How to write good OKRs?

Team planning their OKRs on a whiteboard

A quick guide for a new OKR cadence

You’re probably sitting right now at your desk with a task to write OKRs for yourself, your team, a department, or the entire company. It is the end of the current quarter or the start of a new one. And I bet you’re looking for a piece of easy, ready-to-implement advice that will help you with your task. If you can relate to the situation described, then this is a good place for you.

If you know what the plans are for the team or the company, then I can assure you – this is easier than you think. It’s just a matter of expressing these plans and high-level goals as OKRs. It’s a skill like any other that you can master with practice. I’ll give you some tips you can apply right away on your OKR draft with a mix of some OKR- defining theory.

If you’re not sure in which direction the company or the team should go, then it is not an OKR issue. You should always start the work on OKRs when you have some vision in mind.

Forming an OKR

Let’s start with the theoretical part. As you may know, OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. The Objectives should be aspirational, descriptive, outcome-oriented goals you set for all levels of your company. Objectives at the company level are like a north star that guides everyone in the direction that is provided by the C-level team. After reading these objectives, everyone should know what is most important for the company and what they should achieve during this particular quarter or year. And the same is true for any other level below the company’s goals. The only unknown is how these goals should be achieved.

That’s where the key results come in. Key results of each objective tell you when the objective is achieved. They answer a question: What should happen in order for the objective to be true? The key results should be clear to track, well-defined and measurable. As hard as it sometimes is to find a measurable goal that is not a to-do item, it is worth it, believe me.

Diving into practical aspects

Let me show you an example. A good objective for a software company that develops a mobile app would be: Become a top-selling app in Apple App Store this year. That’s a clear vision. Our app is not among the top-selling apps right now, but it’s prospecting well. The management team wants it to grow enough so that the Apple App Store would categorize it as a top-selling app. 

If you wanted to define key results for this objective, you’d need to think about what makes an app qualify as a top-selling app. What other top-selling apps have and what you lack? What would need to happen in the product and marketing areas in order for the app to achieve this objective? It doesn’t mean, however, that it’s 100% sure that your app will become a top-selling app if you meet all the expectations set by your KRs. It will usually be just a theory, but hopefully, one that’s based on solid research.

Circling back to our OKR-writing example

The key results for the Become a top-selling app in Apple App Store this year objective could be:

  • Grow app downloads from 5 000 to 10 000 per month
  • Increase average monthly conversion rate from 13% to 20%
  • Increase the number of 5-star reviews from 35 to 200 

You know that the top-selling apps have about 5 000 MAU. You also know that it’s not possible to generate a significant amount of active customers within a year with the conversion rate you have now. So in order for you to grow this number of customers, you need to increase both the number of app downloads and the conversion rate. Moreover, your app doesn’t have as many 5-star reviews as the top-selling apps. It is likely that having more excellent reviews would create a snowball effect and set you right for success. You estimate that with these numbers going up, your app has a good chance of becoming a top-selling app. You don’t know for sure, but the benchmarks and the specialists you have in the company can confirm that. And that’s enough.

So what are the secrets to writing good OKRs?

Hopefully, you get the nature of objectives and key results by now. Now it’s time for the quick OKR-writing tips I promised.

  1. Don’t write too many top-level OKRs

    OKRs are supposed to focus a company’s attention, not disperse it. It’s absolutely crucial that you have just a few top-level objectives, tackling different areas of growth. Underneath each of these top-level ones, you’ll have another 3-5 sub-objectives coming from the teams or departments. Then, depending on the company size and practices, sometimes you’ll have another one or two levels of sub-objectives. The OKR tree is growing really fast vertically, so you need to remember to make it narrow at the top. I’d say 3-5 focus areas are doable for most companies. You can try adding more if the company is mature and operating at scale.

    Extra tip: Try what works for your company. If you had 6 top-level OKRs one quarter and achieved them all, that’s great. If you failed at 2 of them, try having 5 top-level OKRs next quarter and see if that would be easier to achieve.
  2. Define before launch

    The reasoning behind the OKRs you’ve come up with may be obvious for you at the time of writing them down. However, in some time and for others it might not be that clear. If you’re using OKR software, it’s usually possible to add some description. If you’re still in the docs and spreadsheets era, then adding a few sentences wouldn’t definitely be an issue.

    With objectives, describe where you’re at now and what this goal means for the team or company. Try to be inspirational, as you and the others will revisit this description quite often. With key results, always describe how you’re going to measure the result – the timeframe, the tools, the process. Think about how often you will update the value, where you will check it, etc. For project-like KRs, when it’s usually not easy to define the progress, define a scale of your own based on the milestones. Or consider them binary. In any case, define how you’ll be measuring the progress of key results before you launch them.

    Extra tip: After writing your OKRs, ask somebody from a very different team if they understand what you want to achieve and what is your plan for it.
  3. Write the OKRs together

    OKRs are a collaborative process. It’s good to engage as many people as possible at the OKR defining stage, in order to keep them engaged later on. A good approach is setting the OKRs bi-directionally. This means the top-level OKRs are set by the company’s management and the sub-objectives are set by the departments or teams that will be doing most of the work on them. They know best how to achieve the objectives and what’s realistic. Moreover, they’ll own it – it’s something they’ve set for themselves, thus they’ll be more active in the process.

    Extra tip: Seek feedback on the OKRs you’ve written yourself. Both you and the reviewers will benefit from it.
  4. Aim for clarity

    No matter if it is the language, the acronyms, or the vision. Make sure everyone is on the same page, that the descriptions are clear, the process understood, and the OKR tool adopted. Think how easy it would be for another person to jump into this OKR machine if needed. OKRs are supposed to bring people together. People should be able to get insights into what other teams are doing and understand how it impacts other teams. The management should be able to understand the overall performance despite not knowing the marketing slang. And the marketing team should be able to react if the tech team won’t meet the deadline of a planned launch. As always, communication is key.

    Extra tip
    – if your organization or team is new to the OKRs, have one company-level OKR this quarter for adopting the OKR process.

How do you feel about writing OKRs now?

I hope that this mix of OKR theory with practical tips will help you write good OKRs reflecting the company’s needs and aiming it for growth. Remember that the OKRs should serve you and the company. Each quarter, there is a new chance to correct what was wrong the last time and to learn from the mistakes everyone made. This way, each quarter you’ll start off wiser and more experienced. No matter if you’re just before your first OKR launch or if you’re a few years into this process, there’s always something to improve.

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