One of the aspects about OKRs that I often get asked about by those who are starting out with them is how to get their “calibration” right, that optimum balance between them being ambitious and stretching without seeming to far out of reach and unrealistic.

I always describe OKRs as “open-source” performance management.  There’s no rigid model that should be used, no one single approach that you either take, or don’t.  It’s a set of principles and practices that, when combined, can bring about a win/win for both the business and its people.  So it’s all down to interpretation and application.

Google have been one of the most vocal in their early adoption and continued belief in OKRs.  They believe that an OKR should be really ambitious – one that encourages a shot at the stars and feels a little daunting at the start of the quarter.  At quarter end, if it’s been 100% achieved, their general belief is that it might have been a little on the easy side.  They believe the success zone to be around 70-80% achievement.  Below that, and it might have been just a step to far.

I get what they are driving at here.  OKRs are all about the stretch, but this is a fine balancing act to achieve.  Here’s what I suggest:

  • Don’t expect to get this right from day one.  You will learn as you go through your first few cycles how far you can stretch when designing OKRs with your teams.
  • Build up to it.  You want people to feel motivated by OKRs and the best way to build them up is by setting them up to succeed from day one so the sense of achievement helps to embed a positive feedback loop.  Therefore, try to calibrate early OKR’s so they can get to 100% and then build the stretch up from there.
  • Get them to come up with the stretch themselves.  Use a challenging coaching question when agreeing a Key Result.  When they come up with their first suggestion, respond with something like “that’s great.  How confident do you feel – on a scale of 1-10 – of hitting that?”  Most will come back with a 7 or an 8, especially if they’re British as we Brits NEVER score anything as a 10.  Then try asking them “ok, what would a 10 look like?”  This encourages them to challenge themselves and think bigger.  When they answer, ask them what they need from you to help make that happen and if they can sign up to it?  If they can, then you have your stretch.
  • To help with the possible sense that anything less than 100% is falling short, I’ve seen some systems (like use a traffic light approach to representing how close a teams OKR score is to the success zone.  Once their achievement score hits 700+, it turns green which reinforces the sense they are on-track.

Remember, you are building up your own skills in how you discuss, design and agree OKRs so you are learning as you go.  The best advice is to reflect and adapt.  OKRs are great for this as they (normally) come around each quarter so you have the chance to get that bit better each time.

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