Beginning OKR’s — How to set and use OKR’s for your team

January 29, 2024
7 min read
Patrick Schneider on Unsplash
"A leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting them go first, but if they stray, he is the first to change his course to put them back on the right path."
Nelson Mandela

To OKR or not to OKR, that is the question.

And to answer that question, we must first ask, “What is an OKR?” Similar but different from other alphabet soups of strategic goal-setting frameworks:

MBO— Managing by Objectives. These are OKRs’ older, more rigid, annualized Father. MBOs emphasize personal performance and meeting set targets.

OBP— Outcome-Based Planning. These are OKRs’ longer-term, wonkier Uncle. While OKRs drive strategic initiatives, OBPs explore them, starting with Outcomes and working backward.

KPI— Key Performance Indicators. The costume and scenery of other goal-setting frameworks. So overused, we swim in data and argue over its accuracy, giving us Many Performance Indicators.

The original question is part of a familiar tragedy.

One that starts with lofty ambition, well-argued strategies, and clear principles. The tale ends with fire drills, competing priorities, and urgent requests. In the middle: mixed messages, complexity, and bureaucracy, the ghosts of burnout.

Something is rotten in the state of our strategic planning.

OKRs wire strategy to tactics.

Well-written OKRs flesh out the strategic narrative and bring it to life. They align people, allow engagement and autonomy, and improve productivity. Done well, they define work, tether accountability, and shape a culture of execution. They help people navigate through a dark forest towards a common north star.

Good OKRs begin the job of translating strategy into tactics.

Don’t make OKRs a science project.

Keep them simple. Make sure each team has a set of OKRs, following a 3x3 structure: Three Objectives, each with three Key Results.

The Objective is a goal that you want to achieve. It's qualitative and motivational. For each Objective, three Key Results specify, measure, and show progress. They are quantitative and trackable.

A formula for good OKRs.

OKRs must be well-written and clear. They follow a pattern, starting with a verb: Drive. Expand. Launch. Develop. Grow. The Objective concretely and plainly states the goal and, optionally, the rationale behind it.

Key Results move things forward; from  “X” to “Y.” That thing is important and measurable: Revenue. Employee Engagement. Customer Satisfaction. Productivity.


Verb + What you want to do + to/for/so that (rationale for the objective).

Increase awareness of the company in the market to increase sales.

Key Results.

Verb + What you will measure + From “X” to “Y.”

Certify 100% of employees on OKR expectations and process within Q1.

Whose OKRs are they?

Do not make the mistake of setting OKRs and associating them with a single person.

OKRs work for teams, not individuals.  For example, Ophelia, a Chief Product Officer, might set her team’s OKRs at the beginning of the year. At the strategic, enterprise level, goals may exist that involve capturing new market segments, rolling out enhanced functionality, and launching new products.

Ophelia’s product team would support those goals.

Her top-level Objectives in her OKRs might be:

  1. Establish a strong foothold in emerging market segments.
  2. Elevate our product experience to exceed evolving customer expectations.
  3. Innovate and diversify our product portfolio to drive market growth.

These are good. They follow the formula for good Objectives. The goals are clear. Assume also that each of these objectives has three clear, quantifiable KRs along with it.

But here’s the important point. These are not her OKRs. They are the OKRs of the product team. Ophelia’s job is to hold the team accountable to these OKRs.

Next up for Ophelia—to set OKRs down through her organization.

Aligning or Translating OKRs.

Every team in an organization should operate against a set of OKRs.

The teams’ OKRs either align with the OKRs of the layer above or translate them. At each rung on the ladder, the OKR must be strategic enough to lift and align the work to the goals of the business and concrete enough to drive practical execution.

You would align your OKRs if your team's scope of responsibility is a territory. Sales teams, obviously, but also, for example, HR Business Partners. In the first case, a sales team might have an Objective to increase same account revenue by five percent. Each sales team in a territory would directly align with that Objective. The KRs might vary, but the team’s Objective mirrors the Objective in the layer above.

For teams not organized by territory, OKRs are translated through the organization. They support and contribute to objectives higher in the business, given the role and scope of the team.

So, for example, in the case of the Ophelia, the Chief Product Officer. She has several teams reporting to her. The responsibilities and scope of the Product Design and UX team are very different from the scope and responsibilities of the Product Engineering team.

The Product Design and UX team might have the following Objectives:

  1. Design a simpler, more user-friendly interface.
  2. Incorporate customer feedback into design improvements.
  3. Enhance aesthetics and functionality for emerging market segments,

Whereas the Product Engineering team has the following:

  1. Migrate product range to a unified infrastructure.
  2. Enhance product security posture.
  3. Accelerate development cycles for new product features.

Both sets are well-written Objectives, yet they are clearly different. They do not directly align with the Product Team’s objectives. Rather, they are a translation of them, given each team's pressing needs, scope, and role.

Importantly, each team's objectives support the higher-order goals.

For example, the Product Design team’s Design a simpler, more user-friendly interface supports and translates Elevate our product experience to exceed evolving customer expectations.  For the people on that team, the Objective and its accompanying KRs, are more concrete and

Objectives are written in such a way that the team has both alignment with the strategy and the autonomy to create, innovate, and execute.

Setting OKRs.

Don’t set OKRs in isolation. Revision and calibration takes time. And don’t set them as a form-filling exercise. OKRs are best set as an output of strategy. Follow the Vision, Mission, and Goals of the business.

Have the strategic, goal-setting conversation in your team, and use that as the jumping-off point to set and clarify OKRs.

Follow this cadence to set your OKRs.

  1. Ground yourself in the business's strategy and goals, including the OKRs set above you in the organization. (You can do this individually or with your team).
  2. Ask, “How do we translate these into Objectives for my team?” Good questions to ask yourself are: How do my team's efforts fit within the larger goals? What critical areas can we impact most effectively? How does this support the company's Vision and Mission? What opportunities or trends can we leverage? What needs improvement or change?
  3. From this brainstorming, write three strategic Objectives. Follow the guidance above for a formula to write good Objectives.
  4. For each team leader in your team, write a draft of their three Objectives.

If you haven’t brought the team into the process yet, now is the time to do so. Clarify with them the strategy and goals of the business, as well as your Objectives to bring them into the conversation.

  1. Discuss the strategy and goals of the business and how the team Objectives support and translate the strategy.
  2. Discuss and agree on three Key Results for each Objective with your team. Follow the guidance above for a formula to write good Key Results.
  3. Repeat the process with each team member’s Objectives. Write three KRs for each. Each team member should hear their colleague’s KRs, which helps ensure the Key Results interlock and reinforce each other.

Working to OKRs.

OKRs, once set, become part of the rhythm of work.

That working rhythm keeps teams tactically rather than transactionally focused. Setting OKRs occurs at the beginning of Q1. A lighter re-examination and re-set of those OKRs occurs at the end of each quarter. This allows an agile approach to execute strategy.

Between OKR set and reset is execution.

You have set and have shared ownership of the team’s OKRs.

Now, work with team members to develop initiatives, action plans and progress to advance them. Schedule regular check-ins (weekly or bi-weekly) to discuss progress.

You have elevated some KPIs as part of your Key Results. Track them, and discuss them transparently. Teach. Coach and provide feedback to your team around progress. Encourage collaboration, learn from failure, and celebrate progress.

Keep aligning activities to OKRs. Use them to ruthlessly prioritize. Take away busywork (any work that doesn’t help you set or execute on the OKRs.)

Are you using OKRs? That is now the question.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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