“OKRs are not a silver bullet. They cannot substitute for sound judgment, strong leadership, or a creative workplace culture," wrote John Doerr in Measure What Matters. “But if those fundamentals are in place, OKRs can guide you to the mountaintop.”
Doerr learned about the Objective and Key Results (OKR) goal-setting framework while interning at Intel in the 1970s under Andy Grove, the father of OKRs. Since then, Doerr has been the biggest evangelist for this simple, yet powerful, tool and has introduced OKRs to some of the world’s most innovative companies, including Google and Amazon.
These companies have gone on to great success by taking advantage of the five superpowers OKRs provide: focus, alignment, commitment, tracking, and stretching of goals — the F.A.C.T.S. But it’s important to recognize that OKRs can’t transform poorly-run companies overnight. They aren’t magic, they require a strong, open, and creative workplace culture to take root.
Here are some guidelines for how to build a successful company culture where OKRs can flourish.
Align thinking toward purpose and innovation
OKRs aren’t meant to encompass all of a company’s work. They are not meant to track business-as-usual activities. According to Doerr, they’re supposed to track goals that “merit special attention” — work that will get you closer to achieving your company’s higher calling.
“The whole reason of setting OKRs is to create purpose, alignment and focus on achieving goals that really move the business forward on all levels,” wrote CultureStars Editor Max Lamers in a Medium post about high-performance cultures.
Discussions around goals should be mission-oriented and not bogged down by to-do lists filled with mundane tasks. OKRs need to cover the topics you care about.
For example, Google has changed the world and achieved high-performance because it always centered its goals around its mission: organizing the world’s information.
Overcome the fear of failure
One of the biggest benefits of OKRs is that they help companies achieve their most aggressive stretch goals. But before you can achieve great things, you must accept the possibility of failure.
A fear of failure can lead to sandbagging, where employees intentionally set low goals to ensure a superficial success. Or even worse, they could feel pressured to lie and exaggerate about their progress.
It is vital for a company to make their teams and individual employees feel comfortable to take risks and be honest when they fall short. That’s why the team at What Matters suggest divorcing OKRs from individual performance reviews and compensation. Employees should never feel like they will be punished for aiming high.
Make space for meaningful conversations
“Instead of politics and excuses about unwanted or unclear goals, the focus shifts to helping each other in achieving each and everybody’s mission,” wrote Lamers about what happens when companies center OKRs in their conversations.
Doerr recommends that OKRs be coupled with a system of continuous conversations, feedback, and recognition (CFRs).
CFRs encourage regular, honest two-way conversations between employees and managers. These interactions should focus on progress and future improvements. It’s also important to recognize successes of all sizes. In practice they could look like monthly one-on-one meetings, weekly check-ins, or daily shoutouts on Slack. Choose whatever methods fit best with your company.
Ideally, CFRs lead to increased employee engagement and bring smart voices and ideas to the forefront.
Where can I get more information?
In the right environment — one that is open, honest and focused on innovation — OKRs can make the seemingly impossible within reach. Tell us how you’re shifting your company to work with OKRs. To learn more about OKRs, be sure to check out our FAQs, Resources, and Stories.
Or, if you’re looking for an OKR coach, check this out.
If you’re interested in starting our OKRs 101 course, click here.