How to Set and Achieve Your Goals — the Google Way

A Beginner’s Guide to OKRs

MT
MT
Mar 30 · 8 min read

uring the first few years of my journey as a software engineer and a data scientist, I have watched good, ambitious goals and projects crashed with a little or no use despite months of development. Making sure we set and achieve high-impact goals is a critical responsibility at the start of the project cycle. One framework I came across, that has successfully been adopted by a variety of industries from high-tech companies like Google and Netflix to retail startups like Allbirds is the OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) concept.

The OKRs (objectives and key results) can help you achieve your goals — no matter what kind they are. Whether they are individual or company goals, and whether you just started working as an individual contributor or have been managing a team for quite sometime, OKRs will help align your daily work to your overarching objectives that you set for the quarter.

The evangelizer of OKRs himself, John Doerr, said in “Measure What Matters”: “Ideas are easy, but execution is everything.”

What motivated me to religiously learn about, and now share the practice of OKRs, is the fact that not only has it helped me achieve both personal and group goal-setting as an engineer, but it has also kept me grounded in my core values:

  1. Having a written set of targets after collaboratively evaluating them with my team has consistently fueled my interests in the ever-interesting problems of the hardcore engineering world.
  2. Staying aligned with my boss and team has strengthened my work relationships in the most intentional way. It is a feedback loop that keeps me aligned with my goals, and makes me feel like I am accomplishing something and making a difference in the lives of people around me — from stakeholders to customers, both directly and indirectly.

An OKR process can help you turn good ideas into great execution. They tighten employee engagement and drive high-performing teams. In this article, you’ll learn three main things:

  1. What is OKR?
  2. Why OKRs: Focus, Alignment, Commitment, Tracking, and Stretching (read: facts!)
  3. How to write OKRs that can help measure progress, with examples

What is OKR?

Objectives and Key Results, or short for OKRs, are a goal setting methodology that can help teams set measurable goals. While most companies set goals, only 16% of knowledge workers say their company is effective at setting and communicating company goals. [1]

Goals come in two pieces, Objective and Key Result.

  • Objectives are the “what.” They describe the path forward, the place you want to be.
  • Key Results are the “how.” They provide the roadmap for accomplishing your Objectives.

Marissa Mayer, the former CEO of Yahoo, once said: “It’s not a Key Result unless it has a number”.

Key Results need to be quantitative and measurable, regardless of what your objectives are. It sets a binary threshold on whether or not you attain your goal successfully. It helps your team to easily track their progress using a percentage system. An example of Key Results is “to reduce an average load time by 30%”.

Setting intentional objectives and quantifiable key results will not only help you stay on your path, but also boost your level of happiness at work as these small successes help build confidence in your abilities and set how expectations can be met at work.

Setting OKRs with the right intention is like answering the hard question of “What do we do next? How should we do them?” with confidence.

Why OKRs?

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, there are five keys that make up OKR benefits — which convince why we can use OKRs effectively in our day-to-day lives. [2]

  1. Focus: OKRs force us upfront with critical decision-making. When you set OKRs, you are limited to less than seven objectives and five key results per objective. Every objective should fit on one line. An OKR cycle starts with the question, What is most important for the next three (or six, or twelve) months? This time-bound query sets OKRs apart from other goal-setting systems, because they bring to the surface the initiatives that can make the highest impact for the business, while deferring less urgent ones. These few top-line OKRs can give us compass and a baseline for assessment.
  2. Alignment: Once objectives are set is when the real work begins. As they shift from planning OKRs to execution, managers, and contributors alike tie their day-to-day activities to the organization’s company-wide vision. The term for this linkage is alignment, and its value cannot be overstated. The Harvard Business Review also stated that companies with highly-aligned employees are more than twice as likely to be top performers.
  3. Commitment: Commitments can easily come once we are focused and aligned with the rest of the team. Agreed OKRs are typically followed by setting schedules and resources to ensure that they are delivered within the committed timeline. Each team member should be transparent in what they are striving for and if they are hitting their objectives or not. This is probably the hardest to do, but commitment creates consistency and transparency in the process, which will empower leadership and strengthen the team.
  4. Tracking: Speaking of consistency, there is nothing more effective than tracking your progress. Metrics monitoring has been the absolute data-driven approach popular among top-tier companies. While OKRs don’t require daily tracking, regular check-ups are essential to prevent slippage and improve our next products. In my previous team, the weekly performance updates were the most effective for generating concrete results, to also be reference points for evaluating individual or team’s quarterly performance.
  5. Stretching: This one is key in reaching ambitious goals. OKRs inherently push individuals and organizations to strive further, oftentimes to more than what they thought was possible.

