50 golden rules to ensure your organization is successful in adopting OKRs

Everyone wants to be a Google, or in other words, everyone wants to be as successful as Google. And the one way they try to do it is by copying what Google does, or copying what ‘they think’ made Google successful.

The OKR framework for goal-setting is one such thing. A wildly (put in as many ‘wildly’ as you want) popular, and even more crazily sold framework. It is not just Google that follows this framework. Lots of companies claim that they follow it. Many of the world’s most popular companies including Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber etc. use OKRs. All of them cannot be wrong, I presume?

But, there is a small problem with OKRs. Many companies (read software vendors) make a living through this framework that they have oversold the concept of OKRs. Take the website of some of the companies that have a OKR tool, and you will not be alone if you think that the OKR is a magic wand that will take your company to the moon, or even to the roof of the building that you are working from now.

Do not get me wrong. The OKR framework is very good, and extremely practical. It is more grounded in reality than several of the previous management theories that are taught in a B-School (Side note – We should really ditch some of those management theories). It is also simple, easy to understand, and also easier to implement compared to other goal-setting frameworks. OKRs also have one more advantage. Just like the popularity of a software language is based on the number of people using it, which in turn drives the number of knowledge assets created around the software language, the sheer volume of people and organizations using and believing in OKRs has created a vast amount of knowledge repository for people to tap in. And this is where they can go right or even go wrong.

This listicle (I do not always like listicles) tries to list down whatever I have learnt in having seen organizations implement OKRs and whatever I have learnt in reading about OKRs. A lot of websites talk about a lot of things and with an ulterior motive of increasing readership, I decided to put down all those points (all or many is a point you can decide) for you.

  1. OKRs have to start from the top

It cannot start elsewhere but from the top boss. The CEO has to write down the OKRs for the organization and only then can others follow suit. It is the sign-post which will decide where the organization wants to go. It tells the organization not just the direction, but also the velocity and acceleration needed to achieve its goals. Once the CEO writes his/her OKRs, the immediate direct reports need to write down theirs and it has to follow a top-down approach.

2. But, the alignment to OKRs should follow a bottom-up approach also

But, it cannot be just a top-down approach. The OKRs cannot be made in isolation. Discussions and conversations need to happen. You cannot shove down the OKRs to your next level. The people need to understand and they need to agree. Hence, the alignment should follow a bottom-up approach at each level. The priorities need to be discussed and realities need to be understood. OKRs made inside a glass-house are never successful.

3. OKRs should be visible

It is not enough to make OKRs, it is important to make them visible. Google has a system in which all their OKRs are visible to anyone in the organization. This gives the employees a clear understanding of where they stand, where their peers stand, where their team stands, and where their organization stands. It gives a sense of accountability and helps make informed decisions. If you want to conquer the world and want to keep it a secret, do not put it in your OKRs. If you are a private company where it is understandable that certain metrics need to be kept private, measure it in terms of percentage.

4. OKRs should be easy to understand

“Enhance the most important growth metrics of the company (cost + profit) in order to create value for the key stakeholders for this annual period”. You can really say this is a simple way – Grow the revenue. OKRs should be easy to understand. Do not try to bring your inner Shakespeare in your OKR definitions. Be simple and make it easy to understand.

5. They should not be too many or too less

Ideally industry leaders say that there should be anywhere between 3 to 5 objectives (it is OK even if you have 6) and 3 to 5 key results for each objective. That is in fact a lot of work to do in a quarter or an year. It is nearly 30-36 individual metrics to track if you are going the full distance. The key is not in writing 3 or 5 objectives, but limiting yourself to these numbers. Believe me, a lot of things will seem important but the key will be to limit ourselves to the truly important.

6. Write objectives that inspire

Objectives should be inspiring. They should aim for the moon. Do not write objectives like ‘Write 3 blogs’, but make it more inspiring like ‘Drive thought leadership’. Objectives are like destinations – and unless destinations are inspiring, no one will choose to visit them.

