Definition: What is OKR?
Definition of OKRs

Look online and you will find some great stories on how OKRs have been used by many companies, with Google a notable case study, to push the boundaries of achievement. Goal setting has a number of techniques that can be used by Project Managers, however many of them limit the goal to a finish line or simply what the outcome is at the end of the fixed time period. The OKR approach not only gives a structured way to measure progress to an objective, it establishes continuous processes to set higher performance benchmarks for results and motivates the team to achieve them.

What are OKRs in Project Management?

Many Project Managers will set goals for their team and in a separate article we discussed how Key Performance Indicators could be set to support measurement of project progress and transparency for stakeholders. OKRs are different in a few ways; the most important being that they are deliberately aspirational and are not simply a reflection on all the tasks in the project plan or project board.

Project tasks have a tremendous amount of detail and it can be easy to focus on task-based outcomes. While this remains necessary for team management, it is quite mechanical and often not that inspirational. Task-based objectives are also likely to be the result of a bottom up plan, with the risk that the net result of the completed task becomes the focus and the results are simply the tick-box metrics to mark the task as complete. An impact of this approach, apart from losing sight of the big picture due to a short cycle task focus, is that the completion of the task does not achieve the target result and as a result does not meet the objective. Another impact is that the team is operating within their limits not deliberately and persistently pushing beyond them.

To begin with the Objective must be big and ambitious and, as mentioned, aligned to your organisation’s goals. It should be set at a level that drives higher performance and productivity in the team and measurable with results and metrics defined. The results should equally be set at a level that stretches the team to achieve more and be distinct from the detail of the tasks.

Developing an OKR framework for your projects

So instead of bottom-up planning, a way you can establish and manage OKRs is through a top down approach, which might need the support of Project Sponsors or senior stakeholders:

  1. Understand the organisational objectives (it can help to also understand historical performance)
  2. Set your objective time-scale based on organisational performance or planning cycles e.g. quarterly
  3. Set the Objective and make them clear and visible to all stakeholders e.g. successfully release version X of our Product
  4. Collaboratively define the expected results e.g. Grow the user base by 10% in the quarter (where normal organic growth might be 5%)
  5. Set the Epics, stories and tasks
  6. Monitor and measure

The key difference between steps 4 and 5 is that the task may not in itself deliver value but the outcome of the team’s work will. There will no doubt be many tasks, which do not in themselves, equal a result but they remain just as important to the overall project. A way you can engage your team and write key results for certain static tasks to help them see the end result.

OKR Example

Task: Insert updated keywords into website content

Key Result: SEO Optimisation with website appearing in the first page of search engines for these keywords

The task is a detailed step to take to achieve the result but articulating the result for the team can help them to be engaged in the outcome.

Why use OKRs?

OKRs are proven to improve outcomes given the project team or organisation is deliberately setting the benchmark to meet the objective higher than average performance. In this way a project’s performance can be enhanced considerably and there will be more assurance of value realisation for the enterprise sponsoring the project.

Most importantly though OKRs can establish a strong, high performance culture in the project team and give an opportunity for celebrations of success. An incremental sense of achievement is critical to the success of a project and the ongoing engagement of a team. This does come with an acceptance that on occasion the team may fail and that is okay but the key will be to be constructive on the failure, learn the lesson and reevaluate to ensure future success.