I love a simple system. There’s something about coming across a thing that just does what it’s supposed to do and helps me do what I’m supposed to do that really makes my heart sing.
I’m drawn to complicated people. I love a twisty plot. But I’m completely turned off by an overwrought system. It’s why I’ve never been able to make a BuJo stick. I don’t want my planner to become an art project. I just want to get to my appointments on time.
Every once in a while I come across a super simple system that makes me so excited. Often, it comes right at the time when I need it.
That’s how it was with OKRs.
It started because I wanted to buy a Rocketbook. You know — the notebook you can erase and reuse over and over. There’s a style that has built-in templates. One of those is an OKR template
I’d never heard of an OKR, so I Googled. Which is ironic, of course, because Google is deeply connected to this simple system of goal setting. Apparently they started using it in year one and still credit it for both their huge success and their reputation for being a great employer.
So, I Googled. And I found out that OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. You can read that as: What you want and how you’re going to get it.
Sounds almost too simple right?
I get it. I felt the same way. Basically, OKRs involve naming what you want and then deciding what having that thing looks like. This is how Google took over the world? Really?
But the more I thought about it, the more excited I got. OKRs cut away all the crap. They carve out your heart’s desire and leave everything else behind. And that opens up space for removing emotion and confusion. Which leaves room for innovation and ideas.
The question becomes did you do this work? And the answer is yes, or it’s no. Period.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m extremely driven by work. I love what I do and my life philosophy, basically, is to outwork everyone. But it can be incredibly frustrating and demoralizing to work and work and work, and still not get where you want to be.
OKRs are a way to see exactly why something like that might happen.
Here’s an example.
Around the start of this year, I reached my personal capacity for work with my business, Ninja Writers. There was absolutely nothing wrong with my business the way it was, as a mostly one-woman show with some part-time assistant-style help.
But if I wanted to implement some of my cooler ideas, I needed a team. I had to decide between Ninja Writers holding steady or Ninja Writers growing. I decided that I wanted it to grow.
So my Objective was this: To build a Ninja Writers team. Only I needed to refine that a little, because that could mean pretty much anything. So I sat down and really thought about what I wanted.
I thought about the people I already had on my team, because there were people. I had two part-time assistants and a couple of people who taught workshops in the Ninja Writers Academy. What did I want being part of the Ninja Writers team to look like for them?
All of them have their own big dreams. They are writers. They want to take on and change the world with their own ideas. And I didn’t want to absorb them into my business and stop those amazing things. I wanted to make working for me something that would actually help them to reach their own goals, too.
Objective: To hire five full-time team members by January 2021 who fill gaps in Ninja Writers and become a model of cooperative work.
That’s my what. The hows are the Key Results. And they are, frankly, a little scary. Because in order to build a team like that, I needed to be very sure that hiring those people would increase the bottom line at Ninja Writers enough to, you know, pay them.
Identify three Ninja Writers who are already doing work in the community to add to the two part-time employees I already have.
Increase the Ninja Writers Club membership to 1000 subscribers within a year.
Increase the Ninja Writers Academy capacity from 100 to 200 by 2022.
Create the Ninja Writers Press and commission our first ten books by January 2021.
Build the Working Writer Program and create a system by January 2021 where every Ninja Writer learns how to increase their income by at least the cost of being in the Ninja Writers Club ($25 per month.)
It’s okay to think big. Really big.
The OKR I shared with you above is concrete. It’s not aspirational, even though it feels huge to me. Hiring three new team members and bringing all five of them up to not only full-time status, but pay them well (which is important to me), means an increase in revenue that takes my breath away.
Add to that the idea that I don’t want to just hire people who need a job. I want working for Ninja Writers to be something incredible. The idea of cooperative work, where we all build up each other, to become a reality for my team.
I’ve set a six-month timeline for myself. In six months, I want to be able to pay my team for full-time work.
If you want to make your own OKRs, I highly suggest you start with brainstorming. Think about what you want. Not what you think you can have. Not what feels reasonable.
This works for personal Objectives, too. Here are some of mine:
- Buy a house that I’ll want to live in for the next ten years.
