OKR: How to Set Effective Goals
An essential element of goal-setting that is very often neglected is the importance of ensuring your goals are clear and well-defined - if your goals point the direction to move towards, the last thing you want it to be is imprecise.
There are a number of different criteria you can use to certify that your goals are not too vague - the most popular being "SMART". SMART is an acronym that helps us to include a structure and improve the effectiveness of our goals, and although different sources use the letters to refer to different things, it is typically used as follows:
Specific: Well defined, clear, and unambiguous;
Measurable: Should be possible to track your progress along the way;
Achievable: Attainable and not impossible to achieve;
Relevant: In line with the current context and environment;
Timely: With a clearly defined timeframe.
You should go through each letter and check if your goals include these qualities. The SMART criteria is helpful for the vast majority of the goals, but can also lead to very ambiguous interpretations - which led to the creation of a new and more agile framework to goal-setting: Objectives and key results (OKR).
What Is An OKR?
The acronym OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results, a popular goal management framework that was initially adopted by digital companies (Google, Airbnb, LinkedIn and many others), but quickly spread among different groups and organizations. The simplicity and the capacity of aligning different goals, however, also makes OKR an extremely powerful tool.
OKRs are set, tracked, and reviewed usually quarterly, and consists of an objective, key results and initiatives:
Objective: “Where do I want to go?”
The Objective is a simple description of our goal - it should be short, inspirational and engaging. Some examples would be:
Launch my first blog;
Get a promotion at work;
Be proud of my health.
Key Results: “How do I know if I’m getting there?”
Key Results are a set of metrics that measure your progress towards the Objective. For each Objective, you should ideally have a set of 2 to 3 Key Results - no more that, since your attention is a scarce resource. Examples:
Get an average of 500 page views/month;
Increase sales revenue by 15% in the quarter;
Lose 10% of my current weight.
Notice how all of these KPIs (key performance indicators) are not actions or tasks to be done. I can double the number of blog posts I write during the month, but that doesn’t mean I will reach my page views target during the period. There are also factors outside of my control in play (such as other people’s interest, for example).
Initiatives: “What will I do to get there?”
Initiatives are the activities that you will focus on and execute to influence a key result, and they are the only element that is completely within your control. Our goals give us the direction, but we can only make progress with systems - and that is when the initiatives come to play. Examples:
Publish at least 2 blog posts/week;
Call 3 new prospects every day;
Cycle to work at least twice a week.
In that sense, OKR is not only a framework but also a learning process that requires us to shift the focus from our final results to the actual activities we execute - by measuring our input and what they produce, we nurture a virtuous cycle of action and feedback. We do more of what works, and reduce (or even eliminate) what doesn't.
Common Mistakes When Using OKR
Setting too many OKRs: We can use OKRs to any part of our lives we want to change and grow - in our career, health, relationships and so on. Remember, however, that if everything is a priority, then nothing really is. The suggestion here is to start small, pick one OKR and learn with the process.
Seeing Key Results as a task list: We use Key Results to track our progress towards our goal, not if we are executing tasks - these are the Initiatives. Remember that Key Results are not completely under our control, and the idea here is to discover which activities translate into results more effectively.
Changing OKRs during the process: When you are working on your day-to-day activities, avoid any premature evaluation such as “is this action really taking me closer to my goal?”– try to, instead, focus all your energy on simply executing on the Initiatives. If you have any doubt or new idea, add it to the review notes and go back to work.
This is essential to balance execution and reflection: you can not focus on completing all your tasks efficiently if you continually consider other options, but you also need time to test your ideas in order to gather enough feedback to evaluate what is working and what is not.
Getting frustrated with results: OKRs are not just about hitting targets but about learning what we are really capable of - they push us to do continuously improve. And honestly, if you missed the Key Result of losing 10% of your current weight but got only 5%, are you was it all for nothing? You built confidence from taking action, and learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t during the process.
There are several ways to set OKRs: you can use a spreadsheet, pen and paper (recommended!) or even a dedicated software tool. We've also built a basic printable template that allows you to create your first OKRs. It’s free and simple to use, and you can get it here.