly needs to change

Painting a desirable picture of a self-organized team that pursues actionable goals, makes measurable progress every day, and repeatedly crushes its goals is a pleasant thing. Everyone coming from an average company with missing priorities and a lack of guidance wants to get there. Adding OKR success stories to this picture creates a strong desire and even confidence that the change is within reach. But before one can take action, something critical is missing.

Lofty ideas and blurry expectations are not actionable.

As long as the differences between the current situation and the desired state aren’t precise, it's close to impossible to do anything. Especially if you are planning-oriented and typically more thoughtful in what you do. Wanting to change without knowing what to change leads to procrastination. Our brains won’t activate resources until we know exactly what to do.

How to overcome this

Clarify the need for change by example. Look back at what you experienced and are unhappy with, and point out what's going wrong. This makes it specific, relatable, and anchors OKR to real issues.

Difficulties to explain the benefits of OKR to the team

If you want to engage your team and make them want to use OKR, you cannot just repeat the benefits you read on some website. Buzzwords and generic manager talk don't have any effect. Our ears are deaf to hear that work should be focused, teams should be aligned, and so on. It's general knowledge that our brains quickly classify as unimportant, and the attention of your team goes anywhere.

If you explain in lecture style how OKR are working and how to use them, you'll look into disengaged faces. People scroll on social media. Nothing will be gained. Nothing will be changed.

How to overcome this

If you anchored the need for change to real situations as described before, you are perfectly prepared to explain OKR in a convincing and engaging way. Simply don't just list the OKR features, but link them to your situations and show exactly how OKR would have made the situations better or prevented them entirely. Introduce OKR as the solution. Your people will connect the dots and be eager to start implementing.

Team members with fixed mindsets and a we-know-it-all attitude

Doubt and criticism are deep within us. We learned by experience that things aren’t easy. We look for inconsistencies in why a new idea can't be working. We are quick to take an apparently rational look at it, being convinced to know better. And we find arguments for why the proposed approach doesn't fit. (Most often we argue that we’re already kind of doing it.)

This is the essence of a fixed mindset and a real danger for all change. While this kind of thinking served humanity well during the last centuries, when things weren’t changing fast, it's a recipe for disaster in our fast-paced digital age.

We thrive by continuous improvement. We need iterations to see how things turn out and improve on the nuances. We have to embrace new ways of exploration, looking at things holistically and gaining a better understanding of connections.

But if you have critical and overly self-convinced people on your team, the rigid and locked-in thinking is a threat to your OKR introduction.

How to (start to) overcome this

Use the initially discussed situations which explain the need for better goal and alignment management. They show clearly that things aren’t in order, and change is mandatory. Then challenge the critical and best-knowers: What led to those situations? What should be done from their point of view? And, most important: If we know the solution, why haven't we already implemented it?

Keep them busy with looking for reasons and generating ideas on what should be done, until they are willing to actually try something.

Lacking a simple step-by-step plan

The most common reason for failing to make progress is the lack of action. If nothing is done, nothing happens. As stunningly simple as it is, that's the often ignored truth.

And we don’t take action because we are trapped by the paradox of choice. There are too many options, so we opt for none. Because we are looking for perfection, don't want to make a mistake, and have a strong desire to consider the full picture first.

Same remark here as with the fixed mindset. Considering all options used to be a viable and smart approach, but it no longer is. The complexity of our workplace skyrocketed. There are just too many options. There is no chance to inspect them all and then make a once-and-for-all decision. (This is the central reason why agile and lean principles lead to progress despite the many options — and become increasingly popular.)

If we want to launch OKR but think about all the options first to make a perfect choice — that would be a prime example of irony. Because it doesn’t make sense to want to introduce an agile framework in an anti-agile way. We need to get comfortable with making a quick start and be prepared to iterate. Otherwise, we are blocked with countless things to consider, that never will be all incorporated.

As a starting point, write down a series of specific steps, that lead you forward and make you act towards starting with OKR. It's far easier to course correct than to overcome inertia. Take action, and adjustments will come naturally.