- Pay off my student loans in five years.
- Take an extended overseas trip with my children.
- Write one publishable novel every year.
Key Results are more straightforward.
It’s important that the ‘hows’ are measurable and time bound. Once you’ve identified what you want, your Key Results need to be very clear and very obvious.
You should be able to look back at them and answer the question ‘did I meet this Key Result’ with either yes or no.
Did I identify three Ninja Writers who were already doing work in the community? Yes.
Have I increased the Ninja Writers Club membership to 1000? No. Not yet. I’m still working on this.
The magic of Key Results is that they make decision making so easy. When I have an idea or I have to decide whether or not to give my time to a project in the next six months I can ask myself: will this help me to grow the Ninja Writers Club to 1000 members by January 2021?
If the answer is yes, then the answer is yes. If it’s no, then it’s no. Simple.
Failure is encouraged.
I can’t tell you how much that idea excites me.
Instead of a culture where success means everything, OKRs create an atmosphere where it’s okay to try and fail. If we, as a team, aim for something big and miss — that’s okay. We can figure out what happened and try again.
It’s a simple, simple system that’s based on my favorite thing: ideas.
Ideas are magical. They’re important. They are my personal currency. It’s very clear to me that using OKRs in my business and my personal life is a way to harness those ideas and see how far they can take me.
We are here for the innovation.
Here’s what I want for Ninja Writers. My overall Objective.
I want to build the most incredible writing community on the planet.
That’s my aspirational goal. It’s not easy to quantify. It’s not timebound or specific. And in order to reach it anyway, the focus will have to be on innovation. Because you can’t be the most incredible if you’re doing the same old thing that everyone else is.
We have to be ready to pivot. Like when a pandemic hits and the economy goes unsteady — and it becomes suddenly crystal clear that Ninja Writers can help writers use their skills to support themselves.
We have to be a part of our own community. It’s not enough to just offer a few programs and wish everyone who decides to try them good luck. We need to do the work ourselves, to show that it’s possible. We have to know our community intimately.
OKRs are all about that innovation. Where do you want to innovate? What part of your life do you want to reach a little deeper into? Create your Objectives there. Then build your Key Results around those objectives.
OKRs are the difference between wanting something and doing it.
It almost doesn’t matter what you know. It’s execution that’s everything. — Andy Grove
I spend so much of my time talking to people who really want something: to be writers. I have no doubt, at all, about the depth of their desire. And some of them have done a lot of work to learn how to be writers. They have formal educations. They’ve read the craft books. They’ve joined the communities.
They’ve joined my community, which is why I’m talking to them.
But often there’s a disconnect between really wanting something and knowing how to do it, and actually doing it. Creating an OKR that involves your writing goal could be a game changer.
It might look something like this:
Objective: To earn $1000 per month as a writer.
- Write a novel (or other book) in the next six months.
- Identify my blogging niche in the next thirty days.
- Write 200 blog posts in the next six months.
- Build an email list of 500 people by the end of 2020.
If you do those four things — which are all within your control — you’ll be much, much more likely to reach your objective.
Maybe your objective isn’t money related. Maybe it’s something like this:
Objective: To have a novel published by a major press.
- Plot a novel in the next eight weeks.
- Write that novel in six months.
- Identify 50 agents to query and query them within 8 weeks of finishing my novel’s final draft.
Will those key results promise that the novel you write will be published? Nope. That part is not in your control and maybe the novel you write when you complete your Key Results won’t be the one.
We’re encouraging failure here, right? You can’t get to success without reaching failure, especially in this case.
But a better question is this: Can you reach your objective without those key results? Also, nope. You need a completed novel and you need an agent (usually) to be published traditionally by a major press.
If your objective is different, maybe you have Key Results that center on sending your book to small press editors. Or preparing to self-publish.
The magic bean is simple. And I love that. Identify what you want. Figure out what you have to do to get that thing. Then do the work.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation, Rebel Nation, The Astonishing Maybe, and Center of Gravity. She is the original Ninja Writer.