7. Rise above the status quo

Do not write objectives that repeat the same thing that you are doing. For example, do not write objectives like ‘Keep Hiring’ or ‘Keep releasing software’. Remember, objective is a destination, not the journey. Even if you want to continue doing the same thing that you are currently doing, look for an improvement and include it in your objective.

8. Do not confuse your vision with your objective

You may have a great vision. Probably the greatest vision in the world. But do not confuse the vision with your objective. Objectives are just a destination in your journey to the moon, or Mars, or Neptune, or wherever you want to go. Consider your objectives as short stops in your journey to achieve your vision.

9. Be practical and be cognizant of what you want achieve this quarter and this year

It is good to dream of conquering the world. It is also OK to dream of brokering peace between two warring nations. But, even when objectives should inspire, they also need to be practical and reflect what you really want to achieve in the current quarter or the current year. If you are a IT services company, do not make an objective that talks about improving the quality of water available in the developing world. If your goal is to achieve 20% growth in customer count, do not have objectives that talk about achieving exponential growth. If you do so, the employees will lose faith and start looking elsewhere.

10. Write key results that are stretched

Key results need to push you that extra bit. Google says that they are happy if 70% of their key results are achieved. 60% to 70% is the sweet spot. It will push you to give that extra bit and also be happy when you achieve that magic number. It will also push everyone around you to give in that little bit of extra effort.

11. Hit the roof before you hit the moon

Even when your key results need to be stretched, you need to look at hitting the roof before you hit the moon. If you are building a rocket aimed at the moon, and if it is not even starting, your first key result should be to make it start, and rather not to make it bring it back after it touches the moon. If your revenue has been $1,000,000 for the last five years, look at reaching the next revenue milestone (maybe $1.5 million, maybe $2 million) instead of having a key result that talks about $200,000,000 in revenue. Key results should reflect smaller steps that are stretched. If the step is too small for you, try doing it in a shorter timeframe, or even better, at a fraction of the cost.

12. Ensure key results are always measurable

This is the toughest part. Many people think that the work that they do is not measurable. They are wrong. Everything is measurable. If you are a programmer, you can talk about developing a product or a module or mention about the quality of your output in your key results. If you are a CTO, you can talk about the release of a product or the outcome of a NPS survey. If you are a blogger, you can talk about the number of visitors, or the number of followers, or simply the number of blogs that you post. Everything is measurable. It is just that we need to spend time measuring it.

13. Learn to ignore the long-tail

I get it. You do a lot of things. You are over worked and you are super important to the organization. And you cannot limit yourselves to 4 or 5 objectives. But hey, if you are so important, you should also be good at prioritizing, right? You must be good at focusing on the super critical items. Learn to ignore all those items which you feel are important, but may not really be important. If it is tough, write down your objectives and take only the top 5 or 6 items that you write down as your OKRs.

14. Don’t confuse KPIs with Key Results

Imagine you want to drive from point A to point B in your car. The objective will be to ‘Get from point A to point B’ and the key results can be ‘Complete the journey in 1 hour’, ‘Do not have any speeding tickets’, ‘Have zero pit-stops for snacks’ or anything similar. But, there are a lot of other metrics that will help you in completing this journey. The fuel left in the car, the tire pressure, the temperature of the engine, the weather, a lot more factors. These are KPIs – that indicate how you are progressing and will decide whether you achieve your key results or not, but these are not your key results. Monitor them, but do not confuse them with key results. Both are different.

15. Draft key results that can show progress consistently

It is good to have a key result that talks about achieving a score of 8 and above in the annual customer success survey. But, it is not a good key result. Why? Because, it will tell you whether you achieved your key result only when you conduct and get the feedback of the survey. A better practice is to have intermittent steps that will help us achieve this key result. But, hey, do not be hell bent on this rule. It is sometimes OK if you feel if you are confident about the key result

16. Ask the right questions to each key result

Ask the following questions to each key result to make sure they are correct –

  • At the end of a quarter or an year, can I ask myself whether I have ‘objectively’ achieved this key result?
  • Can the progress of the key result be indicated at least every month?
  • Is it possible to measure the key result?
  • Is the key result an indicator of how well I have completed my objective?
  • Is the key result time-bound?