This is the number one reason the 1 Day OKR Kick-Off Canvas is so powerful. It guides you through every single necessary step and makes you act. Don't let unclarity hold you back any longer. Start. Now.

How to convince your team that OKR is a perfect fit

What we just touched upon is worth expanding, as convincing the team of OKR is a crucial step and has a major impact on the success of the entire framework. However, nothing can be as hard as explaining the benefits of a goal-setting framework to a critical team. And even for oneself, it can be difficult to fill the abstract words on focus and alignment with their down-to-the-earth meaning, and envision how massively they will impact our daily work.

Now, the best way to ground the need for OKR into your situation is to bring bad experiences back to memory and introduce OKR as the solution to them. Let your team discuss three situations in which things went wrong, and explain how OKR makes sure this is never to happen again.

Here are three examples to show you how it works. Use those as inspiration, but make sure you come up with your own memories.

  • Example A: Product management agreed with sales on a feature extension for the product, but they forgot to check back with development. Sales closed a major deal with an existing large customer, from which at that time most of the profits came. But this led to disaster. Because there were huge infrastructural issues the development had to fix first, the sold feature was seriously delayed and finally canceled. The painful result: large customer gone and substantial losses that almost ruined the company. OKR make sure that all the teams are on the same page and that everybody knows the aspirations and constraints of the company, to follow a common and agreed-upon path to success.
  • Example B: The developers of a data science app became fascinated with new analytic possibilities. From an engineering perspective, they created awesome features. However, at the end of the day, the features cost a lot of time and money, and created serious code complexity issues, but were never used by the customer. Major parts of the investments were wasted, because the team developed what they liked, and not what the customer actually needed. OKR prevent this as they measure progress from the customer's perspective and make sure you build what is actually valuable and makes people pay.
  • Example C: A product team used Scrum to organize their priorities. As they had heavily different opinions on where to drive the product, they went one sprint in one direction and the next sprint in a different one. They ended up with a feature set that didn’t fit together and made eventually no meaningful progress. Not in one direction, and also not in the other. OKR clarify and align the big picture to drive consistent actions toward an agreed outcome.

These are just some examples that tie the use of OKR to specific situations. It’s a crucial step for your team, as it makes everyone understand why OKR are introduced, how to use them, and what to expect from them.

Important to know: there is a multitude of different OKR benefits that you can highlight in your introduction and finally go for. This is why OKR implementations are different in each company, as for being successful they need to address the specific situation of the team.

Though there are multiple advantages that OKR can bring, and each one is desirable in itself, don’t try to realize them all. Discuss your examples of what is currently wrong, and then target a few issues to fix.

Here is a table full of inspiration for what OKR can deliver.

  • The Benefit is the buzzword we like to use.
  • The Description is the often team-specific explanation of what we really mean by it.
  • The Challenge is what you should have an eye on, as it can undermine your efforts.

Read the table, show it to your team, extend it if you want, and apply it to your situation.

1dayguide_tableofbenefits

The 5 key elements you need to know about OKR

Now that you discussed specific issues and examples to be fixed by OKR and agreed on a basic set of benefits you are after, it’s time to review the basics of the OKR method. Don’t make the mistake to read every book and watch countless YouTube videos before you get started, but focus on the essentials you absolutely need to know. (This will save you weeks of useless “learning”.)

Here are the most important OKR elements. They are framed as questions as you find them on the 1 Day OKR Kick-Off Canvas. Read this section on the theory and then write your answer down with the team.

What is an OKR set and what differentiates it from SMART or MbO?

Common goal-setting methods rely on a single-sentence description of the target. While this can give a clear picture of what needs to be done, it’s lacking context and fails to deal with the complexity of the modern workspace.

Example (SMART): Develop the 5 highest prioritized features from the backlog until March 31st.

This “smart” goal is a clear to-do that is ready to be executed, but it doesn’t make the team part of the enterprise, doesn’t give any background, and doesn’t build a personal connection. But this is important if you want to engage your team and want to have it committed to your goals.

Objectives and key results consist of two parts, as the name says. The higher-level goal is the objective, which provides direction, context, and a sense of purpose. The lower-level goals are the key results, which quantify the progress toward the objective from multiple perspectives.

