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How to Use OKRs in Projects

Updated: Jan 18

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are a powerful tool for setting team goals.


While there are multiple goal-setting methodologies, OKRs stand out for their adaptability, precision, and focus on alignment and accountability.


Typically OKRs are used for corporate objective setting and cascading, but here, I will unlock OKRs and explore how they can focus a project's direction and increase its chances of success.


What is an OKR?

OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results.


The technique was developed within Intel by Andy Grove in the 1960s but found fame through its use at Google under the direction of John Doerr in the 1990s. To this day, Google still uses OKRs as their predominant tool for setting corporate objectives.


Hundreds of thousands of organisations seek to emulate the success of Google and use OKRs to set their company-wide and team objectives, and here we look at using them for project management.


The approach is to define a goal through two parts: the objective and the key results.


1. Objective

This qualitative goal is designed to be ambitious, inspiring, and actionable. It outlines what you aspire to achieve in a given time frame. The objective should be easy to understand, memorable, and something people can rally around.


2. Key Results

These quantitative measures indicate that the objective is met. They should be specific, time-bound, and measurable, indicating progress toward the objective. There are usually 2-5 key results per objective.

An example of an OKR
The Structure of an OKR

The idea of OKRs is straightforward, but as with many simple concepts, getting them right can be tricky.


Let’s look at some examples.


Examples

Example 1

Let's say we want to train for a marathon. Our objective will become something like this;


Successfully complete a marathon within the next 6 months.


It's pretty concise as an objective. It's clear, outcome-focused and time-bound.

Now, let's add Key Results into the mix. They might look like this;


  1. Run at least 4 times per week for a total weekly distance of 30 km or more

  2. Increase my longest run to 30 km within 4 months

  3. Finish a half-marathon within 2 hours and 30 minutes within the first 3 months

  4. Achieve a marathon completion time of under 5 hours.


These key results are outcome-focused milestones on the road to successfully delivering our objective.


It's important to note that they are not tasks but outcomes. If we tick each of these items off as we progress, they will show progress towards and then confirmation of completion of the objective.


Example 2

Here is another example, this time for a software delivery project.


Objective:


Successfully launch our software product to capture a competitive position in the market within the next quarter.


Key Results:

  1. Complete software development milestones on time, with a focus on core features

  2. Achieve a beta-tester satisfaction rate of 80% or higher

  3. Obtain 10 client testimonials within one month of launch for marketing

  4. Generate a minimum of £50,000 in revenue within the first two months post-launch


A phrase like 'successfully launch' is subjective but is qualified in the key results. There should be no ambiguity that we meet our objective if we successfully complete key results 1 to 4.


How To Unlock OKRs To Cascade Objectives

The beauty of OKRs is that they scale and cascade very easily.


Cascading OKRs within a project enables alignment from top-level objectives to individual team or even employee goals. This hierarchical approach ensures everyone's work is strategically linked to the project's overarching aims.


When higher-level OKRs are established, subsidiary objectives and key results can be formulated at the departmental or team level to support them directly. This creates a chain of accountability and purpose that permeates the entire organisation.


An example of cascading OKRs
Structure of Cascading OKRs

Cascading OKRs helps in identifying dependencies and allocating resources more effectively. By ensuring that each level of the organisation works towards a subset of common goals, projects are more likely to stay on course and achieve their intended outcomes.


Here's an example of cascading OKRs.


Project-Level OKR


Objective:


Successfully launch the mobile application to capture a competitive position in the healthcare sector within the next quarter.

Key Results:

  1. Complete software development milestones on time, focusing on core features.

  2. Achieve a beta-tester satisfaction rate of 80% or higher.

  3. Secure 20 partnerships with healthcare providers within one month of launch.

  4. Generate a minimum of £100,000 in revenue within the first two months post-launch.


Development Team OKR

(Aligned with Project-Level Key Result 1)


Objective:


Deliver a robust and user-friendly mobile application with core features ready for beta testing within 8 weeks.


