Coeo’s commitment to developing and supporting every member of the team is reflected in its company value “Inspire & Grow”. To optimise personal growth – or company growth – there needs to be a system in place through which progress can be tracked and reinforced. The team at Coeo use Objectives and Key Results to stay aligned in their goals, nurture development, and grow on the individual and company level.
A Key Result for my first personal Objective is to produce a post for Coeo’s blog. If you are reading this paragraph, then I have been able to tick that one off and give myself a good pat on the back. If you feel your personal or professional goals need structure and direction, and you enjoy a well-ordered workflow (who doesn’t?), the OKR system might be what you’ve been looking for. In this post I will give a quick overview of the system, its benefits, and some nuggets of knowledge for maximising what you can get out of it.
What is an OKR?
Objectives and Key Results, or OKR, is a goal-setting framework first formalised and pioneered in the 1970s by Andy Grove, executive vice president and eventual CEO of Intel. It was then disseminated to the wider world principally by his disciple John Doerr, whose New York Times bestseller ‘Measure What Matters’ I confess to drawing liberally from for the content of this blog. There is no better case study for the efficacy of OKRs than Google, who were introduced to the idea by Doerr in 1999 and have used it to guide and bolster their growth in the three decades since. As Mr. Doerr is not paying me to promote his book, I will skip further accolades and get down to the nitty-gritty of how the system works.
The Objectives and Key Results framework is deceptively simple. You define a clear objective and append three to five quantifiable parameters - Key Results (KRs) – against which success can be measured. Once the key results have all been measurably achieved, the objective has by extension been completed. If we say, for example, that I wanted to learn to play Chopin’s Ballade no. 1 in G minor (no mean feat), I might write the following OKR:
Learn Chopin’s Ballade no. 1 by Christmas
Practice piece for an average of 2 hours a day
Practice finger exercises for an average of 30 minutes a day
Play the piece through 5 times, making fewer than 3 mistakes each time
A methodical pianist could whip up a spreadsheet to track the first two KRs, whilst attaining the third is as good as knowing the piece inside-out. Including the deadline of Christmas introduces time pressure which drives improvement (generally, OKRs are tied to a business quarter). Using the above OKR, the pianist would be far more likely to make progress than if they just bashed away at the piano without a plan.
Beyond the above outline, there is a degree of flexibility in how an OKR can be formulated and deployed, with the onus being on the user to make the most out of the system. With that said, I’ve included some top tips that should allow a user to stay on track and reap the productive benefits that OKRs have to offer.
It’s not a key result unless it has a number
There cannot be ambiguity on whether a key result has been achieved. It can’t be as vague as “improve on X skill” because there won’t be a concrete moment when you’ll know you can mark it as complete. The example “improve on X skill” could be an objective, however, if it is accompanied by measurable KRs. KRs must be quantifiable and measurable so that progress and completion are unambiguous. Thankfully, anyone who works with data should be a big fan of numbers, so this shouldn’t be too difficult to remember. The exception to including a number would be a key result with a binary state, where something has either been done or not - “hire an account manager” for example.
Transparency seeds collaboration
A core tenet of the OKR system that sets it apart from other goal management methods is organisation-wide transparency. Firstly, it improves individual attainment as, for curious psychological reasons, public goals are more likely to be reached than private ones. But more crucially, everybody being able to see your goals and you being able to see everybody else’s goals allows for the entire organisation to align their objectives and mesh more efficiently. You can see how your objective might contribute to your manager’s, or to the CEO’s, and your contribution as a member of the organisation will feel far more tangible.
Stretch and accommodate failure
One of the underlying philosophies of the system is that setting big goals, even potentially unattainable ones, improves performance. If you achieve it, then well done you – but if you don’t quite get there, you’ll probably still have achieved more than if you hadn’t set that ambitious goal. Perhaps counter-intuitively, success is less important in an OKR system than improvement and growth. Regularly hitting 100% on all your OKRs is a sign that the goals are not challenging enough and are therefore not fulfilling their designed function. Set harder goals and find out how much progress you can make; an average success rate of 70% is often touted as a reasonable target.
In the words of Google co-founder Larry Page, OKRs “have helped lead us to 10× growth, many times over. […] They’ve kept me and the rest of the company on time and on track when it mattered the most.” A pretty convincing testimonial, all things considered. The value of OKRs is proven in the glamourous list of companies and individuals that have engineered their success with it, and when used correctly and effectively they can have a great impact on the attainment of goals.
While the cheque from John Doerr doesn’t seem to have dropped through my letterbox yet, I will say that Measure What Matters is a great starting point for anyone interested in familiarising themselves with the system if they aren’t already. If you were already familiar with OKRs, then hopefully this blog has shone a light on some key distinguishing features of it that might have been forgotten. A parting word of wisdom from Doerr:
"The key result has to be measurable. But at the end you can look, and without any arguments: Did I do that or did I not do it? Yes? No? Simple. No judgments in it".