OKRs are a collaborative goal-setting methodology enabling teams and organizations to reach their goals using identifiable and measurable results. By design, the OKR framework works across teams to create a standard the whole company can adopt.
However, knowing how to write OKRs can make or break OKR implementation. Why? Because the quality of your OKRs can affect the achievement of your goals in the long run.
In this article, we'll cover how to write OKRs and master the art of creating effective OKRs by discussing:
- Why clarity and transparency are fundamental to writing OKRs
- How to write objectives
- How to write key results
- The winning formula for writing OKRs
- Common OKR writing mistakes
- 5 steps to writing great OKRs
Let's get started.
Writing OKRs with clarity and transparency in mind
Well-written OKRs give you a sense of direction, enable you to focus on what’s truly important, and help you get your priorities straight. They also make it clear to everyone within the organization what a team or individual is working on at a given time — transparency check!
And let’s be honest, it will be so much easier for your company to execute OKRs if they are set the right way. Well-written OKRs mean a well-outlined path to achieving them. You’ll feel confident about not only where you want to go but also how to get there. Moreover, you’ll be able to track the right metrics, enabling effective decision-making.
On the other hand, writing OKRs poorly can undermine the hard work you put in to reap the benefits of OKRs. Writing unclear, difficult-to-grasp OKRs that are not in line with best practices can be a recipe for disaster. If your OKRs fail to convey your highest priorities clearly, you risk spending precious time on the wrong activities. Plus, it can be quite demotivating and costly to put your time and effort into something that doesn’t contribute to the bigger picture.
Find out the 20 Most Common OKR Mistakes and how to avoid them
What is a good OKR structure?
A good OKR structure comprises a clear, aspirational objective that sets the high-level direction of the goal. This is supported by two to four key results that are specific, time-bound, and quantifiable. Using this OKR structure, you create a sense of purpose while ensuring your team's efforts are focused and aligned with achieving the objective.
How to write objectives
By nature, objectives should be inspiring, easy to remember, and qualitative. Objectives are what you will accomplish and should express your intent, ambition, and aspiration. When writing objectives, think about whether the objective evokes emotion. You want the team to look at that objective and say, “yeah, I want to help get that done.”
Typically objectives are stated monthly or quarterly. We recommend having no more than one to three objectives per team, per quarter, but the exact quantity you have depends on the needs of your organization.
The situation you want to avoid is having so many priorities that you actually have no priorities. And lastly, make sure it’s short, punchy, and concise so everyone can understand it.
OKR writing tip: When stating objectives, push yourself to think about why achieving the objective matters.
How to write key results
To measure progress towards your objective, you need to set quantitative key results. When writing OKRs' key results, state these definitively using a metric. Defining key results using metrics with numbers makes it easy to communicate progress toward accomplishing your objective in a meaningful way.
It’s not a KR unless it has a number.
- Marissa Mayer
Additionally, key results should be outcome-focused instead of task-based, describing the optimal outcome that needs to be accomplished to complete the objective — without constraints surrounding how it's achieved.
Again, we don't recommend more than three to five key results be stated per objective, but the exact quantity depends on your business. The good news is that it’s easy to change your statements later, and it takes practice to get a rhythm for defining your objectives and key results.
The formula for writing great OKRs
When it comes to creating and writing good OKRs, consider the following formula:
Objectives should be:
Examples of objectives
- “We will accelerate sales growth in Small-to-Medium Enterprises this quarter”
- “Ship an amazing MVP!”
