5 tips for writing effective OKRs
Best practices for writing objectives and key results.
Acknowledging that objectives and key results should be specific and measurable is simple. Writing them to be both is often a challenge. Even with OKR templates to kickstart your goal-setting, writing tips are incredibly helpful when it comes time to start drafting. Setting OKRs is a lot like writing a to-do list. While you can jot down a set of unorganized bullet points, the list probably won’t make sense to anyone else. Similar to a thoughtful to-do list, good OKRs strike a balance between flexibility and prescriptiveness. They should give you a solid idea of the goal and how to accomplish it without detailing every single step to get there. Think of OKRs as formulas. Objectives are your goals and intents. Key results are deadline-driven, measurable milestones that tie directly to your goals and intents. Objective: A significant, action oriented goal. Key results:
- One specific, time-sensitive, and measurable milestone to achieve the objective.
1. Select a few high-performing initiatives—reprioritize everything else.Most companies and teams go through the OKR process quarterly. With a relatively short cycle, it’s best to focus deeply on a few priorities. Try not to let the team get distracted by every new shiny feature idea. OKR pioneer John Doerr suggests asking the following questions to frame your discussions and measure what matters.
What is most important for the next three (or six, or twelve) months?
What are our main priorities for the coming period? Where should people concentrate their efforts?
2. Don’t rush to publish your first drafts.With only three months to plan and execute, the planning process can be chaotic. Everyone wants momentum now. The OKR process is a lot like writing—it’s an evolution of getting words to paper and then collaborating with an editor to make sure it’s just right. It takes time, and you may have to go back to update copy based on input from other stakeholders. We asked Codans to share their thoughts on our OKR process. Here is what one Codan notes about OKR methodology.
When it comes to goal-setting, we make it a point to not get attached to the first draft. We write a set of OKRs, let them rest, and come back to them with fresh eyes. We get feedback from everyone on the team. And then make adjustments, confirm dependencies, and then commit to the goals.
You can’t think you’ll get everything drafted, aligned, set, and resolved in one meeting.
Some people need time to digest and to provide feedback offline or outside the chaos of a rushed meeting; others wish to whiteboard and shout their opinions. And then everything in between.
3. Be realistic—and respect the energy and time of your team.Unrealistic expectations put teams and individuals in a place where it’s easier to fail than to succeed. Somewhere between the first and final OKR drafts, we emphasize realistic timelines and expectations. Effective OKRs consider the work that happens between company and team goal-related projects. And they encourage proper work-life balance.
4. Connect key results to metrics.Although the primary goal of quarterly planning metrics is to measure the success of the goals, metrics also give context to objectives, connect key results back to broader company goals, and help forecast project impact. To get there, we set metrics for each and every key result. Doing so will helps everyone understand the impact of metrics, and in turn, clear metrics will rise above ambiguous and impractical ones. Check out this post about key result metrics to destress the process.
5. Adapt OKRs for culture and context.Sample OKRs, like the ones on this list, are a great starting point. We resist the temptation to copy OKRs directly—whether they’re examples or from another team. Instead, we draw inspiration and personalize them. Marketing OKRs probably won't be the same as human resources or sales OKRs. Instead, we aim to make OKRs personal and specific. Good, reflective, and thoughtful writing is one step on the journey to embracing the benefits that OKRs provide. They bring alignment, focus, commitment, and the opportunity to accomplish ambitious goals. As John Doerr wrote:
Writing a good OKR takes thought, time to reflect, and feedback from others. Start with these 5 tips:
OKRs are not a silver bullet.
“They cannot substitute for sound judgment, strong leadership, or a creative workplace culture. But if those fundamentals are in place, OKRs can guide you to the mountaintop.” - John Doerr
- Select a few high-performing initiatives—reprioritize everything else.
- Don’t rush to publish your first drafts.
- Be realistic—and respect the energy and time of your team.
- Connect your key results to metrics.
- Adapt OKRs for your culture and context.
Explore more stories about planning and OKRs.