If your answer is yes to the above questions, then you have drafted the right key result?

17. Keep in mind the organization’s OKRs

You are working for a consulting organization that focuses on healthcare companies. And your company wants to create the strong presence in the European market this year as part of their growth strategy. And as the sales head, if you ignore this goal, then your OKRs may not be relevant. While drafting your OKRs, make sure what the organization wants to achieve that year.

18. Ensure OKRs are aligned

If you have the key result of moving fast towards north as your objective, and your team have an objective of moving slow towards south, believe me, you are in for a disaster. Ensure your OKRs are aligned – with your boss, and with your team. You need not use the same words, but get aligned in principle.

19. But do not cascade objectives downwards

Cascading your OKRs is what is considered as the biggest mistake. If you cascade your goals, it will be very difficult to change it later on. As Lazlo Block said, “Having goals improves performance. Spending hours cascading goals up and down the company, however, does not. It takes way too much time and it’s too hard to make sure all the goals line up“. Hence, do not spend time cascading goals.

20. Define OKRs that are in your control and in your work area

It is good to define an OKR that will help another function. For example, no one can stop the CFO from defining an OKR which talks about revenue growth. But, hey, it is the job of sales The CFO cannot go out there and sell stuff. Hence, how can he or she achieve this OKR by himself or herself? It is not possible. Make sure the OKRs you define are in your control, or else you will not be the masters of your fate.

21. But, do not be afraid to share OKRs

But, even when you are looking at things in your control, do not be afraid to share your OKRs. A product manager and a sales manager can and should have a revenue related key result and hence they can share their OKRs. A customer success manager and a project manager can together have customer satisfaction related key results and hence the key result can be shared. So share your key results when in need.

22. Do not confuse OKRs with a to-do list

OKRs are not a to-do list. OKR is not a place for putting your activities or items to be checked. It is a goal-setting framework. If you start putting your to-do items in your OKRs, then your OKR is going to grow in number and it is going to defeat the purpose.

23. But connect OKRs to your day-to-day work

But connect your OKRs to everything you do. It should guide your day-to-day activities. Only then will it help in achieving its purpose. It is OK if you do more things than you have in your OKRs, but it is important that you do at least those things that are in your OKR.

24. Understand the sweet spot

There is a spot between setting lofty goals and setting goals that are easily achievable. This is what I call as the sweet spot of OKRs. This is normally 60 to 70 percent. Like I mentioned before, if one is able to achieve 60 to 70 percent of the target he or she set for themselves in their key results, they are in a good space. People need to understand this sweet spot when defining their key results.

25. Take time to educate

OKRs, all said and done, are not easy items to understand. It is complicated, but less complicated than other goal setting frameworks. People will resist, confuse, or even get angry. Accept that all of this is part of what humans call change. Take time to educate the people. Talk to individuals if you want. Be ready to face criticism. Be ready to face the flak. Be ready to have hot coffee thrown on top of you, but understand their feelings, learn from it, make corrections if necessary, and move forward.

26. Talk to people who oppose, and use force if needed

For everyone who will accept OKRs, there will be three who will not say anything and one who will oppose the concept of OKRs vehemently. Take time to understand the concerns of the people who will oppose the concept of OKRs. Sometimes, they might have a valid concern. Sometimes, they know something that you don’t. Sometimes, they are right in a sense. And in case you still feel that their concerns are not justified, push through your implementation of OKRs if you feel that you are on the right side of the war. Do not hesitate.

27. Do not dilly dally finding the right words

What is the difference between ‘Grow the revenue’ and ‘Increase the revenue’. 9 out of 10 people cannot tell the difference. If you start investing time on finding the single most right word for defining OKRs, best of luck. You will always have room for improvement and you will never be satisfied. So, do not spend time writing the ‘grammatically and politically’ correct OKRs. Leave it to the experts of the language. Focus on defining the OKRs that speak for themselves.