- “Have super successful pilots with X and Y and Z”
- “Solve our support ticket crisis”
- “Move from monthly release to continuous release process”
Key result formula
Key results should be:
- Black and white
- Quantifiable — whenever possible, use metrics instead of a binary result
- two to four per objective
Examples of key results
- 100% of leads have an account rep assigned and a “plan to land”
- Prove bottom-up “land and expand” within (2) two existing SME accounts
- Close 6 new SME customers before the end of the quarter
Common mistakes when writing OKRs
Running into challenges along your OKR journey is inevitable, but there are a few mistakes you can try to avoid. Here are some common OKR writing mistakes:
- Too many priorities: Overloading your team with a multitude of objectives can lead to confusion and a lack of clarity on where to focus efforts
- Tasks over outcomes: Focusing on tasks can lead to a checklist mentality rather than driving real progress
- Unrealistic targets: Setting targets that are too ambitious or unattainable can demotivate teams and lead to frustration and burnout
- Lack of ambition: On the flip side, setting objectives that are too easy to achieve can result in complacency and a lack of meaningful progress
- Unclear language: Using vague or ambiguous wording when writing your OKRs can lead to misunderstandings and misalignment
- Static goals: Not allowing flexibility in your OKRs to adapt to changing circumstances can lead to pursuing irrelevant or obsolete goals
Avoiding these common OKR writing mistakes can help you craft out OKRs that drive you to success. Remember, the quality of your written OKRs can significantly impact your organization's ability to achieve its goals effectively.
5 steps to write effective OKRs
Writing OKRs should be a collaborative team activity. Our step-by-step guide outlined below will empower you and your team with the knowledge of how to write effective OKRs to ensure clarity and success. The 5 steps of writing effective OKRs include talking to your team, drafting goals, brainstorming key results, debating key results, and aligning the goals of various teams through a bottom-up process.
Step 1: Have the goal conversation, first
The first step of OKR writing involves sitting down with your team and asking them, “What are the three most important things for us to accomplish in the next three months?” Drill down on why these are important — and do so again and again.
By asking why continuously, leaders prompt their teams to share meaningful details regarding what specific objective they're trying to accomplish. If your team collectively understands the “why” on a deeper level, you're likely to end up with better active statements when you write OKRs, gaining greater commitment.
For example, perhaps one objective is “We're going to ship an iOS App.” Fantastic. That’s a great objective — but it's not inspiring.
So we ask the question, “Why does that matter?”
The more profound answer is, “It matters because there’s been a drop-off in customer engagement and customer satisfaction, and our customers prefer mobile” Or, “it matters because to stay viable in the market, we need to have a mobile presence and a native app to meet our customers where they expect us to be.”
So a new objective might be, “We're going to win back our customers by shipping an amazing iOS app.”
Step 2: Prepare draft goals and share them with the team
Once you're done writing OKRs, publish a draft of objectives ahead of time and then ask your team for feedback to get the conversation going. Sometimes, staring at a blank piece of paper is much harder than reviewing work in progress.
During this sharing exercise, instead of asking, “Do you have any questions or comments?” consider asking your team to “please suggest one or more variations that would improve this objective.” Give your team the freedom to contribute and incorporate their perspective into the OKRs.
Step 3: Conduct a team brainstorm to set key results
When it comes to setting key results, it's a good idea to get the team involved. Conducting an OKR brainstorming session as part of your OKR writing process gives your team a level of ownership, drives accountability, and inspires them to care about the OKRs they set.
Step 4: Debate key result ideas collectively
When writing key results for each objective, get the sticky notes or the virtual whiteboard. Have each team member jot down suggestions and take turns sharing and debating their metrics until you find the right level of difficulty to push the team.
Step 5: Don’t “cascade” OKRs down the org chart
It's tempting to cascade OKRs down through the organization. But if all your goals fit together into a pretty parent/child tree, teams aren’t thinking creatively, taking risks, or showing initiative. Plus, it hinders alignment and collective buy-in across the organization.
Instead, consider aligning OKR development through a bottom-up process. Invite teams at every level to define their OKRs before bringing the organization together to understand and challenge their alignment with your overarching vision. Not all OKRs within the organization will align with the company level, and that's okay.
Ultimately, you want to create an OKR writing process where teams feel empowered to create their OKRs and then challenge teams across the business to ensure they’re focused on the right priorities at the right time. This process encourages creative thinking and informed risk-taking, pushing your business forward.
Read expert advice on setting OKRs in our OKR Trends Report
Some final goal setting advice
Remember that it's crucial to celebrate wins and learn from failures. Celebrate when you win by providing public recognition to team leads and supporting players. Use the opportunity to connect the win to the bigger picture of why it matters, and be sure to have retrospectives with what went well, what didn't, and how you can improve the goal-setting process the next time.
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