1dayguide_okrset

One objective with 3-5 corresponding key results is called an OKR set. The major differences to other goal types are:

  • OKR give context and highlight the impact of what needs to be done
  • OKR give precise guidance as they consist of distinct parts, each with a special purpose

Because of that, OKR are perfectly suited to break down the strategy from theory to the team level, such that long-term corporate goals become executable and relevant for the day-to-day work.

What is output, what is outcome, and when does it make sense to use which?

Strategy is about business achievements, while todos focus on work packages and clear tasks. OKR bridges the gap between the two and explains how todos create strategic impact.

  • Output is the result of a to-do list. Build the features, conduct the survey, and run the campaign. It’s directly actionable and in full control of the owner. All you need to reach that goal is discipline. (A lot of it.)
  • Outcome is the change in someone’s behavior, that is targeted by the todos. An increase in customer satisfaction, repeat business, and extended usage times. It’s the reaction of somebody else to your own actions. Often you have many options to achieve the desired reaction, as it’s not directly but only indirectly under your control. This is why outcome is often the result of trial and error, and requires innovation and feedback loops.

Both types of goals have their use. Depending on what needs to be achieved, the time frame available, and the experience of the team, key results should be more output-oriented or more outcome-focused.

As a guideline, inexperienced teams and preparational tasks tend to work best with output goals, whereas experienced teams and innovative topics are well covered by outcome goals.

What is the OKR cadence and what are the primary purposes of the events?

The OKR framework consists of the defined OKR sets as well as a series of meetings. As OKR is cyclic and typically used for a quarter, the meetings are the organizational backbone to drive the execution. The OKR cycle with its events is called “cadence”.

The standard set of events is this:

1dayguide_tableofevents

The planning takes place before the cycle starts. The check-ins are weekly, review and retrospective at the end of the cycle.

Depending on the OKR implementation, one also uses dailies or additional alignment meetings to account for dependencies to other teams. How exactly this is implemented is heavily situation-dependent and without strict rules.

Why is OKR often in conflict with the day-to-day work and what to do about it?

OKR is a tool for strategy execution and therefore inherently development and progress-oriented. It is a method to focus on finding new paths to extend and refine the business. As such, OKR shouldn’t be confused with a controlling system that works with KPIs and is used to track ongoing execution.

Most teams, however, have to deal with both aspects. There is strategic development work to be done, and at the same time also customer projects, internal duties, etc.

Trying to cover everything with OKR fails, as the topics are too diverse and lead to blown-up OKR definitions and meetings.

Instead, one covers development with OKR and the day-to-day work with different approaches. A conflict between the two is unavoidable.

Wise leaders recognize this and make it for their team as easy as possible:

  • During planning, they ensure an accurate estimation of how much time the day-to-day will consume, and reduce the OKR workload accordingly
  • During execution, they balance the time spent on each aspect in the previously defined ratio
  • And they structure discussions in such a way that the questions asked and the time used reflects the choice of when to do what

Reconciling OKR and day-to-day business is an important aspect of leadership, that is easy to learn once one recognizes its importance.

What is an OKR master and why is he needed?

An OKR master, also called champion or coach, is outside the organizational hierarchy and takes a supportive and structural role. His responsibilities are three-fold:

  • From the perspective of the OKR implementation, he ensures that teams follow the agreed procedure.
  • From the perspective of the teams, he gives guidance on how to work with OKR and finds ways to maximize the effectiveness of using them.
  • From the perspective of continuous improvement, he adapts the company-wide OKR implementation according to the evolving needs of the teams.

Though the OKR master has typically no authority or influence on the technical topics, his work is crucial.

  • If he wouldn’t ensure the agreed OKR implementation, every team will use their own conventions and chaos will arise.
  • If he wouldn’t support the teams, frustrations will increase and undermine the effectiveness of OKR.
  • If he wouldn’t adapt the OKR implementation over time, the usage will become awkward, feel like overhead, and will ultimately be stopped because “it doesn’t fit anymore”.

