Sowing the seeds of OKRs

Livia Labate
8 min readDec 30, 2016

A 90-day experiment with Objectives and Key Results

My backyard on August 16, 2016

Note: If you are new to OKRs, check out The Art of The OKR.

I’ve followed Christina Wodtke’s writing on OKRs for a long time and have been intrigued about how she’s adapted them for personal use as I watch her kick ass and take names (and write books, and travel, and cook, and eat amazing things, and so on).

Five months ago I moved to Kigali, Rwanda with my family, where I am taking a year off; my living circumstances, outlook and energy level have changed significantly. On Christina’s invitation, I decided to try using OKRs to frame what I wanted to have happen over the last quarter, including sharing progress on a weekly basis.

This is what I learned.

1. Stressing out about getting started is overrated

The time and effort required to define personal OKRs is less than the time you catastrophize about it in your mind. Setting OKRs as a team or as a manager adds a bunch of really convenient constraints to what you are doing, while doing something entirely for your own self means you and your neuroses are the only obstacles.

The good thing about OKRs though, is you only get to pick one thing for the period, so tough luck, pick one and be done. It took 2 days — a draft, one iteration, feedback, final OKRs:

Written on October 6th, 2016

Christina’s wisdom: The first time you do OKRs, you mess up. The question is, how will you mess up?

The certainty I’d get it wrong the first go around made me more comfortable than I usually am with considering the initial setup done. It felt more like I was just testing a tool than a referendum on my personal decisions and ability to plan.

2. Identifying appropriate metrics felt easier for personal OKRs

I have done a lot of work on metrics, analytics and so on. People are generally not good at defining and selecting metrics of success, which has direct impact in how performance is framed, understood and acted upon.

OKRs, better than sticks amirite™️

Expectedly, defining a good metric (measure or indicator) and its target (value) is often a point of stress; if you are measuring the wrong thing you might as well not be measuring anything.

In this case, however, a personal OKR (or at least the one I chose for this quarter) had a lot to do with my sense of self-satisfaction. The metrics were definitely concrete but *I* am the measuring tool for this so there was little tension in selecting or doubt about their validity.

Christina’s wisdom: Do not change your OKRs [or metrics] halfway through.

Knowing this was it for a 3-months period made me focused. Setting targets upfront meant I did not worry about trying to tweak the metrics themselves during the period. This is non-trivial. It really allowed my brain to not think about the methodology and just do the work. There is some comfort in knowing there are 90 days for the lessons about the appropriateness of metrics to come rather than trying to tweak it constantly.

The proto-garden, fenced, sown, October 12, 2016.

3. Positive external accountability with progress not performance

During this quarter, Christina, Donna and myself emailed weekly with an update on how much progress we each had made on our respective OKRs and what was planned for the following week. Having to send weekly emails because someone is expecting you to do so is very motivating; it helped a lot that it was with my friends.

Here’s what an email looks like, notes on the left:

Since each of our OKRs were different (unlike emails you’d send to a team about shared OKRs), I felt no qualms about performance not being good; it was my opportunity to reflect on why I didn’t make progress on something (which I explicitly committed to on the prior week) and just say that to someone who cared.

Christina’s wisdom: Part of the work is to keep trying. Don’t lose hope. Be late a day. Mess up, forgive yourself, try again. It’s like Yoga and meditation. It’s a practice.

Additionally, I’d often hear encouraging feedback as well as advice on how to do things better. Reading about two other people kicking ass or faltering on something that’s hard is equally edifying and helped me be much more forgiving of myself as well as enthusiastic about very small gains I’d probably would have dismissed otherwise.

4. Code Red! Keeping the boat afloat

In addition to tracking progress towards OKRs, the weekly email contains Health Metrics. These are the things that need to happen regardless of the work put towards making progress on the OKRs. Taking care of yourself, your family, whatever it is for you.

Take care of your people first or your project won’t matter anyway.

In a way, keeping track of health metrics is less about those metrics than it is about risk mitigation for the OKR work, as keeping these in good condition means keeping emergencies at bay.

