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Replace Resolutions with OKRs this New Year

Another year is here and accompanying it are a deluge of resolutions, some carrying over from the past year with renewed vows and others brand new, waiting to be forgotten as the year trundles along. “I’ll go to the gym regularly this year” begins with a bang, i.e. an annual membership at a local fitness center. But dissolves into nothingness like a firework in a new year’s eve celebration.

Individuals may have a hard time sticking to their personal resolutions but when it comes to work, they often are able to stay true to their respective companies’ goals for the year. Why? It may seem like the answer is that they get paid at work but it has more to do with the various ways companies are able to enforce accountability through the year.

A technique that has found favor with a lot of successful companies is Objectives and Key Results or OKRs, a framework for defining and tracking objectives and their outcomes (as defined on Wikipedia). One reason I personally like them is because they help in being data-driven, are based on numbers, and keep the emotion out from whatever goal one may have. On the other hand, resolutions are almost always emotion driven and by that fact, it is hard to measure progress toward achieving them.

Let’s take the earlier example — “I’ll go to the gym regularly this year”. A common resolution but a tricky one to achieve. There are two major issues with it — it is not clear what “regularly” means and why go to the gym in the first place? What’s the objective? It may be clear in the head what it is at the start of the year, but hard to measure and course correct when you deviate from “regularly” as the year progresses or do not get the right intermediate results. Instead, sample the following -

Objective: Be more fit

Key Result 1: Shed 3 kg every three months

Key Result 2: Run a 5K in April

Key Result 3: Run a 10K in August

Key Result 4: Run a half-marathon in December

Within the OKR framework, one would come up with a set of objectives (usually limited to two or three) for a given time frame, and then a set of key results (KRs, again usually limited to a low single digit) to measure progress toward each objective (O). Accompanying them would be starting values for each KR. Then, at regular intervals, one would check-in and measure progress. Note that gym isn’t mentioned in the OKRs above because going to the gym is an action (or initiative in OKR terminology) you may take to get to KR1 (or other KRs). It is up to the individual to decide how best to lose 3 kg every three months. For example, another way is to cut down on calories, or perhaps rig the weighing machine. In fact, the individual is free to include going to the gym as a KR but it must be phrased in such a way that it can be measured.

Key Result 5: Go the to the gym 250 days out of 365 days

Key Result 6: Exercise 1 hour every day on gym days

It is easy to create too restrictive or too liberal KRs so finding a balance while writing KRs is important. Evidently, to follow the OKR model, it is important to know how one would measure any KR. It prompts keeping a good amount of documentation, like daily notes in a personal diary or a phone app. At the end of the year, usually one would give a completeness ranking on a scale of 0 to 1 to each KR and average it to obtain progress toward the objective. So, one may not end up losing 12 kg by the end of the year, but finding out that it was close at 10 kg would certainly bring a lot of joy!

Think about an emotional goal for the year, like repair relationship with parents. It is hard to separate the emotion out of such a personal desire and to know six months into the year whether you made any progress or not. Let’s try to run this through the OKR framework.

Objective: Improve relationship with parents

Key Result 1: Call parents at least a day every week for 52 weeks, and on special events, like birthdays, anniversary, festivals

Key Result 2: 50% calls greater than or equal to 10 minutes duration

Key Result 3: Visit parents 2 times this year, at least one during <insert festival of choice>

It is, of course, not guaranteed that this will fix a broken relationship but achieving majority of KRs would certainly result in a better relationship than what it was at the start of the year. As evident, the OKR framework forces you to think about the objective and how to break it down into achievable and more importantly, measurable pieces keeping the emotion aside.

So replace resolutions with OKRs this new year, and ain’t that a resolution!

technologist, reader, occasional writer