Summed up, the OKR master is responsible for a homogeneous, embraced, and frictionless use of OKR. If you don’t have one, your chances of a working OKR implementation are significantly lowered.

6 management decisions that are essential to OKR success

After motivating your team to use OKR, agreeing on the essential benefits one wants to realize, and learning the fundamentals of the method you need to stop for a second. OKR are designed to align all teams on the same important topics and to guide the entire company through effective execution. But how exactly this is done opens up a lot of possibilities. To avoid confusion and unnecessary tension during the OKR introduction, agree on the 6 fundamental questions. Answering them up-front greatly reduces opinionated discussions and accelerates the implementation.

What will the definition process look like?

OKR are an agile framework that is organized in cycles. Every cycle one defines a number of OKR sets to work on. The theory is simple, but what should this look like for your company? Discuss your way of doing it:

  • Where do the teams get their strategic input from, and who discusses the goal & challenge pyramid with them?
  • Will the teams define the full OKR sets or just the key results?
  • How is alignment between teams organized?
  • Who will accept, adapt, and give feedback on the defined OKR?
  • What is the sequence of meetings for the definition?

The definition is the most critical phase of the cycle and even of OKR in general. Important decisions are made there and the team has the most intense exposure to OKR. Poorly designed definition processes lead to bad alignment and frustrated teams. Ensure high team commitment with a clear and simple plan. If we can easily understand it, we can easily do it.

How many OKR sets with how many key results are allowed?

The magic of focus happens only if you limit the number of topics a team will work on. If all current activities are captured by OKR, nothing is gained. (This is a fundamental truth that is captured by basically all productivity methods: Limits on Kanban columns, limits by Scrum story points, limits in the Ivy Lee method, and more.)

Agreeing on a limit of OKR sets before one starts the definition reduces the friction and emotional discussions during the meeting and gives the team a clear guideline.

The more you allow, the easier the definition. But the less you allow, the better the execution.

Typical OKR setups work with 3 OKR sets, but in the range from 1 to 5, everything is used.

If in your discussions of OKR benefits, you selected an increased focus, consider a limit of 1 or 2 OKR sets with 3 key results each.

How many milestones are allowed, and how many metrics are required?

Milestones and metrics are in sharp contrast. While milestones are about development, metrics are about execution and results.

Teams tend to define milestones, but as discussed above, they have severe disadvantages. Milestones don’t measure progress and restrict the team to specific actions. Both are harmful and let teams operate way below their capability.

However, especially in long development periods milestones have their use. So occasional usage is expected, but this shouldn’t be an excuse to not think in outcome metrics.

Decide on a milestone/metric ratio you want to target. Not as a hard rule, but to show the teams your aspiration. You can always try, learn and adapt.

Which meetings do you want to use, and who is to participate?

The four most often used meetings are the definition workshop, the weekly check-in, the review, and the retrospective. Other meetings like dailies and cross-team alignments are also possible.

Create a table and document your decisions like this:

1dayguide_tableeventplanning

*) You might have multiple meetings during the definition phase. Take the implementation decision as input and extend the list accordingly.

How long is a cycle and why not shorter or longer?

Most often teams set the OKR cycle to 3 months, as this is long enough to give guidance for short-term frameworks like Scrum, but still short enough to react to market shifts and organizational changes.

On higher hierarchy levels it can be beneficial to only define yearly OKR, as especially in larger organizations strategy doesn’t change dramatically in the course of a few months. Iterating faster than typical change times is useless and leads to organizational overhead.

Decide for each hierarchy level on the OKR cycle length and also note how you ended up with that decision. This will be useful when you review your OKR system and want to introduce adaptations.

Who is the primary OKR responsible and what are his duties?

No OKR implementation without a key person who drives the process and has the last word on the final shape. This is an absolutely crucial role that requires decent OKR knowledge, a strong mindset for continuous improvement, and sufficient time to care for the OKR system.

