OKR Goal Setting To Help Team Transparency & Alignment

Lessons on teams and people @work


When it comes to writing objectives for performance plans, it can be challenging to figure out the ins-and-outs of performance planning. Most people will, at least, setup goals at the beginning of the year — though the part about why or how to accomplish these goals is not well documented. It may never even get reviewed.

I have been trying out 7Geese, a start-up that makes it pretty simple to setup a top-down approach to aligning company objectives with personal objectives for performance plans. I’m still figuring it all out but so far the experience has been positive and so I’ll share some thoughts.

Prereqs

First thing is first. Do you have an idea of the yearly objectives for your company? An example would be a management strategy, a team strategy or goals that your manager has chosen for the year. This is important. Without knowing what your management wants to achieve, your own performance may fall out of alignment with the business. Make sure your management team has established team goals before you start or else, do not begin, do not pass go.

Department Objectives

These are one form of management objectives. You can think of department objectives as “projects” that benefit an overall team. It is less common that a department objective will be completed by one person alone. Most projects will have a number of sponsors, stakeholders and do-ers responsible for helping it come to reality.

Here are some examples of department objectives:

  • Grow our customer base to 1M users
  • Release an iPhone application this year
  • Increase sales to $1M
  • Reduce customer churn by 20%

As you can see, these are lofty, and big goals that no one person can accomplish alone, and so that is when each individual’s performance goals come into play. If you are thinking about your own performance goals, where do you fit into the company’s plans — where do you see yourself helping out?

Note: Goals don’t always have to bubble up into Department Goals. Some companies also have 20% do-anything-you-want time. If this is something you have in your company, then one personal objective for the year can be set aside to achieve that goal. The point is, that it is documented and truthfully, you probably stand a better chance of being able to work on it, if it is in your performance plan.

Personal Objectives

The first thing you need to identify is how many personal objectives can you manage in a year. This is different for everyone and different based on how department objectives have been drafted. I estimate that most people can set out to accomplish about 4 core personal objectives in a year.

For example, if one of your aligned department objectives is:

  • Release an iPhone application this year

The rest of your year could very well be dedicated completely to this one project and your personal objectives may look like this:

  • Develop the project plan for the iPhone app
  • Develop the back end code for the API
  • Develop the front end code
  • Find early users to test

In this case, our personal objectives will be assigned as child objectives to the Department objective. Setting it as a child objective allows for transparency. People who look at the top-down organizational objectives will see that you are directly contributing to this effort.

Ideally, you are setting up goals that can take anywhere from a quarter to multiple quarters in a calendar year to complete. These are often success oriented, such as, “I’d love if we could get the front end completed by year end.”

These goals will form your core personal objectives and guess what — they are still really vague at this point. How are you planning to accomplish these goals? That has yet to been documented, so we need to dive a bit deeper into setting some key results.

Objectives and Key Results (OKR)

Key results can be thought of as your mini-goals to completing your core personal objectives. In 7Geese, accomplishing mini-goals happen through something known as Objectives and Key Results (OKR). As you complete OKRs, they work towards the completion of your personal objective.

If we continue down with our personal objective above, how will you accomplish our personal objective to “Develop the project plan for the iPhone app” and what is the timing for this to happen? Well, we might define OKRs as:

  • Document feedback from Marketing, UX and Success teams (early Q1)
  • Document feasibility and API use with development team (early Q1)
  • Present key results to stakeholders (late Q1)
  • Document project plan (early Q2)

Each of these directly affects the outcome of the personal objective to “Develop the project plan for the iPhone app”. As each of these OKRs are completed, we are that much closer to completing our personal objective.

At this point, you might be wondering how detailed to get with child objectives? How deep does the rabbit hole go? This depends heavily on your own workflow. My general rule of thumb, is that if your OKR can be completed in one quarter (3 months) you probably don’t need any child objectives. If however, your objective will take longer, you probably need to break it down to what you can accomplish in 3 months.

Assign Target Dates by Quarter

We now have the “how” and we need the “when”. Assigning due dates help you prioritize what you were meant to do this quarter. It helps you know what to work on next, move forward and be accountable to your own goals.

I generally suggest a format where core personal objectives will take multiple quarters, and OKRs are results than can be achieved within a quarter.

OKRs = SMART

You knew it was coming, right? I’m sure you have heard that we need to make sure goals are SMART — Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. This is most important for the OKRs. For your OKRs you will want to specify exactly how you plan to accomplish your core personal objective.

In the examples I provided above, notice that they are reasonable goals that are specific, relevant to the core objective and timely with an expected target date.

  • Document feedback [relevant/measurable] from Marketing, UX and Success [specific] teams (early Q1) [timely/attainable]

I would argue that Department Goals, and Company Goals, can be a bit more lofty and management-y in nature, since the specifics will come from how everyone is working towards making that happen.

At the end of our example, this is what we will have in terms of our goals. The rest, you can probably imagine how it will fill out. This example, we had one Department Objective for the entire calendar year. For others, you may have more. It really depends on how much you feel you can get done within the year and your performance coach can be a guide on this.

Illustrating how personal objectives bubble up to team objectives. For the rest of the 3 in blue below the same would apply.

Check in and make it happen!

The most important part of this, is to check in with your company and let your manager and team know how things are progressing. The point of documenting a performance plan is for it to be your guide. Things will not always go as planned — so it is your responsibility to let your team or manager know when your goals are falling out of alignment with your work.

At minimum, management should review your performance goals at least once a quarter to make sure you are on track. If you have any pain points or concerns that have impacted you so far, now is the time to bring it up. Also, if you find that you haven’t had a goal review in the last quarter— bring that up too! Only through reviews and guidance will you gain support for completing your objectives.

Conclusion

The idea of a top-down approach to objective setting may not be the easiest thing to setup as it requires your management’s support. One thing is for sure. Tools such as 7Geese where everyone can see top-down objectives that go from objectives of a company, to department, to personnel, achieves a level of transparency and business alignment that is difficult to do with traditional, almost secretive, performance plans.

To recap:

  • Got business alignment? A plan is most effective when you are in alignment with management goals. If your management hasn’t documented their goals, at least understand what the department plans to achieve by the end of year and how you fit into that.
  • Align your core personal objectives: At most, you can probably only support 4 core objectives per calendar year. These personal objectives should support department or company objectives. Set them up as child elements so that people understand that your goals are directly influencing that part of the business.
  • Create OKRs: How do you plan to reach your core personal objectives? These are OKRs. OKRs should be results that you feel you can accomplish in 3 months. Any more than 3 months and you should break it down into something more attainable so that you have successes to talk about during performance reviews.
  • Be Accountable: Assign due dates per quarter (getting any more specific is probably overkill when you’re just starting) and ensure that your OKRs are SMART. Ensure that your manager reviews your plan at least once a quarter to address any of your concerns and make sure you are on track to achieving your goals.

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