July 23, 2020

How to write effective OKRs

Marilyn Napier
Content Marketing Manager at Ally.io

The basics to writing good OKRs

Objectives and key results (OKRs) is a tool to focus, align, prioritize and measure the work of an organization in order to accomplish their mission and achieve their vision. The framework for setting outcome-based goals aligns the work every team and individual is doing, at every level of the organization. 

Writing clear, measurable OKRs is something businesses and teams struggle with all the time. 

Why are they so difficult to write? There's a few reasons for this. One has to do with the method in which goals are created and cascaded, another is approaching the goals from a task-driven mindset, opposed to being outcome focused.

Download our guide on writing great OKRs: An interactive team workshop

Whether this is your first time writing OKRs, or your 20th, we want to give you some guidance to make the process a little easier.

The distinction of a good OKR

If you’re just getting started with writing OKRs, you may be wondering what more is there to it beyond setting your goals for a period of time. 

Keep in mind that your OKRs are part of a larger picture. They tie in strategy and execution and align with your company’s mission, vision and values. 

Related: How to connect your business mission to long-term outcomes using OKRs

OKRs are a methodology to articulate exactly what you need to do, and by when, in order to operationalize your strategy in order to fulfill your mission, vision and values.

Breaking down OKRs 

An objective is “what” needs to be achieved and the key result is “how” you are going to achieve something measurable. 

Objective: These are three to five company, team or personal goals. They should be qualitative, actionable, ambitious and most of all, be time bound. 

Key result: Each objective should have three to five measurable key results. They should be quantifiable enough to lead to objective grading using a 0 to 1 grading system. 

Ally.io objectives example

Example: 

Objective: Increase brand recognition to make the company the market leader. 

  • Key result: Increase revenue to $750M in 2020
  • Key result: Reduce net revenue churn by 2.75% in 2020 
  • Key result: Improve customer retention to 98.6% 

Your OKRs should be: 

Ambitious 

By setting stretch goals, you push boundaries and accomplish more. 

Measurable

OKRs are all about metrics—by setting measurable key results, companies can more easily assess progress of initiatives, and understand whether they achieved their goal.  

Transparent

The OKR framework is more than goal-setting, it’s a framework that requires a cultural shift to tear down traditional silos and business walls—and instead, foster a culture of transparency, where all goals are open, and progress is viewable by everyone.

Controllable 

When you create a new objective, it is with the understanding you possess the means to realize it. OKRs can generate cross-functional coordination, but your objectives should primarily be within your control.

OKRs aren’t:

  • Unrealistic or ambiguous goals 
  • Task lists 
  • General actions you plan to take 
  • Overly specific to be constraining 

Getting started 

1. Start with your team’s purpose. This should come from and align to the corporate goals (business priorities) for the designated time period. 

2. Choose which objective you want to create

  • Committed: A goal that will be achieved. Resources and schedules should be adjusted to make sure they get done. 
  • Aspirational: An ambitious goal with no clear path to get there. They may roll over from quarter to quarter, or year to year, and sometimes even be reassigned to different teams. 

3. Creating key results 

  • After creating an objective, you need to define three to five key results that you will use to measure whether you accomplished the objective or not. Key results should be quantitative, aspirational, specific and progress based.

There are two types of key results: 

  • Metric: (Most common) track quantitative outcomes designed to gauge success on an objective 
  • Milestone: Used to convert a binary outcome into a key result 

When possible, use this formula: Verb + what you’re going to measure + from “x to y” 

For example: “Increase attendance from 350 to 500 people” 

Related: Experts answer your questions about getting started with OKRs

Common mistakes when writing OKRs:

  • Objectives are not challenging or do not stretch 
  • Key results aren’t quantifiable 
  • Creating too many objectives or key results 
  • Creating a list of tasks 
  • Writing OKRs that don’t have an impact 

How KPIs work with OKRs 

OKRs don't replace KPIs, they complement and utilize them. KPIs correspond to the detailed work within an organization that facilitates the delivery of their projects. OKRs are the major elements of the corporate strategy that need to be accomplished to deliver the mission and vision consistent with the values. 

For example, there are numerous KPIs that track the development team's progress toward a specific product release. While all of them are important to deliver the product, what is important to the corporate strategy is the actual product delivery milestone. That milestone would roll up to a specific key result for the objective of a product launch. This is what matters to the success of the company, and is the event with which marketing, sales, and support need to align their deliverables. 

At the same time, the sales and customer success teams want to achieve a particular objective of 98% customer satisfaction or 1% turnover. They may have as one of their KPIs to do QBRs and/or customer surveys. 

Planning and executing those may entail multiple intermediate KPIs, but the actual completion milestone would roll up to a key result that supports the corporate customer satisfaction objective. The goal is to enable executive management to efficiently manage and clearly understand the progress toward achieving their key objectives by viewing a concise set of information (OKRs), rather than a large, complex stream of data (KPIs). 

Validate your OKRs through the necessary and sufficient test 

When looking at your objective and its key results, ask yourself “Are all these key results necessary to achieve my objective?”

If yes, then they pass the necessary test. If the answer is no, spend more time refining the OKRs to be more relevant and measurable. 

Next, ask yourself “If I accomplish all of my key results, would I have achieved my objective?” 

If the answer is yes, then they pass the sufficient test. If the answer is no, you need to spend more time defining stronger key results. 

The biggest mistake you can make when first writing OKRs is not starting the process in the first place. Patience and iteration is key and few, if any, organizations get it perfect on the first try. 

Ally.io makes managing OKRs a breeze. Try our OKR software free for 14 days.