Put together a list of responsibilities this person is entrusted with. It could look like this:

  • Supporting all OKR activities: defining and formulating, effective check-ins, take over of learnings from review to next cycle, moderation of retrospective, …
  • Spreading OKR knowledge into the organization through training, coaching, and detailed personal feedback
  • Gather feedback on the OKR system, suggest adaptions, and drive the implementation
  • Ensuring adherence to the agreed implementation decisions in a supportive, explaining, and suggestive way
  • Scheduling and inviting to the OKR meetings

Agree on these 6 fundamental implementation decisions, document them, adhere to them, and your OKR introduction will be a success.

Having now the structural aspects prepared, you are ready to actually start using them and bring your team on the same page. But the definition of the OKR sets needs to be prepared. The team needs a space for discussing strategy and specific choices to suggest better OKR - that are in line with the strategy, motivating, and realistic.

Turning a wishlist into OKR: how to overcome business challenges through strategic choices

The most important accomplishment of a team is to agree on the path to take. There are countless ideas, options, and possibilities to choose from. And while choice is painful (as it is actively deciding to not follow up with shiny opportunities) it is the crucial fuel for progress and success.

What makes choice in business so difficult is that all too often there is no right or wrong. Good or better might exist, but thoroughly evaluating and proving options to be truly superior is almost impossible. So one is left with multiple ideas, without hard facts which is the best, only with personal opinions on what should be done.

Everyone knows that failing to make a decision and following several topics instead is a bad idea. Yet it happens every day. It’s the silently agreed contract that I let you follow your ideas, and you let me work on mine.

This is where the goal and challenge pyramid comes to the rescue. It structures the discussion, makes choices explicit, and leads to a few specific OKR candidates that are worth executing.

The goal & challenges pyramid

Strategy is the path that leads from the misery of the now to the riches of the future. It’s inherently directed to a specific target and explains how to reach it. The problem with the most activity and priority planning is that it’s done from the perspective of the now. We see all the difficulties of the day-to-day and are quick with suggestions on what should be done to improve the situation. Those suggestions, however, lack precision with respect to the target. This is why decision-making is so hard and choosing between opportunities that all look nice and tend to go in the right direction is close to impossible.

OKR take a different perspective and start with the end in mind. They deduce from the long-term goal what needs to be done now, to not only make the situation more favorable but also to make meaningful progress.

The most visual and powerful way to do so is to represent different levels of goals in a time hierarchy. When creating the goal pyramid, one starts at the top and deduces lower-level goals from higher-level goals. Following this approach, you avoid getting lost in generic optimizations (which all look nice), but focus on what you need to make real progress in the defined direction.

Example: Setting goals for a parking app

If your company runs a parking app, it’s a bad idea to ask what feature to build next. Suggestions will reach from a new design to voice control, as this would be handy if you’re driving and cannot touch your phone.

Instead, deduce the next steps from the top:

  • If your vision is to make parking stress-free
  • Your long-term goal might be an automatic parking lot finder
  • Mid-term you need to cooperate with local traffic information systems
  • Short-term is the challenge that most of such systems have no public API to get the data from

Logical priority chains like this will make your team aware of the strategic trajectory. Asking them now for suggestions on what topic to work on, suggestions will target short-term challenges that have a long-term impact. And suddenly agreement on the next consistent steps is reached.

The importance of challenges

Everyone has a wishlist. And everyone can turn his wishlist into a goal pyramid. But if the pyramid doesn’t account for the foreseeable challenges, it is almost worthless.

Challenges direct your way. If you start your journey and suddenly encounter an unexpected problem, your original path will be diverted. You have to make fast decisions with limited options, which almost always results in a poor workaround. It makes a huge difference if you know the highway is closed before you start, or only when you’re in the middle of the traffic.

This is why explicitly considering challenges from the beginning makes teams so much faster.

The goal & challenges pyramid, therefore, considers goals not independently, but always paired with risks and difficulties.

On the lowest level of the pyramid, the current situation, even lists only the challenges. Because challenges are the basis for good choices on what to focus on. They ground your planning into reality.

By challenges you turn your wishlist into an actionable strategy, such that you can define realistic OKR that lead to success.

Defining strategic objectives that drive your team to action

OKR is not a controlling or KPI system, but a framework to close the strategy execution gap. Development and innovation toward a long-term goal are part of its DNA.