Key Results:

  1. Complete the user interface by Week 3.

  2. Finish back-end development, focusing on security and scalability, by Week 5.

  3. Conduct internal testing and debugging by Week 7.

  4. Obtain approval from the quality assurance team by Week 8.


Review Cycles

In a strategic organisational OKR cycle, annual and quarterly OKRs are the bedrock for long-term planning, with regular monthly check-ins ensuring alignment and progress. However, project-based work often requires a more agile and focused approach.

Projects can have varying durations and phases, each with unique challenges and deliverables. Therefore, adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to OKRs may not be the most effective strategy.


To cater to the specific needs of a project, consider implementing a dual-layered OKR system. Firstly, overarching OKRs for the entire project act as your "guiding north star," providing long-term vision and alignment. These could be aligned with the project's primary objectives, such as successful delivery, user adoption, or achieving a particular return on investment.


Secondly, set phase-specific OKRs that cater to the immediate goals of the project's current stage, whether that's the planning, execution, or closing phase. These shorter-term OKRs enable teams to focus on immediate tasks while contributing to the overall project objectives. These can be reviewed more frequently—perhaps bi-weekly or weekly—to ensure rapid responsiveness to project developments.


The Benefits of OKRs in Project Management

Alignment & Transparency

Using OKRs to set the project's direction sharpens minds and crystalizes intent.

Too often, poorly worded objectives that aren't outcome-based are used, which means they are open to interpretation. When the team misunderstands or interprets goals differently, it means there is bad alignment. OKRs help align the project team around what's important, not what they 'think' is important.


It also helps with the transparency of objectives. Everyone on the project should know what the project is seeking to achieve.


There should be no hidden agenda, only an agreed common purpose. Setting OKRs shouldn't be done alone in a dark room but in full view of significant stakeholders and their collaboration. This transparency and review will make the objectives and key results much more robust.


Accountability

Accountability is a cornerstone in the effective implementation of OKRs within any project. The framework lays down the roadmap for what needs to be achieved and explicitly states who is responsible for each aspect.


As each key result is tied to measurable outcomes, there's an explicit criterion for success or failure. This unambiguousness leaves no room for misinterpretation, ensuring that individuals and teams know what is expected of them.


Regular check-ins are essential for maintaining accountability throughout the project's life cycle. These meetings are a touchpoint for tracking progress, discussing roadblocks, and recalibrating if needed. By doing so, the team maintains high visibility on each OKR, making identifying areas that may require additional resources or intervention easier. This proactive approach to accountability helps mitigate risks and instil a culture of responsibility and ownership among all stakeholders.


Simplicity

The whole concept of OKRs is easy to explain. The project's focus can be on the results rather than the tasks, a common issue with projects that struggle to see the wood for the trees.


Common OKR Pitfalls

While OKRs can be game-changing, implementing them incorrectly can lessen their impact and undermine their value. Here are a few common pitfalls;


  • Lack of Clarity: Ambiguous objectives and key results can result in confusion and misalignment. Every OKR should be clear, specific, and easy to understand. Argue about them, rewrite them, share them, but reach a common understanding.

  • Overcomplicating OKRs: Aiming for perfection or including too many KRs can lead to analysis paralysis. Simplicity is key in OKRs. The fewer words, the better.

  • Setting Unattainable Goals: While OKRs should be ambitious, setting them too high can discourage teams and result in missed targets. Set stretching targets, not impossible ones. Don't punish failure, and don't link OKRs to performance bonuses or you'll get sandbagging and a tendency to lower the goalposts.

  • Insufficient Check-ins: Without regular review cycles, teams can lose focus or fail to adapt to new circumstances, derailing progress. How formal these check-ins are up to you. Maybe they are highlight report-based, or maybe verbal updates. However you choose to do it, make sure there are regular updates.

  • Ignoring Adaptability: Projects and scope change. Being too rigid with your OKRs can result in missed opportunities or failure to adapt to setbacks. If something changes in the project that necessitates a change in an OKR, do it. But don’t do it in isolation. Make sure stakeholders are aware.

  • Lack of Accountability: The chances of meeting objectives dwindle if it's unclear who is responsible for each key result. Always have an accountable owner for each key result.


In conclusion, OKRs are a great tool. They are potentially game-changing for corporate governance and project managers as well. There are some great resources for OKRs out there. One of the better ones is www.whatmatters.com, which has free OKR review cycle templates and training.


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