Working with OKRs Isn’t Always About Getting 100%, But it is Always About Ambition

by Roger Longden | Apr 27, 2017

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Objectives and Key Results (OKRs for short) are changing how companies define and communicate success. Why not have a read through our free beginners guide to OKRs to get more information on how you can align and grow your company.

One of the aspects of working with OKRs I am often asked about is getting their “calibration” right. How do you find that optimal balance between being ambitious and becoming 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 take.

Instead, OKRs are a set of principles and practices that. When combined, they can bring about a win-win situation for both the business and its people. It’s all down to interpretation and application.

Google has been one of the most vocal companies in their early adoption and continued belief in OKRs. They believe that an OKR should be really ambitious. It should encourage a shot at the stars and feel a little daunting at the start of the quarter. At the end of the quarter, if the OKR has been 100% achieved, their general belief is that it might have been a little on the easy side.

In their opinion, the success zone should sit around 70% to 80% achievement. Anything below that, and the OKR might have been just a step too far.

I get what Google is driving at here. Working with OKRs is all about the stretch. However, they also require a fine balancing act.

Here’s what I suggest:

  • Don’t expect to get OKRs right from day one. You will learn just how far you can stretch as you go through your first few cycles working with OKRs across your teams.
  • Build up to it. You want people to feel motivated by working with OKRs, and the best way to build them up is by setting them up to succeed from day one. This sense of achievement helps to embed a positive feedback loop. Therefore, early OKRs should be calibrated so your team can get to 100%. Then you can build the stretch up from this starting point.
  • Get your team to come up with the stretch themselves. Use a challenging coaching question when agreeing a Key Result. When an individual comes up with their first suggestion, respond with something like “that’s great. How confident do you feel of hitting that, on a scale of 1-10?” 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 “OK, what would a 10 look like?” This encourages them to challenge themselves and think bigger. Ask them what they need from you to help make that stretch happen, and if they can sign up to it. If they agree to it, then you have your stretch.

In order to dispel the idea that anything less than 100% is falling short, I’ve seen some systems (like use a traffic light approach to represent a team’s OKR score as progress towards the success zone. Once their achievement score hits 700+, it turns green which reinforces the sense they are on track.

Treat OKRs as a work in progress

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

OKRs represent a performance management methodology which connects the work of individual employees to your company’s overall strategy. Looking to learn more? Read our blog ‘What are OKRS and how can they help my business?’

Download your Beginner's Guide to OKRs