Testing OKR’s — How to know if your OKR’s are working with 6 simple tests

February 12, 2024
6 min read
Delphine Beausoleil on Unsplash
"Autonomy leads to engagement."
Dan Pink

You have your OKRs. But are they any good?

If OKRs are to do their job—translate strategy, guide execution, and allow teams to work productively—then it’s not a question of filling out a form or checking the “yes, I have done my OKRs” box.

You must test them.

Six tests can take your OKRs from “meh” to “marvelous.” The Goldilocks test, the Hallway test, the 90% test, the “good year” test, the Autonomy test, and the Fettling test.

The Goldilocks test.

If you have written your Objectives well, you have three of them.

But are they the right three?  To understand that, ask the Wright brothers. When Orville and Wilbur were solving powered flight, they could have broken down the problem into three objectives:

  1. Solve how to get up in the air.
  2. Make the aircraft go along.
  3. Get the plane down.

This might seem reasonable to someone who knows nothing about aeronautics or engineering. But it wouldn’t have gotten them very far.  Instead, they broke the problem down into three objectives.

  1. Solve the problem of aerodynamic lift.
  2. Build a light, powerful engine.
  3. Control the aircraft in the air.

This was the Wright approach. It took their experience and applied it to three distinct but relevant objectives. Going after lift, power, and control instead of up, along, and down.

That, in essence, is the Goldilocks test: Make sure your objectives are not too hot (or soft), not too cold (or hard), but just right.

The hallway test.

This may seem anachronous in an age of distributed work.

We don’t walk down hallways together much anymore. But imagine if you did. Imagine if you have someone new on your team. You explain your OKRs. And ideally, you would like your new team member to understand and remember them.

Which means they have to be brief, clear, and simple.

Your current OKRs may be too long or full of jargon, big words, and bullet points. They’re not memorable, and if you want OKRs to direct day-to-day work, you want people to remember them.

Ruthlessly simplify and clarify to pass the hallway test.

The 90% test.

You might call this the 80% test, but let’s stretch.

OKRs must govern the work of the team.  That’s all the work, not just some of it. Or at least 90% of the work. Otherwise, you have fake OKRs.

The 90% test rests on a crucial assumption: that your work, the tactical, day-to-day, executes your business strategy. Obvious. You set (and or align to) a strategy, define tactics, and execute—that’s what you and the team are paid for, right?

You might be surprised how many other “types” of work crop up that don’t execute. “Business as usual.” “Fire drills.” “Busy work.” Let’s deal with them in order.

“Business as usual” is the big suck. It happens when OKRs are overly focused on the shiny new work and don’t take account of the core work of the business—the type that keeps the lights on and money rolling in. Make sure your OKRs encompass the entire strategy, not just the transformative part.

“Fire drills” you will never get rid of—the email from the boss over the weekend, the project missing deadlines, and other assorted sparks. But you can minimize them. Use OKRs to separate fire drills that are truly urgent and important from those that just appear urgent.

“Busy work” is where OKRs are your friend. If it’s not executing strategy, don’t do it. If the reason to preserve that work is “because we’ve always done this,” then watch out.

Use the 90% test so that you and the team are focused on what’s essential and shed everything else.

The “good year” test.

Look at the Key Results underlying your OKRs.

Ask, “If we achieve all of these Key Results, will we have a good year?” (Or a good quarter, depending on how you set and reset your OKRs). If the answer is yes, you have the correct Key Results. If the answer is no, you’ve missed something.

That’s the “good year” test.

The autonomy test.

This one’s all about me and a little bit of extra effort.

Per Dan Pink's book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, “Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.” Intrinsic effort comes not just from working independently but from a sense of control over one's work and environment.

If your OKRs don’t give control and, crucially, the creativity for the team to approach and solve its own challenges, you don’t have a set of OKRs—you have a task list. If it fails, you have a task list. It’s the quasi-freedom of a TaskRabbit gig worker or an Uber driver: Empowered but not Autonomous.

The fettling test.

Assuming you’re not from the North of England, I’ll explain.

Fettle, the word, comes from Norse and Old English. It means "in good condition” or “fit.” As the Industrial Revolution took root, “fettling” and the job of a “fettler” was to take cast iron parts, trim the rough edges off from the casting process, and make the parts fit together.

That is the fettling test—do the parts fit together? As you look across the organization, perhaps a group of directors in the direct reporting line of a function, do the OKRs fit together? Are you using the same measures and the same language for the same KRs, or have some rough edges and unnecessary parts crept in? Do OKRs in one department support and mirror the OKRs of another?

Six tests, six passes. Marvelous.

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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