These are the things that if you drop the ball on, they are going to take over and you won’t be able to work on OKRs. Looking back at the weekly emails, I’m thrilled to see how noticing a declining health metric (green followed by yellow next week, then red another) made it clear that the following week’s priorities had to be about bringing that back to green, or at least out of red (thus Code Red).

Christina’s wisdom: Call a Code Red on [declining] health metrics, and choose to let OKRs falter while you address them.

This was eye-opening because unaddressed health metrics is where excuses come from (and your motivation goes to die). What I liked about this model is that this is anticipated. Shit’s gonna happen that breaks your ongoing infrastructure and you’re gonna need to stop and deal with it. By having it tracked over time on weekly emails you have clarity on what happened, how it happened and how long it took you to recover from it.

5. Weekly emails made this retrospective easy

my favorite thread in the inbox

Speed reading through 60+ emails exchanged between the three of us over the quarter made it easy to scan for patterns and reflect on what worked and didn’t work.

It was obvious to me what I was avoiding/procrastinating on versus what came easily; what was a straightforward activity versus a victory conquered through good, hard and satisfying work.

It showed me how and why I am hard on myself on some things and why I cut myself slack on other things. It gave me a richer sense of how the metrics and targets I chose were appropriate or not to my OKRs.

It reminded me that my friends are wicked smart and good listeners and have real, normal, human struggles like I do and we can help each other.

Christina’s Wisdom: When we do not live up to our plans, it’s good to
RESPECT we are humans
FORGIVE and let go of an instinct to blame
Become CURIOUS and ask, what happened?
LEARN what gets in our way
HYPOTHESIS a new approach
Try again.

I failed to send my email many times during this quarter, and sometimes remembered on Wednesday or Saturday the following week. No matter, I knew there was no judgment and that it would be welcomed and read.

6. I actually got the thing done

The garden on November 25, 2016

If this isn’t the best measure of success, I don’t know what is (so meta). This project was a dream. The desire and motivation were always there but I couldn’t make it happen because of various circumstantial reasons. And now I did it. It’s done. Check.

Over the past quarter I had the time and decided to make it a priority. Would I have been successful had I not been using OKRs? I can’t say, but today I think probably not. Defining the KRs just as I was starting to struggle with some initial issues (dry season, animals destroying things, never having done anything like this before, etc), really helped me get over the stress as well as overcoming concrete barriers (such as objectively thinking about how to solve a poorly defined problem because now I had to tell other people what I had done!).

Did I successfully reach my objective because I had OKRs? No, I did it because I did the work. But the model gave me a framework to keep focus, to keep myself accountable, to celebrate the small successes along the way and most importantly, to course-correct when things were not working.

When I first bit into the most delicious radish I’ve ever harvested, I wasn’t thinking about OKRs, I was thinking about what a badass I am for making that happen. And how much I like radishes.

They are really delicious.

So, are Personal OKRs worth it?

Having the OKRs to frame my activities over the last quarter felt right and it gave me a level of support for what I was doing that I was not expecting, nor would I have known to seek out. I really enjoyed this experience so I am going to do it again in Q1 2017.

Finally, in Christina’s own words:

“So much of my practice is just showing up each week. If I’m a day late, or don’t reach my goals, I have to remind myself that’s why I do this. OKRs are shoot for the moon goals, so making them all the way isn’t always possible. And it’s about having a rhythm in my life, a way to remind myself what I want and to keep working on it.”

How do I get started?

Christina just wrote about her lessons learned in 3 years of Personal OKRs.

I certainly recommend you read Radical Focus or listen to the audio book (which I did as I started this one-quarter experiment as a refresher of the model, and it was awesome. Also you can conveniently do this while you weed and till soil, so…).

While you wait for the book to download, read Christina’s intro to Personal OKRs and Give Up Your Resolutions posts.

Post script: Christina, thank you for being so incredibly generous, always, with your ideas and support. Here’s to another round of awesomeness you’ve given me. Much love, cheers.

P.S.2: If you want to see what happens to the garden, follow along.