OKR let everyone in the company know how he contributes to future success and business transformation. They bring everyone on the same page and your entire team pushes in the same direction.

The basis for this is a clear communication of what is planned mid- and long-term, and what the expected challenges are. Return to the goal and challenges pyramid for an in-depth explanation and a practical approach to do it.

To avoid objectives that only occupy your team with immediate battles, but have no long-term impact, simply discuss the big picture up-front, and have your team share its opinions. This ensures that everyone knows what you are after, such that the real priorities become clear again. It also engages your team and strengthens individual commitment, as the key to buy-in and strong ownership is that goals are developed together. The goal and challenges pyramid is the perfect tool to have exactly that discussion

Warning: when you work through the strategy and choices you have to make, you will enjoy a feeling of certainty and understanding. You might have even some clear expectations, in which direction the objectives should point. But don’t stop there. Two important aspects are still missing.

The art of making objectives motivating

Too many businesses make the horrible mistake of assuming the team is in for the same reasons as the leaders. This is close to a catastrophe. Most people do their daily job for one of three reasons:

  • to get some money in their bank account
  • to hone their technical skills and passion
  • to make an impact on topics important to them

Longing to build someone else's business is the absolute exception. Yet most leaders set their targets from the perspective of business growth rather than what actually drives the team. No wonder goals have often even a negative touch.

While this can be discussed in great detail, there is a very simple fix. When coming from the goal and challenges pyramid, the objective candidates one has in mind are often from the business perspective. Here is the trick: To formulate the objective in a much more motivating way, ask the following question:

If we have reached X, what will have changed for the customer?

You can also be even more attached to your team. Especially in larger organizations, where the customer is far away, this can have an eye-opening effect:

If we have reached X, what will have changed for us as a team?

Use those questions to shift the perspective from pure business to personal impact. Teams absolutely love to discuss the changes their work will produce. It’s much easier for us to connect to these goals because they give meaning and relate to us as a person.

In one sentence: make objectives motivating by formulating them in terms of changes for the customer or team.

Moonshot, roof shot, and the power of a plan

We love to think big. But we hate to fail. This is the tension that every objective has to deal with. No matter how strategic and motivating an objective is — at the end of the day it’s worth nothing unless one can execute it.

While there is no general rule on when moonshots (almost impossible goals) or roof shots (ambitious yet realistic goals) should be used, one aspect is always essential: a clear plan on what steps are leading to success (at least potentially).

Goals become actionable if we know what to do, and if we have the right resources to actually do it.

So, to dramatically increase your chance of objectives that will be a success, ask the following:

  • What would be our plan to achieve this?
  • What are the difficulties and risks?
  • What are the resource requirements?

It’s not about creating a 15-page project plan, but discussing these questions for the objective candidates. Doing so you’ll immediately know if the suggestion is fine or if it needs to be adapted. Make it actionable!

And yes, writing down a few bullets on what you discussed is a good idea. They will be of great help when you discuss follow-up activities during your check-ins.

Wrapping everything up

This is how you create objectives that lead and engage your team. Doing so ensures that your work delivers real results.

  • Use the goal and challenges pyramid to derive objectives from the strategy
  • Shift to customer and team perspective to make them motivating
  • Check the plan and resource expectations to make them actionable

This process is extremely powerful. Stick to it, and you will see an immediate increase in productivity and a transformation of your team.

The secret sauce of key results: finding metrics that accelerate progress

If objectives are responsible to give guidance and direction, key results measure the current progress. It’s not enough to roughly describe where one wants to end up after the OKR cycle, you need key results to quantify how far you have actually made it.

The beauty of this is that OKR show with extreme clarity the current focus. The danger is, that you set this focus wrong.

As well-crafted OKR unambiguously state what is important and what isn’t, it is crucial to get the formulation right. Otherwise, you end up with months full of activity without making major steps toward your long-term targets.

Key results have this pole position and require therefore special care.

Why to-do lists make bad key results

It’s so natural. We defined the objective. We know the direction. We’re aware of the challenges that await us. And now we simply know what to do.

We put it in words. We write it down. And the key results are fixed. Right?

