OKRs’ secret sauce

OKRs require just 3 simple ingredients that are already in every business’s cupboard, plus one more that every business needs but is sometimes harder to find…

Tony Wilson

5/1/20242 min read

Whenever I’m running an introductory OKR workshop, I tell the participants that OKRs aren’t rocket science - because they’re not! At their core, OKRs are built around three components that businesses use every day and that everyone is already familiar with - goals (objectives), measures (key results) and projects (initiatives). The magic lies is in combining these simple ingredients in the right way. Here are some of the key steps in the recipe:

  • focus on a few ambitious objectives for maximum impact, not micromanaging everything. Choose objectives that embody the most important changes you want to make in your business.

  • check that your objectives are aligned with and support your business’s vision

  • generally, choose more than one key result for each objective - it’s unusual for a single measure to fully capture the desired outcomes of an objective, and focusing on a single measure can create perverse incentives

  • use key results to regularly (weekly or fortnightly) check your progress, and use these to (honestly) report on your confidence in achieving your objectives

  • make tactical adjustments to your projects to keep your objectives on track

  • finally (and here’s where my cooking analogy breaks down), remember that using OKRs is a continuous process that involves regularly resetting objectives and key results. OKRs require you to regularly shift the goal posts. In James Carse’s language, OKRs are part of an infinite game.

So you’ve assembled the ingredients and followed the recipe, but for OKRs to truly fly you’ll need one more element - trust. OKRs are a team game and successful OKR implementation requires a high level of trust between team members, for several reasons:

  • OKRs should involve ambitious (stretch) goals. Team members need to feel safe to set and pursue ambitious goals without fearing they will be marked down for failing to fully achieve them. Good OKRs don’t involve lowball goals that are easy to achieve.

  • OKRs are about implementing change within a business and require a high level of transparency about what a business is aiming to change and what progress it is making. Change processes are much easier to achieve in high-trust cultures than in cultures where there is suspicion and patch protection.

  • OKRs rely on individuals to regularly report on progress towards objectives, and honestly identify blockers and recommend solutions. Again, getting honest and constructive assessments of progress is much easier in high trust environments.

In summary, OKRs provide an excellent framework for businesses seeking to make continuous positive change towards a well-defined vision (and shouldn’t that be all businesses?). OKRs involve a handful of concepts that employees are already familiar with and mastery of a few key processes that are not conceptually difficult. The wildcard is whether there’s enough trust within and between teams in your business to effectively apply OKRs. And if there isn’t, shouldn’t you be addressing that, regardless of whether you want to implement an OKR approach?