There’s a distinct difference between setting goals and setting goals that matter. Meaningful goals must be tied to a purpose and be measurable. This article goes into further detail on how to do just that and guides you through the process of writing your first OKR.
We set goals every day without thinking much about them. From the minute we wake up to the time we get into bed, we are participating in a goal-setting process. The problem is, we don’t really think of minute things like that as goals. It’s all too easy to hit the snooze button for five more minutes of sleep or to binge just one more episode of that Netflix series. And when there’s no real price to pay, it’s easy to slip into a pattern of bad habits. But when we repeatedly hit snooze or stay up too late, we are forming habits.
In a larger sense, the habits we bring to our personal goals affect our work goals, too. As Alexis Gonzales-Black, an organizational-design leader at management consulting firm August Public, puts it, “I had been creating goals without any rigor for many, many years, and then when I came to August, we also struggled with setting meaningful goals.”
Many organizations and individuals struggle to find an effective goal-setting method. And even those who succeed, like Apartment Therapy founder Maxwell Ryan find themselves asking, “What are we doing next?”
Every step of the way, you need to have a plan — and not just a to-do list, but meaningful goals that can be measured for the long term. But what is a “meaningful goal?” And once you’ve weighed its worth, how do you measure it?
1. Tie goals to a purpose
Meaningful goals don’t just appear overnight. They should be tied to something more important, more unwavering, and more guiding, like a “North Star.” A North Star is a purpose, and everyone should take the time to not only figure out what it is, but write it out.
For example, John Doerr, author of Measure What Matters, knew at a young age that his purpose was to be an entrepreneur like his dad. Through hard work and perseverance, he set his life on that trajectory. Ultimately becoming the Chairman of Kleiner Perkins, a venture capital firm behind companies such as Amazon, Google,and Twitter. (Read more about Doerr’s personal journey.)
Companies should also take the time to figure out their purpose so they can publish a mission statement too. For example, Kleiner Perkins’ mission is “to be the first call for founders who want to make history and to partner with them as company builders in pursuit of that goal.”
Once you have a mission statement, you have a light to look to when setting a new goal. All goals should be ignited by a purpose, whether they are short-term or long-term goals.
2. Make goals measurable
The textbook definition of a goal is: “the result or achievement toward which effort is directed.” So let’s call that an Objective since it’s the desired direction. How do you measure advancement in that direction? Milestones — or Key Results — make progress measurable.
The relationship between a mission-aligned Objective and tracking progress towards specific milestones is the key idea behind the super simple goal-setting structure Objectives and Key Results, also-known-as OKRs. Because while lots of people and companies set goals, many don’t make them measurable. And the reverse is also true: while many companies have performance metrics, without putting them into the context of a mission, metrics can come across as “soulless.”
Like Andy Grove says, with OKRs, with whatever goal you set, in the end, you can look at and say, “Did I do that or did I not do it?” Yes or no. No arguments.
This setting and practice makes the OKR process unique: It informs the conversations for meeting a goal. So often we grade our success on completing specific goals alone instead of clearly articulating what success looks like and continuously exchanging knowledge and ideas about how to get there.
Even discussing adopting OKRs at your company can be a measurable goal. Doerr often uses this one at kickoff meetings:
See how all the KRs can be graded with a “yes” or “no.”
Let’s imagine that the meeting went over by 20 minutes. You’d know that the goal was not met, causing you to reflect on different ways you could improve next time. As our own Coach Ryan says, “I find the more rewarding part of the OKR process is reflecting. It lets you get into a conversation that might otherwise take a year before you get to talking about it.”
Because of simplicity, objectivity, and measurability, OKRs are used by many influential people and leading organizations. U2 frontman Bono uses OKRs for his advocacy foundation the ONE Campaign. Google was founded on OKRs and continues to use them. Code for America uses them to aid American democracy. And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation uses them for their mission to ensure everyone has a healthy and productive life.
If you’re looking to change how to make defined goals, stay committed to goals, and review your goals — OKRs are a good solution for you.
3. Write your goals
While the above example of a successful company meeting about adopting OKRs was for a single hour, OKRs goals are typically set in annual, quarterly or even monthly OKR cycles.
An OKR cycle is a timeline that guides your organization, team, and individual contributors through the OKR process. There’s a cadence to set, check-in, grade, and reflect on OKRs so that goals don’t become the ever-ephemeral New Year’s resolution.
To help track OKRs, we recommend a specific formula. Write Objectives as goals and intents, with Key Results that are time-bound and measurable milestones. OKRs are not a complete list of everything you have to do. They are, however, the most important. For any organization, we recommend no more than three Objectives. Ideally, each Objective is stated so succinctly that it fits on one line. Then set 3-5 Key Results for each Objective.
Here’s an example of an annual OKR for a personal goal by Jordan Skole, Editor of Benchmark Bugle, Ventures & Adventures, and Remake Detroit:
For all of these KRs, Skole can say “yes” or “no” for the year. If he says “no” to any of them, he did not meet his goal.
Here’s an example of an OKR by Google as it expands on its sustainability initiative in its hardware:
Because Google is a large company, each of these higher-level OKRs will be broken down into more specific OKRs within each layer of organization. Learn more about how OKRs can cascade or be bottom-up.
Or, if you need help with OKR examples and how to write them.
4. Your first OKR
Writing you first OKR can seem daunting. You may be unsure if it’s good enough. As John Doerr says, “It won’t be perfect the first time.” Like all things in life, it will take trial and error. But you have to keep trying. At first you may tag too many or be zoomed out too much.
You’ll get better after the first cycle.
An important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t expect to do OKRs alone. Work together to make them better. And, of course, share them. Put them where you can all see them, and put dates on the calendar when you’ll track your progress. The combo of writing, sharing, and tracking is part of the magic of OKRs.
To help with sharing, we recommend these free OKR-tracking tools for smaller organizations, teams, and individuals.
If you’re looking for ways to share scaled OKR adoption and usage across a larger company, we recommend these paid tools.
Where can I get more information?
If you want to learn more about the OKR goal-setting process on how to successfully set and achieve goals, we recommend picking up a copy of Measure What Matters. The #1 New York Times bestseller provides valuable insight into why OKRs are so great for achieving goals.
In the meanwhile, What Matters is here to help guide you through a deeper definition of OKRs with more examples.
If you’re interested in starting our OKRs 101 course, click here.