OKRs – How This Simple Process can Transform Your Business

Managing Teams and Meeting Objectives

Managing a team and finishing projects can be hard work. Setting goals and expectations and making sure they are met is often a struggle for business owners and managers.

Have you ever got a burst of inspiration, telling yourself and your team that you are going to follow a new and improved process, only to see things return to the old ways after a few days or weeks?

If you have, you know it is difficult to change the status quo. If you have long-term goals, keeping on top of them and making sure you are making regular progress can take a toll. But continually getting better is a vital part of a successful business.

The small business space is full of software, systems, and tools that promise to streamline your life. While some of these tools can make aspects of running your business easier, without a structure to keep you and your team accountable they can end up adding more noise without benefiting your bottom line.

In the software development world, the OKR framework is a popular way to keep projects organized, improve team-member accountability, and build a more cohesive teamwork environment. It has proven helpful to companies large and small as a way to manage operations and keep projects on track.

What is OKR?

OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. The basics of OKRs were outlined by Andy Grove in his 1983 book High Output Management. Grove’s ideas have been studied and augmented by business thinkers ever since. Many of the ideas in this post were taken from Christina Wodtke’s Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results one of the better-known books on OKRs.

The Objective

The main idea is that your objective is the long-term project or goal you want to achieve. Start with a long term objective that you and your team will work towards over time. This is a larger goal or project that will take dedicated effort. Projects like launching a new product, organizing for an event, or coordinating a marketing campaign are examples of projects that can be summarized with an Objective.

Most OKR adherents suggest you make these “stretch goals” meaning that it will be hard to meet the objective, success is not guaranteed. By pushing your team to get out of their comfort zone and try to achieve something difficult, you will be able to get more out of the team. Even if you don’t succeed in meeting your objective, the effort of working together to meet your objective will bond the team, making them more capable of reaching the objective that comes next.

With a single, clear objective the rest of the project falls into place.

The Key Results

To reach that objective, you need to break it down into several key results that need to happen if the objective is to be reached. The objective provides the over-arching shell under which the key results “live.” Key Results represent the individual items (normally about three to five) that represent how you know you’ve successfully reached your objective.

Key results have clear expectations tied to project completion. They are often tied to metrics measuring things like increased sales, new customers, a reduction in costs, etc.

At the end of the project, you should be able to easily know whether or not a key result has been accomplished. The answer should be a clear yes or no. Did sales increase by five percent? Was a website redesign finished on time? On budget?

What makes OKRs so powerful is that by breaking down a long-term, complex objective into smaller component “key results,” you can more easily hold team members (and yourself) accountable.

With a clear objective and a handful of key results, you have the structure in place to allow your team to reach them. Clear yes or no key results hold the team accountable for clear expectations.

The Importance of Buy-In

When setting your Objectives and Key Results, it’s important that you get buy-in from the rest of the team. If you as the business leader mandate the OKR, you run the risk of alienating the team. You might be setting unrealistic expectations. Or your team could disagree about what is most important.

As the owner, you’re ultimately the boss, but by including the team in the process of creating your OKRs you stand a better chance of cooperation. Starting a new process is hard enough without the added challenge of resentment that mandated processes can sometimes bring with them.

Don’t Lose Focus on Your Business!

Starting a new challenge can be a lot of fun. But make sure you don’t neglect the core responsibilities of your business. The last thing you want is to neglect a customer and have an employee tell you they were working on the new project instead of their regular tasks. Be clear with your expectations and make sure you pay attention to what is most important to your business.

Achieving Your OKRs

With OKRs in place, it’s time to make sure your team achieves them. The best way to do this depends on your team and situation. What team members will be responsible for what? What are the short and long term tasks that need to happen to reach the OKRs?

You should have a kick-off team meeting to go over a rough outline of the OKRs, work through the biggest obstacles, determine the steps that need to be taken to reach them, and at least a broad outline of individual responsibilities. The tasks that need to happen may or may not fall clearly into the responsibilities of a team member. In many cases, there will have to be cooperation between team members whose responsibilities overlap.

To work through these challenges, it is recommended that you have regular team meetings to keep the project on track.

Regular Meetings and Accountability

One of the main features of the OKR method is that clear expectations will improve accountability. But if all you do is set the objectives and key results, you stand a good chance of failure. To maintain momentum, improve accountability, and foster cooperative teamwork, your team needs regular communication. This is best done through a meeting.

Wodtke recommends having a team meeting at the beginning and end of the week. The Monday meeting is to set expectations and goals for each team member, while the Friday meeting is to review how those expectations are met as well as to set up the goals for the following week. At the beginning of each week, each team member lays out what they will do to move toward project completion. And at the end of the week team members will discuss how successful they were.

By including the whole team in these meetings you will increase the accountability for each member. Team members won’t want to be in a position where they are constantly failing to meet the expectations they set at the beginning of the week. Or if they are setting easy tasks, presenting it to the team can challenge them to set more ambitious weekly goals. If someone set out to do a lot in a week but failed to finish one task, the team will know they contributed more to the overall goal than someone who only completed one relatively simple task.

Additionally, the meetings provide a chance for improved teamwork. When someone facing an obstacle brings up a challenge, other team members could offer suggestions or assistance.

Perhaps most importantly, regular meetings set the pace and keep the pressure on the team to make progress toward the goal. It is easy to announce a new project but let it fall by the wayside due to inattention. Recurring meetings make it clear that the project is not going away, and that employees are expected to make progress each week.

Depending on your situation, having bi-weekly, in-person meetings with your entire team might not be feasible. In that case, you might have to develop another method to keep the team accountable.

A bi-weekly email could do the trick. Each team member sends a quick email with their goals for the week in the beginning and a summary of what they accomplished at the end of the week. Everyone’s contributions are compiled and sent to the whole team.

The goal is to create an environment where the team is continually making progress toward a single objective that will be measured against clear key results. If you have struggled to make progress toward long-term goals or projects, OKRs provide a simple but powerful framework to keep your team on track.

If you want to learn more about how OKRs can change how your business operates, check out Andy Grove’s High Output Management and Christina Wodtke’s Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results