28. Have a small team to drive OKRs

If you are the CEO of a mid-size company or a large size company, realize one thing – it is not going to be easy for you to drive the implementation of OKRs by yourselves. Form a small team that will drive the implementation and adoption of OKRs on your behalf. Give them accountability and ask them to take independent ownership. Let them bring in their perspective. And let them be successful.

29. Make OKRs part of every conversation

The one problem organizations face is that OKRs, once defined, gets forgotten and stays in the locker till the next performance evaluation. This is because many organizations get a high from defining the OKRs, but the ecstasy comes down once they are defined and they get in the nuts-and-bolts of implementation. Do not do it. Make it part of every conversation, or at least most of the conversations. Let people talk. And make it part of the way they speak. Include it as part of regular team meetings or one-on-ones.

30. Take a measured approach

Do not take a big-bang approach. Go step by step. Take 1 or 2 quarters to define the OKRs and monitor it for your leadership team. Take the next two quarters to go one or two levels below and finally implement it across the organization.

31. Be ready to wait and spend time

Implementation of OKRs will not give you overnight success and your valuation is not going to shoot up by 10 times within a week. OKR product vendors suggest one or two quarters to see verifiable results. They are lying because they want to sell their software. It will take a better part of one years or 18 months to see results that will speak for themselves. Get ready to wait, as the progress will be slow.

32. Learn from other companies

A lot of companies, big and small, have implemented OKRs. Just search the internet. Governments and even cities are implementing OKRs. Go on, learn from them. Read about their successes, but do not forget to understand their mistakes. Go through as much detail as possible. Talk to some of them if possible. Watch videos and listen to podcasts. And learn from the companies which found success and which did not.

33. But, do not copy other companies

Realize that your company is unique. Even when you learn from the other companies, do not forget to keep this fact in mind. What worked for company X may not work for company Y. And what did not work for company X and company Y may work for company Z. Learn to adapt the learnings to your environment and your culture.

34. Do not consider OKRs only for performance management

OKRs are not a substitute for performance management. The completion of all the OKRs does not make an employee great and the non-completion of OKRs does not make an employee a laggard. There might be other things that will decide the performance of an employee. He or she might have doused a fire, or won back a customer – items which may not have been part of the OKRs in the first place. It can be the other way also. He or she may have been rude, and a pain for everyone working with them. So, do not confuse OKRs with performance management and performance evaluations.

35. But consider OKRs also for performance management

But, OKRs represent a quarter’s work, and in some cases, an years work. So, it is natural that organizations consider it for performance management. Go ahead. Do it. That is fair. But let your employees know in advance on how you are planning to use it and also make it a point to make sure that it is not the only thing that is considered for performance evaluations.

36. Do not link compensation with OKRs

This is a strict no-no. Linking performance based rewards and compensation to OKRs is wrong. Consider the potential of the employee. Consider the past performance. Or better, consider the past performances for the last three years. Look at how living costs have gone up. And take a call on the compensation based on that. Delink compensation and OKRs at all costs.

37. Update your OKRs at least once a month

Do not let your OKRs gather rust by placing them inside a box. Revisit them. Update them every week if possible. Else, update them at least once a month. Because if it is more than a month, you tend to forget and the OKR tends to forget you. A lot of water would have flown under the bridge and lot of things would have happened which you may not remember. So, remember to update your OKRs – the best is weekly, but at least once in a month.

38. Get the leaders to review the OKRs once in a quarter

Building on the previous point, the leaders need to review the OKRs for the organization and their teams on a quarterly basis. They need to sit together and review the performance of all the teams together. They need to discuss what worked and what did not work. This would help bring the leaders as well their teams on a same page and bring together a system that will continuously improve.

