Every company has its own unique strategy to meet deadlines and exceed client expectations. It’s easy to set goals in hopes of guiding your team to a victory; however, how beneficial is it if team members aren’t growing themselves in the process? It’s one thing to set a goal and do the bare minimum to meet it, it’s quite another to use your goals to extend outside of a single project.
As a project manager, one of the biggest challenges is making sure every team member is on the same page. Developers have their tasks set out with strict deadlines to meet; designers ensure that the look and feel of the website align with branding; clients communicate between stakeholders, coworkers, and project managers. Under all of that stress, big picture goals can sometimes get thrown aside just to make sure everyone is happy and get a product out the door. Perhaps the root of the problem is that the goals set in place weren’t clear or solid.
After reading “Measure What Matters,” by John Doerr, I can’t believe I haven’t’ been using OKRs in the past, and I’m anxious to try them as soon as possible.
What is an OKR?
This goal management method became popular when Andy Grove, former CEO and Chairman of Intel, implemented the strategy in 1975 with the help of John Doerr. With such a large team, OKRs were a necessity for Intel. The idea was that one-on-one discussions, bi-weekly meetings, and transparent goals would keep everyone on track towards a common end. It was during this time that Doerr created his first OKR in regards to Intel’s latest 8-bit microprocessor, the 8080.
Demonstrate the 8080’s superior performance as compared to Motorola 6800.
- Deliver five benchmarks
- Develop a demo
- Develop sales training materials for the field force
- Call on three customers to prove the material works
He typed out his OKR, printed it, and hung it on his door where anyone walking by could see his priorities. As Doerr explains, “I found it illuminating, a beacon of focus. And it was liberating, too” (Doerr, 28).
An OKR is made up of two components. An objective describes your goal, essentially what needs to be achieved. Objectives are clearly stated and actionable, so as to help you stay focused. Key results describe the steps you need to take in order to meet your objective. Key results are measurable and aggressive. “You either meet a key result’s requirements or you don’t; there is no room for gray area, no room for doubt” (Doerr, 7) In addition, key results are also “time-bound,” usually by quarters. At the end of each quarter, you can assess whether or not you fulfilled the key results or not.
Doerr honed his OKR expertise with the help of Andy Grove. Grove emphasized that less is more. Objectives should focus on what matters most and key results should be limited to no less than three and no more than five. When you set goals from the bottom up, as opposed to top-down objectives, OKRs can promote engagements among individual and teams. OKRs are meant to be a group effort, no one person dictates other people OKRs. They are in place to establish priorities and define how progress will be measured. If an OKR no longer seems practice, key results can easily be modified. Finally, don’t be afraid to set goals that are out of your comfort zone, and possibly unattainable. Stretch goals can sometimes surprise you!
As Doerr explains, OKRs have four “superpowers”:
- Focus – OKRs are a communication tool across departments, teams, and individuals.
- Align – With transparent goals, team members can share their goals, and individually link objectives to the big picture game plan.
- Track – Since OKRs are data-driven, they’re easy to track. Check-ins, a grading system, and peer feedback all contribute to constructive criticism and accountability.
- Stretch – Stretch OKRs test your limits and challenge you to go beyond the bare minimum.
Case Study: The Nuna Story
The Nuna story describes Jini Kim’s quest to build a new Medicaid data platform from the ground up – a stretch objective for sure. However, with the use of OKRs, Nuna came to fruition in 2014. After her brother is diagnosed with severe autism, Kim was tasked with the responsibility of signing up her family for Medicaid. Then, in 2004, Kim worked on Google Health, which emphasized how beneficial data is for improving healthcare. The issue: accessing the data is quite difficult. Hence, the need for transparent data led to Nuna.
After many rejections, Nuna received $30 million in funding. At the same time, the startup won a contract to build a database for all Medicaid members with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. This required the startup to scale substantially and quickly. What was once 15 employees grew to be 75, so Kim needed a way to keep her team on track; thus, she decided to implement OKRs. Through trial and error, Kim found that for OKRs to work, she needed to “keep after people” and be transparent about her own objectives. Once she shared her own OKRs, others warmed up to the process. As Kim describes, “It showed everyone that I, too, was accountable. Our contributors feel free to evaluate my OKRs and tell me how to improve them, which made all the difference” (Doerr, 73). Her objective is simple and to-the-point: “Continue to build a world-class team.” This objective was measured against three key results:
- Recruit 10 engineers
- Hire commercial sales leaders
- One hundred percent of candidates feel they had a well-organized, professional experience even if Nuna does not extend an offer
Thanks to OKRs, Nuna has succeeded in meeting their objective. They’ve built a secure and flexible platform that stores private health information for than 74 million Americans. In the future, and with the continued use of OKRs, Kim aims to extend the platform to educate policymakers, drive analytics, and help predict future ailments. “It’s a daunting commitment. But as I learne at Google: The hairier the mission, the more important your OKRs.”
Why Use OKRs?
Not only do OKRs keep you on track to meet your goals, whether they be personal goals or departmental goals, they also encourage individuals to engage in their work. This, in turn, contributes to a healthier and more positive work environment. Doerr explains that “less than a third of U.S. workers are ‘involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace” (Doerr, 10). Those disengaged individuals believe they can find a better job somewhere else and are more likely to leave. With engaged employees, individuals are more likely to work towards self-improvement, which also correlates with a company’s success.
OKRs make way for conversation, feedback, and recognition (CFR), as opposed to traditional performance reviews. The combination of these aspects promote a sound OKR culture.
Instead of an annual performance review, one-on-one meetings open the floor to a personalized conversation. In this case, the employees should do most of the talking and explain what they’re doing, how they’re doing, and where they can improve. Doerr describes five areas of conversation to consider for efficient one-on-one meetings.
- Goal setting and reflection – Align individual objectives and key results with organizational priorities
- Ongoing progress updates – Data-driven check-ins on employees’ real-time progress
- Two-way coaching – Help contributors reach their potential and managers do a better job
- Career growth – Develop skills, identify growth opportunities, and expand employee’s vision of the future
- Lightweight performance reviews – Gather inputs and summarize what the employee has accomplished since the last meeting.
Feedback naturally follows conversation. Peer feedback brings teams together and promotes healthy communication. This is the time to share OKRs and give other team members suggestions on how they can improve and align.
It seems obvious that recognition would promote a positive work environment, but how often is it actually given? Surely recognition is provided after your team finishes a big project, but completing smaller tasks are just as important. Doerr offers a handful of ways to implement recognition:
- Consistent peer-to-peer recognition inspires gratitude
- Establish clear criteria for actions and results, whether it be the completion of a project or a demonstration of company values
- Provide a narrative behind the accomplishment in order to provide context and meaning
- Recognize smaller accomplishments as well
- Tie recognition to company goals and strategies
With OKRs, you set your own goals and your own deadlines, thus, you are accountable for your success or lack thereof. Team leaders should encourage the use of OKRs and share their own among team members. With each OKR cycle, you either find that you met your goals, in which case you can push yourself harder during the next cycle. On the other hand, you may find that you need to improve in certain areas. In fact, if you are constantly succeeding at meeting your OKRs, you might not be pushing yourself hard enough. At the end of each cycle, it’s important to reflect on your experience. Ask yourself what contributed to your success if you accomplished your objectives. If you didn’t, ask yourself what obstacles stood in your way and how can you change. With such a high success rate, Sevaa Group is ready to try out OKRs in our own workflow. As Nuna’s story shows, even smaller companies can grow on a national level. However, it takes the help of OKRs to sustain such success.