There are two critical problems:

  • To-do list key results don’t measure progress
  • To-do list key results undermine the build-measure-learn loop

Let’s dive into that.

To-do list key results don’t measure progress

First, typical to-do lists are crazily abstract and open-ended. What does it mean to set up the new software or to launch that campaign? How to know whether it’s done completely, or if shortcuts have been taken? Or that way less than originally expected has been done?

To-do lists tend to be high-level descriptions of activities. And because of frequent misunderstandings lots of follow-up discussions and tasks are generated.

Second, to-do lists are of binary nature and rarely involve a metric with 3, 5, 10, or more different values. Measuring progress, telling how far one actually is, becomes impossible.

Third, even a finished to-do list doesn’t imply progress toward the goal. If the objective is to establish the website as the primary tool for lead generation, rebuilding it might be a reasonable activity. But if it turns out that the new design is actually worse than before, nothing is gained. No progress is made, though the new website is online.

Todos are just hypotheses. We assume they bring us forward, but strictly speaking, we don’t know. This is why todos can eventually lead to progress, but they don’t have to. This is why they make bad key results, as key results quantify what has been achieved.

To-do list key results undermine the build-measure-learn-loop

In the section on defining strategic and actionable objectives, we talked about the importance of having a plan for how to reach an objective. Don’t confuse this rough initial plan with a rigid roadmap, that just has to be executed. It’s just a first guess. You will need to iterate and adapt it based on the learnings you’ll generate on the way.

If you would cast the initial plan into stone and create a to-do list for the entire cycle, you’re lost. It prevents you from critical thinking about current experiences and dynamically reacting to what you’ve learned.

OKR are such a successful framework our days because in principle they enable precisely this flexibility. If you are after your objective, and the initial plan turns out to be wrong, you need to be able to react. But todo lists close your mind and you’ll be ignorant of better possibilities as they open up. Don’t limit yourself and your team. Avoid to-do list key results.

Finding metrics that actually work and accelerate your team in the right direction

So, if to-do lists don’t make good key results, does it mean they shouldn’t be used at all? No. Todo lists are extremely useful for creating key results, as they allow us to understand our hypothesis. By to-do lists, we can reveal what we are truly after: the desired outcome of all the activity.

This is an important technique to master. It allows you to systematically derive suitable metrics that measure the real progress toward the objective.

As with most methods, the hypothesis analysis is best explained by using an example.

Example: Deriving key results for a parking app

A company that runs an app to support parking defined this objective: Increase customer satisfaction with our app (simplified for demonstration)

What are good key results? Directly asking for metrics will give the team a hard time. Maybe the generic net promoter score pops up, but this is neither specific to the situation nor sufficient to measure progress.

However, if we ask for todos we get a ton of ideas:

  • Rework UI/UX
  • Add tutorials
  • Reduce bugs
  • Improve reaction times
  • Minimize battery consumption

By questioning the suggestions we can reveal the assumptions behind them:

  • UI is not intuitive, takes too much time to use
  • Features unknown, their benefit is not seen
  • Frequent bugs lead to app restarts and early de-installation
  • Slow reaction is annoying and people stop using our app
  • High energy demand prevents usage with low battery

The team now has a brilliant discussion that links back to strategy. Which assumptions are shared by others? Do the assumptions impact the challenges?

Detailing the assumptions often leads to simple metrics that fit perfectly to their objective. For example:

  • Average time spent in-app for one parking process
  • Percentage of monthly feature usage
  • The average time between installation and de-installation
  • etc.

There are plenty of possible metrics to choose from. The beauty now is that they measure real progress. The initial todos might still be worthwhile doing, but the team is no longer limited to the initial planning. If it turns out that tutorials are not nearly as effective as expected, the team is free to move on to other assumptions and activities. They can do so until they find the one with a large enough lever to impact the bottom line. This is innovative strategy execution at its best.

By using this hypothesis analysis you’ll define key results that measure progress, give your team the possibility to learn and react and deliver real outcomes rather than unimportant outputs. Get started with it!