“Larry Page of Google is the high priest of 10x-ing everything, stretching further. He’ll say, ‘I’d rather have the objective be to go to Mars, and if we fall short, we’ll get to the moon. This is how you make moonshots.’” — John Doerr

Could we say that the OKR benefits give us some F.A.C.T.S. we need?

How do We Write OKRs?

To best put the above knowledge into practice, we can start with a football example below:

In this example, the general manager of the team may have the one Objective: Make more money for the owner.

His two Key Results help him attain that Objective. The Key Results though, become the Objectives of his team further down the organization. For instance, ‘Win Super Bowl’ becomes an Objective of his Head Coach, who adds his own Key results. His second Key Result, ‘Fill home stands to 88% capacity’ becomes the Objective of the Head of PR.

As the image above demonstrates, key results of each of these objectives also gets distilled and cascades further down the organization. Covering the Head Coach team are the Offense, Defense, and Special Teams, while those under thee Head of PR include Scouts, News Staff, and Publicity Agent — all with their own specific objective and key results.

Credit: Perdoo, Inc.

writing our own OKRs like the above demonstration with the football example, we want to remind ourselves the importance of metrics-driven, high-impact, and straightforward objectives:

Objectives

  1. Objectives push for big, new, and exciting achievements, no more than five total
  2. Objectives are described in tangible, unambiguous terms, should be obvious to a non-expert whether an objective has been achieved
  3. Objectives describe state rather than activity, e.g. ‘achieve 99.9% uptime’ rather than ‘improve uptime’

Key Results

  1. Key results describe the success criteria of an objective, ~3 key results per objective
  2. Key results describe state rather than activity, e.g. ‘hire 3 engineers’ rather than ‘keep hiring’
  3. Key results are quantifiable with data that is easily available to anybody, e.g. public dashboards, test coverage scores, etc

Grading Exercise

Once we set the Objectives and Key Results at the start of the quarter, how do we evaluate our grade at the end of the quarter? (Lets assume our OKR cycle here is per quarter). The team can begin with a simple grading exercise as follows:

  • A five-minute exercise at the end of the cycle, e.g. quarter
  • The sweet spot for hitting Key Results is 60% to 70% success rate
  • Consistently high grades implies objectives aren’t ambitious enough
  • Low grades are not failures, but rather data points

It is recommended that your target success rate for key results be 60% to 70%. This success rate encourages competitive goal making that is meant to stretch workers at low risk. If 100% of the key results are consistently being met, key results should be reevaluated.

Summary

bjectives and Key Results may be shared across the organization with the intention of providing teams with visibility of goals with the intention to align and focus effort. OKRs are typically set at the company, team, and personal levels, with the following rules of thumb:

  • objectives are ambitious, almost uncomfortable, e.g. win super bowl.
  • key results are quantifiable milestones which directly advances the objective, e.g. 25 yard punt return average.
  • objectives and key results will be graded, e.g. at the end of quarter.
  • teams and individuals have OKRs, which should be achieved transparently.

OKRs are not…

  • OKRs are not used in annual evaluations, unless volunteered
  • OKRs are not a to-do list, objectives describe intent, key results quantify success
  • OKRs are not a substitute for sprint planning, OKRs guide sprint planning but don’t constrain it

Hopefully you learned something new and useful about goal setting and Google’s secret sauce — however big and small your current goals are. Let me know in the comments below what works and doesn’t work in the process.

To growing together 🥂

References

And more resources you might be interested.

Moorissa is a software engineer and research scientist with experience at Tesla, NASA, and the United Nations, currently being a little too obsessed with the world of embodied artificial intelligence. Her curiosity and compassion to help make the world a better place have led her to explore fascinating problems within the sustainability field — from climate change to self-driving software.

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