Track OKRs in under 15 minutes with our 14-day free trial.

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Keep teams focused on the work that matters most

How to write effective OKRs

The basics to writing good OKRs

Objectives and key results (OKRs) is a tool to focus, align, prioritize and measure the work of an organization in order to accomplish their mission and achieve their vision. The framework for setting outcome-based goals aligns the work every team and individual is doing, at every level of the organization. 

Writing clear, measurable OKRs is something businesses and teams struggle with all the time. 

Why are they so difficult to write? There's a few reasons for this. One has to do with the method in which goals are created and cascaded, another is approaching the goals from a task-driven mindset, opposed to being outcome focused.

Download our guide on writing great OKRs: An interactive team workshop

Whether this is your first time writing OKRs, or your 20th, we want to give you some guidance to make the process a little easier.

The distinction of a good OKR

If you’re just getting started with writing OKRs, you may be wondering what more is there to it beyond setting your goals for a period of time. 

Keep in mind that your OKRs are part of a larger picture. They tie in strategy and execution and align with your company’s mission, vision and values. 

Related: How to connect your business mission to long-term outcomes using OKRs

OKRs are a methodology to articulate exactly what you need to do, and by when, in order to operationalize your strategy in order to fulfill your mission, vision and values.

Breaking down OKRs 

An objective is “what” needs to be achieved and the key result is “how” you are going to achieve something measurable. 

Objective: These are three to five company, team or personal goals. They should be qualitative, actionable, ambitious and most of all, be time bound. 

Key result: Each objective should have three to five measurable key results. They should be quantifiable enough to lead to objective grading using a 0 to 1 grading system. 

Ally.io objectives example

Example: 

Objective: Increase brand recognition to make the company the market leader. 

  • Key result: Increase revenue to $750M in 2020
  • Key result: Reduce net revenue churn by 2.75% in 2020 
  • Key result: Improve customer retention to 98.6% 

Your OKRs should be: 

Ambitious 

By setting stretch goals, you push boundaries and accomplish more. 

Measurable

OKRs are all about metrics—by setting measurable key results, companies can more easily assess progress of initiatives, and understand whether they achieved their goal.  

Transparent

The OKR framework is more than goal-setting, it’s a framework that requires a cultural shift to tear down traditional silos and business walls—and instead, foster a culture of transparency, where all goals are open, and progress is viewable by everyone.

Controllable 

When you create a new objective, it is with the understanding you possess the means to realize it. OKRs can generate cross-functional coordination, but your objectives should primarily be within your control.

OKRs aren’t:

  • Unrealistic or ambiguous goals 
  • Task lists 
  • General actions you plan to take 
  • Overly specific to be constraining 

Getting started 

1. Start with your team’s purpose. This should come from and align to the corporate goals (business priorities) for the designated time period. 

2. Choose which objective you want to create

  • Committed: A goal that will be achieved. Resources and schedules should be adjusted to make sure they get done. 
  • Aspirational: An ambitious goal with no clear path to get there. They may roll over from quarter to quarter, or year to year, and sometimes even be reassigned to different teams. 

3. Creating key results 

  • After creating an objective, you need to define three to five key results that you will use to measure whether you accomplished the objective or not. Key results should be quantitative, aspirational, specific and progress based.

There are two types of key results: 

  • Metric: (Most common) track quantitative outcomes designed to gauge success on an objective 
  • Milestone: Used to convert a binary outcome into a key result 

When possible, use this formula: Verb + what you’re going to measure + from “x to y” 

For example: “Increase attendance from 350 to 500 people” 

Related: Experts answer your questions about getting started with OKRs

Common mistakes when writing OKRs:

  • Objectives are not challenging or do not stretch 
  • Key results aren’t quantifiable 
  • Creating too many objectives or key results 
  • Creating a list of tasks 
  • Writing OKRs that don’t have an impact 

How KPIs work with OKRs 

OKRs don't replace KPIs, they complement and utilize them. KPIs correspond to the detailed work within an organization that facilitates the delivery of their projects. OKRs are the major elements of the corporate strategy that need to be accomplished to deliver the mission and vision consistent with the values. 

For example, there are numerous KPIs that track the development team's progress toward a specific product release. While all of them are important to deliver the product, what is important to the corporate strategy is the actual product delivery milestone. That milestone would roll up to a specific key result for the objective of a product launch. This is what matters to the success of the company, and is the event with which marketing, sales, and support need to align their deliverables. 

At the same time, the sales and customer success teams want to achieve a particular objective of 98% customer satisfaction or 1% turnover. They may have as one of their KPIs to do QBRs and/or customer surveys. 

Planning and executing those may entail multiple intermediate KPIs, but the actual completion milestone would roll up to a key result that supports the corporate customer satisfaction objective. The goal is to enable executive management to efficiently manage and clearly understand the progress toward achieving their key objectives by viewing a concise set of information (OKRs), rather than a large, complex stream of data (KPIs). 

Validate your OKRs through the necessary and sufficient test 

When looking at your objective and its key results, ask yourself “Are all these key results necessary to achieve my objective?”

If yes, then they pass the necessary test. If the answer is no, spend more time refining the OKRs to be more relevant and measurable. 

Next, ask yourself “If I accomplish all of my key results, would I have achieved my objective?” 

If the answer is yes, then they pass the sufficient test. If the answer is no, you need to spend more time defining stronger key results. 

The biggest mistake you can make when first writing OKRs is not starting the process in the first place. Patience and iteration is key and few, if any, organizations get it perfect on the first try. 

Ally.io makes managing OKRs a breeze. Try our OKR software free for 14 days.

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