How to execute your OKR with actionable initiatives and tasks

Defining beautiful OKR is one thing. Delivering on them is a completely different one. Master the execution by deriving work packages from complex topics and by integrating new learnings into follow-up decisions.

Delivering on OKR, reaching the goals you set, and crushing them works only by a clear and repeated focus on what one wants to achieve, and an almost stubborn execution of what is at hand.

The way how to do this is by deriving possible initiatives to work on, selecting the most promising, and driving and correcting the progress through regular check-ins. Both aspects are not as simple as they seem, though they can easily be learned by guidelines, repeated application, and occasional retrospectives.

Deriving initiatives that ensure massive progress toward the OKR

Properly defined OKR do two things well but fail on another. Through the strategic discussions on the goal and challenges pyramid the general direction to take is manifested by a solid set of decisions. Based on the aspirations and challenges of the business you have several alternatives to act upon, and by defining OKR you fix the path you want to take. Your focus everyone on the route you agreed upon, saying: This is the way we go. So the direction is more than clear.

The second thing well-crafted OKR do is measure progress in the defined direction. Agreeing on a few key results that quantify progress gives you numbers no one can argue about. Numbers are precise, and leave you with a clear perspective on reality. Want to know how far you've made it? Check the key results and everyone knows.

However, the OKR definition lacks actionable steps that actually will drive the key results. Numbers are great, but if there are no concerted efforts to change them, nothing will happen. This is where many teams struggle. There is a huge difference between having a high-level topic with some rough ideas to work on and a definitive list of tasks that simply have to be done. Creating the letter, holding everyone accountable for it, and making continuous and sufficient efforts are at the heart of execution.

Key results are too high level to derive tasks from them. The way you do it is by generating ideas and possible initiatives and then selecting the most promising ones. Initiatives are working packages that can be finished in a week or two, strongly connected to the key results but much closer to the task level — though there are not the tasks themselves, yet.

Prepare your execution by generating many options for initiatives. If you want to decrease the installation time of your app there are many things you can try: from reducing the download size over pre-compile libraries to more compact source code. What will lead to success needs to be found out.

Other key results work the same way: create a list of initiatives you could go after. (If you started out with to-do lists to define key results, you can well use them as inspiration.) Create a backlog of possible topics that impact the key results. It will be crucial to run useful and refreshing check-ins.

Selecting, tracking, and correcting initiatives with the OKR check-in

For many teams, meetings have a negative connotation. This is a shame. Coming together, and saying verbally what matters while actually seeing each other is the most powerful way to accelerate shared tasks - if it's well done. Unfortunately, most meetings are in fact poorly planned, boring, and a waste of time.

The OKR check-in is the prime example to do things better and make the team embrace the power of good decision-making. Creating the atmosphere that this meeting is important and everyone invited actually takes part in is a must that fuels and ties into three simple steps.

  1. Update current key result values and agree on an interpretation of what that means for your business. Do you make progress as expected? What works, and what keeps you from going forward? What external and internal reasons are impacting your progress? Discuss those questions to make sense of where you are and how best to proceed.
  2. Given your situation and your now common view on it, select the next initiatives to work on, that perfectly fit what you've just discussed. Make sure to give the initiative a name and write it down. It will greatly help to keep your team focused. (The power is with those who manifest the spoken word into the written.)
  3. Clarify responsibilities. No one leaves the room without a clear commitment to do a piece of work until the next check-in. Depending on the individual workload this can be much or little: but everyone needs to be expected to finish his clear tasks, which are derived from the selected initiative. Common sense feels good but leaves progress to luck. Individual tasks ensure success.

The check-in is not about status and defense. It's the control center for making decisions that drive the key results. It's not a reporting meeting, but a place to accelerate progress through commitment and discipline. No one said success is easy, but hard work becomes fun if you see the results coming in.

OKR are the bridge between strategy and execution. By them you generate big insights and break them down into initiatives and tasks, driving them relentlessly with check-ins. They are the vehicle that takes you from all-to-common mediocrity to substantial progress and success.

This was a concise and actionable introduction to get you started. If you want more in-depth guidance and personal support, feel free to book a call and benefit from even more specific insights.

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