The Common Mistakes in Writing OKR

OKR is an extremely effective goal-setting practice. To successfully implement OKR, however, there are two challenges most teams must overcome during the first few weeks (or months) into their OKR implementation. The previous article explained the first challenge that is the resistance usually occurs upon the introduction of OKR. This is rather as expected because people usually don’t like change. The related participants would need to make time and effort to absorb OKR into their routine. The key to overcome resistance is iteration. You should not let resistance and failure discourage you from staying on course. You need to track closely what works, and what does not, and you do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

The second challenge is in the writing of OKR itself. A well-written OKR doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a considerable amount of time and effort to put the idea of what your OKR should be in writing. One useful tip is to avoid common mistakes people make with their OKR. Based on our own observations from coaching several teams, the common mistakes are:

1. The Objective is not inspiring

Yes, the word ‘inspiring’ is subjective, but there’s a common ground where we can agree whether it’s inspiring or not. For example, one team member created this as their Objective: Setting up a Sales Team.

An inspiring Objective motivates you to achieve your Key Results. It inspires you to take action. It can even be the first thing you remember in the morning. Setting up a Sales Team is important, but not inspiring enough. If it’s so bland, then you’ll have little motivation to accomplish it.

The team member understood our feedback and after several iterations of rewriting his Objective, he finally came up with something more inspiring: A Sales Team who is ready and confident to engage with prospective clients to drive sales revenue.

Do you see the difference?

2. The Key Result is vague

When a Key Result is vague, it will cause confusion during the OKR review. We had experienced this ourselves. Once, a team member achieved his “big” Key Result. Instead of being happy for him, we were confused because it turned out his understanding of the expected outcome was different than ours.

His Key Result was: Get five (5) new pipeline for sales lead by end of November 2018. He didn’t put any clear definition to the term sales lead. Upon review, he claimed he achieved this Key Result. His definition of sales lead was: he got the contact info of the prospective client. That was it. It was considered as achieved even though he hadn’t initiated any contact or set up any meeting, whereas the rest of the team members thought he must have contacted the prospects.

To be fair, this was also our own fault because we hadn’t properly clarified that when we first set it up. This served as another lesson for us: the importance of acknowledging our mistakes openly. When a mistake was made, everyone needs to understand what the mistake is and why it is a mistake. This understanding must come first, before we can work to find the solution. This should not be a chance to point fingers and find someone to blame. OKR should promote team learning, and to do that, openness and honesty are encouraged to be part of the team culture.

In our case, the team member realized his Key Result is vague because the understanding of “sales lead” might differ from one person to another. Does that mean we have initiated the contact? Have we set the meeting? Are they interested in our offerings?

Based on this feedback, he changed his Key Result to be more specific:Get five (5) new ‘warm’ leads by end of November 2018. (A warm lead is defined as we got the contact info, we have contacted the person, but we haven’t scheduled any meeting).

3. The Key Result is immeasurable and unquantifiable

A Key Result must be measurable and should ideally be quantifiable. Please note that measurable and quantifiable are different criteria and shouldn’t be confused. When we’re talking about OKR, measurable means there’s definitive proof whether a Key Result is achieved or not, done or not done, yes or no. Quantifiable means there’s a specific number that you want to achieve, such as: increase in revenue by 30%, reduce the churn rate by 20%, 10 new clients, etc.

We saw firsthand an example of a Key Result that is both immeasurable and unquantifiable. One person from the Sales Team tried to create his own OKR. He was new and he wanted to learn about the product knowledge first before he started to engage with clients.

His Key Result was: Understanding all the necessary product knowledge there is. His Key Result did represent outcome, but it had two problems:

  • It was immeasurable because the team would have a hard time trying to measure his understanding of all the necessary product knowledge there is; and
  • It was unquantifiable because product knowledge is qualitative.

By retaining the same idea (understanding the product knowledge), the above Key Result could be reworded to make it measurable and quantifiable:

  • To make it measurable, it’d be better to reword it into Two (2) mock presentations about the product knowledge to the internal team by December 14. This was measurable because we would know whether he was able to give two (2) mock presentations by December 14.
  • To make it quantifiable, it’d be better to add: The score for each presentation is 80. This is quantifiable because the internal team could test his product knowledge and they would be able to score it from 0 to 100.
  • So, a Key Result that is both measurable and quantifiable: Two (2) mock presentations about the product knowledge to the internal team by December 14. The score for each presentation is 80.

4. Others: Interdependency between Key Results

One Objective usually has three to five Key Results. Ideally, there should be no interdependency between these Key Results. This is for your own benefit, so that when one Key Result is not achieved, then you still have the chance to achieve the others.

An example of Key Results that are dependent on one another:

  1. Host two (2) free talks or presentations.
  2. Secure 1 paid workshop whose attendants came from the free talks/presentations. Workshop delivery doesn’t have to be in 2018.

The above Key Results show interdependency: you can only achieve the second Key Result (secure one paid workshop whose attendants came from the free talks/presentations), after you have achieved the first. This is not ideal because there’s always a chance you cannot achieve your Key Result despite your best effort. To achieve your Objective, it’s better to make each of your Key Results workable independently.

As a summary, the common mistakes people usually make with their OKR are: i) the Objective is not inspiring, ii) the Key Result is vague, and iii) the Key Result is immeasurable and unquantifiable. It is also recommended to make each Key Result workable independently.

OKR goal setting, when done properly, has the ability to help your organization yield remarkable results. While the introductory phase may have a few small bumps, any issues should be detected and quickly fixed. Once the cadence has been set and people have included OKR as part of their routine, they will not see this as additional work. As a result, they will have a better sense of ownership in their own OKR, and in most cases, they even enjoy the process of creating and implementing OKR.

After coaching one team for more than two months, we asked them what would they think about the OKR implementation, and how would they feel if we stopped the OKR practice. Their answer: they believed OKR was the right goal-setting practice for them because though it had been hard the first few weeks, they already saw the benefits of doing OKR. And, to our surprise, they also vehemently rejected the idea of stopping the OKR practice. They are OKR ambassadors!

Worth Thinking About

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, and difficulty.”- Theodore Roosevelt


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