39. But do not go overboard

Some people try to do too much of a good thing. Want to update your OKRs daily? Great, do so. But, do not make it an expectation, and do not make such things a norm. A weekly once update is good enough. Too much of a good thing can also be bad.

40. Go for a tool

Trust me, it is not easy to keep track of the key results of even one employee. Then how can we look at 100 employees or even 1000 employees. Go for a tool. There are 100s of tools available in the market. If nothing works for you, at least use Microsoft Excel. Believe me, it will make your life easy.

41. Do not be adamant on theories

There are lot of theories that are available in the internet and in books regarding the concept of OKRs. Theories which talk about the ‘right’ way of defining OKRs and implementing them. Theories that talk about the ‘right’ way of using the right tool. It is good to understand them, and probably bring them into your practice, but do not be hell bent on them. Go away from theories when you feel the need to do so.

42. Get help when you feel you need help

You cannot do everything on your own. And there may not be people in your organization who can help in this. In such a scenario, do not hesitate to ask for external help. Find out experts who have been there and done that. But, always keep a look out for quacks.

43. Leverage free resources

There are tons of free resources available out there which can help you with your OKR implementation. Learn to find the right resources and leverage them before you spend money on expensive tools. Just find the right way to search.

44. OKR can be a magic wand, you just need to know the right spells

OKRs are like a magic wand. There is a magic wand for everyone. But, just like magic wands cannot cast spells on their own. They need someone else to cast spells for them. They need to be used properly. And organizations need to find the right approach in their OKR approach. And then the magic happens

45. OKR is a journey, not a destination

Implementation of OKRs are like a journey. You will consistently reach new places, find new cultures, meet new people, and gain new experiences. Learn to treat the journey as a journey and not a destination. Because if you treat OKR as a destination, you will be satisfied and stop the journey. Keep moving ahead.

46. Be ready to change mid-way

In your journey, you will find new things and learn new lessons. New ideas will come up. New problems may crop up. When you do so, be prepared to change. Be ready to change the pace of your journey, the acceleration, the direction, or even the destination. Because change is always for the better, if it is done with the right spirit.

47. Be ready for mayhem

There will be chaos. There will be confusion. There will be the collapse of probably the entire system. Be ready for this mayhem. OKRs are not simple to implement. It brings in a structured approach which goes against the conventional way of thing, which is unstructured in nature. Accept this chaos. Learn to be at peace with this mayhem. Try to make sense of the confusion. And gradually bring order. Be prepared for this journey.

48. Be ready to mix and match

OKR is just one of the approaches in goal setting. There are others. SMART goal-setting approach, Balanced Scorecard approach – all are examples of perfectly valid and widely used goal-setting approaches. All of the goal setting approaches have their pros and cons. All of them have their supporters and detractors. The best organizations mixes and matches their approaches. Mix the SMART approach for annual goal setting and OKR approach for quarterly goal setting. Apply the TQM approaches for monitoring your tasks. Get creative, and do not close your thought process.

49. Give up if it is not right for you

OKRs are not meant for everyone. Some organizations just cannot get it. They are not meant for it. In such cases, do not despair. It is OK if you give up on OKRs as long as you know your goals and are sure of the path that you follow. Ditch OKRs and do not fret over it.

50. Do not forget that humans are more important and knowledgeable

Ultimately, and the common line, last but not least, remember that you are dealing with humans. People with emotions and minds of their own. A wonderful creation that has evolved over several thousand years. Respect their identities, understand their uniqueness and trust them. OKRs and any other goal setting framework are not as important as human ingenuity and will power. None of these great companies had OKRs when they started off. OKR just happened. Because the people in those companies worked hard and worked smart. There is no substitute for that.

When people say that there is no substitute for OKRs, do not trust them. OKRs are just one of the many goal setting frameworks available there. They are wildly popular and this is what makes them so visible now. This is just a list of items that you can pursue to implement OKRs in your organization, and sometimes in your life. But, remember, the journey is as important, and sometimes, even more important than the destination. Happy OKRs.

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