During the (very) early days of Google, ex-Intel employee John Doerr introduced the young company to a management system called Objectives and Key Results — OKRs for short.
Rise of the OKR
“Kleiner Perkins had just invested in Google, and as a strong advocate of OKRs, I offered to introduce the OKR system to Larry, Sergey, and the leadership team,” recalls Doerr. “The entire company was standing around a Ping-Pong table and I walked them through the goals, benefits and implementation details of OKRs. Larry and Sergey saw the value immediately.
“They liked the idea of having a quarterly set of priorities for the company. It took a couple of iterations, but we figured out the right cadence and model and to this day, Larry writes his own personal OKRs and Google’s corporate OKRs every quarter. In my experience, this is a trial-and-error process and it usually takes a company one to two quarters to figure out.”
The concept wasn’t new, not even during the early days of Google. In fact, it had been around since the 1970s. Intel COO and business legend Andy Grove was looking for a way to improve focus within the organisation. How could he keep all employees accountable and focused on the same goals.
The answer was a new system called Objectives and Key Results, which had been created inside the organisation. It was a great success and many prominent business people became huge fans of it (including John Doerr), but it was really when Google started using it that it truly gained widespread appeal. Google, after all, is seen by many as the Platonic Ideal of the modern organisation.
Basics of the OKR
So what are Objectives and Key Results exactly? There is nothing particularly novel or groundbreaking about the system, but it packages typical management ideas in a way that makes them accessible and measurable.
Here’s how it works. Around five objectives are selected every quarter (the timeframe is important), and each objective is given a set of ‘key results’ that are measurable and can be scored.
So it might look something like this:
Increase traffic to the company’s website.
- Create a Facebook page and Twitter account that can drive traffic to the website
- Build an audience on Facebook and Twitter through regular posting and sponsored posts
- Write at least four blog posts per month for the website
- Create effective Google ads promoting the website
- Create three items of sponsored content for posting on popular new sites that will drive traffic to the company website.
From the above it should be fairly clear what ’objectives’ and ‘key results’ are, and how they are related. An objective, within the OKR context, is an outcome that is specific and highly desirable, but not particularly measurable. A result, meanwhile, is a measurable activity that will assist in the achievement of the objective. In other words, key results are a list of actionable items that will lead to the achievement of the overall goal.
Employees are scored on each key result, with the maximum score being 1, and the minimum 0. A good score would be 0,6 or 0,7 (any higher than that and you have to question whether the chosen key result was too easy.
Key results should be tough but attainable), but the process is much more important than the actual score. Also, low scores should be used to reassess what the company is spending its time and resources on. Why are scores low? How crucial are these results? Should we be focusing on different key results to get to our objectives?
OKR in practice
Although the implementation of OKRs will differ slightly depending on the company you look at, most systems tend to have the following things in common:
OKRs are selected on a quarterly basis: To maintain momentum and ensure that everyone is always actively working towards the achievement of a goal, the timeframe of an OKR should be relatively short. Knowing that a deadline is always on the horizon keeps everyone focused and accountable. Some companies have monthly OKRs, but most tend to settle on quarterly objectives.
They have hard, non-negotiable deadlines: There’s no point in setting monthly or quarterly OKRs if employees know that deadlines can be shifted if necessary. In order to maintain focus and urgency, deadlines need to be absolute.
Everyone gets about five quarterly OKRs: Give employees too many objectives and they’ll lose focus, or become utterly overwhelmed. John Doerr recommends four to six OKRs per quarter.
OKRs are public: A lot of companies — including Google — choose to make OKRs public. Google makes all employees’ OKRs (including those of the founders and other C-suite executives) available for everyone to see. They can all be found on the organisation’s internal directory. Scores are also public, which reinforces commitment and ensures accountability.
They can exist on different levels: OKRs need not only exist at the level of the employee alone. Teams, departments or even the company as a whole could be assigned quarterly OKRs. It’s important, though, not to overcomplicate things — the whole aim of OKRs, after all, is to keep things simple. Start adding layers and layers of OKRs on top of each other, and the whole system will start breaking down. The aim is to increase focus, so keep things simple and straightforward.
The benefits of OKRs
If all of the above sounds like a lot of work, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what the advantages of OKRs are. According to John Doerr, implementing Objectives and Key Results in a company offers the following benefits:
It encourages disciplined thinking: By focusing on objectives and key results, you learn to look at your business in a very disciplined way. The unimportant things fall away and you start to notice what the major goals should be.
Assists with communication: Public OKRs give people a good idea of what the rest of the organisation is working on, which helps to keep all employees on the same page. There’s less chance of a communication breakdown if everyone knows what the responsibilities of everyone else are.
It makes things measurable: Even the most focused goals can be tough to actually track. What does success look like? When can you tick it off the list? OKRs provide measurable indicators that allow you to track the progress of employees in a meaningful way.
It encourages focus: Making OKRs public not only improves communication, but also keeps everyone in step and focused on the same goals.
By using OKRS, you allow the important objectives within your organisation to reveal themselves. This won’t necessarily happen immediately. There will be some trial and error, but by sticking with the process, you should reach a stage where you have a very good idea of what you should be focusing your time and resources on.