Myths And Misconceptions
In every introduction to OKRs, you will read that they were the key to Google’s success. If you read further, you’ll find that they originated at Intel, forged by Andy Grove, the father of OKRs. This might lead you to a conclusion that OKRs are a framework for tech companies, and that, if you are not in that kind of business, you should just move along. Incorrect! OKRs are a versatile and powerful goal-setting-and-achieving tool, which can be applied in any industry, by companies and teams of all sizes. What is best, you don’t even have to have a business. You can apply them to your personal life, too.
If the acronym OKR makes you think of something really boring, like it had for me when I first heard it, please just hang in there for a bit longer. This is some really good stuff. OKRs are inspiring, simple, practical and most importantly of all they work. It’s just the name which does not do them justice.
In this text I will refrain from too much history and theory. Instead, I will concentrate on how to apply them in personal life. Most of the examples you will read in books (some of which I will link and quote below) will give you business related examples and instructions. They have been written by people far more competent than I am. My hope is to get you interested in OKRs through an everyday life example, to inspire you to try them out on your own, to nudge you into reading and researching further and eventually apply them to other spheres of your life.
OKRs In a Nutshell
OKRs stands for Objectives and Key Results. Let’s find out what each of those terms means:
- a goal you want to achieve
- hard enough to inspire you to put in extra effort
- set on a quarterly basis
Key Results are
- (optimally) three metrics which can tell you if you have achieved the objective
- measurable and quantifiable in a way that enables you to express percentage by which an objective has been achieved (or not)
- measured on a weekly basis
OKRs In Real Life
Remember all the times when you put getting fit into your New Year’s Resolutions, postponed it until next Monday, then postponed it until 1st February, only to realize that you have plenty of time until summer and then forgot all about it until May? May was too late to do anything for the summer, but you had plenty of time until end of year, so you forgot about it until middle of November. Replace getting fit with any other yearly goal. Sounds familiar?
Yearly goals don’t work. The year’s end is too far away for us to feel the burning of the deadline until it’s too late. Yet, we keep using the whole year as a cycle, not only in personal life, but also in business. Company yearly goals are even more useless than personal ones, but we’ll talk about that some other time.
OKRs use quarterly cycles. 3 months is long enough to execute on something important and challenging, but short enough to make a precise plan and be able to stick to it. If you want a test run, you can try a month long cycle.
Objective: Get fit until New Year
Having all of this in mind, we’re going to turn things around and set a goal to get fit before New Year! Does that sound inspiring enough? Picture yourself looking awesome in those skinny jeans. Done? Ok.
Now let’s come up with some numbers for tracking your progress. Remember, we need to check in on key results once a week. If you ignore your objective for 10 weeks and pull it off in the last 2 weeks, you’ve either been touched by an angel or that you have been sandbagging. This means that you have set the bar too low in order to feel better, not to have accomplished something truly challenging.
Also, we’ll assign all your key results a 50/50 chance of completion at the starting point, i.e. 0.5 score. Every week when we check in, we’ll adjust the score in the light of new information. At the end of the quarter, if you end up with an average score of 0.7+ for an objective, you can consider it achieved! This doesn’t mean you should aim for 0.7 score. On the contrary, you should always aim for 1.0, but, if the objective was challenging, anything above 0.7 is considered good enough.
“Impossible goals are depressing. Hard goals are inspiring.”
Key Result #1: Lose 8kg
To reach this number in 12 weeks, you’ll need to lose about 0.7kg per week. Health experts would not advise losing more than 1kg per week, whereas losing 0.5kg per week is a general guideline. This places our -0.7kg/week somewhere in between. Challenging, yet, attainable. KR#1 -> 0.5
Key Result #2: Increase physical activity by 50%
Since losing weight can mean a lot of things, including losing muscle mass and water, you’ll want to balance this out with regular training. Let’s say you want to increase physical activity by 50%. Estimate how many hours per week you are physically active (walking your dog, walking to work, working out at the gym), let’s say an average of 3.5h/week. You’ll want to increase that to 5.25h/week, which amounts to 63 hours of physical activity during this cycle. KR#2 -> 0.5
Key Result #3: Drink at least 3l of water daily
Your objective is to get fit, not get withered! You’ll need to hydrate accordingly, which means lots of water, unsweetened tea, lemon-water, etc. Let’s say you want to drink 3l of liquids per day. (Tip: doctors advice 1l per 25kg of your body weight). We won’t express this in weekly numbers, because it really doesn’t make sense to drink 1l on one day and 5l on the other, right? We will measure how many times you’ve reached your goal during one week. KR#3 -> 0.5
Let’s say your weight is now -0.2kg. At this rate, you will lose 2.4kg in 12 weeks, which is 2.4 / 8 = 0.3 score. Not very promising, but that’s why you check in every week. Your body is not a machine and depending on various factors (salt intake, hormones, peristalsis, etc) your weight loss rate fluctuates. Keep working toward your goal, mind your intake and measure regularly. KR#1 -> 0.3
Let’s say you walked to work and back every day, which summed up to 5h, went 2 times to the gym and went for a 30 minute jog this morning, inspired by your newly found exercizing habit. This means you had approximately 7.5h of physical activity this week! At this rate, you will add up to 90 hours of training in 12 weeks, which is 90 / 63 = 1.4 score. Wow, this is actually over the maximum 1.0 score. Nice work! But remember, on some weeks you won’t feel like training, or it will be raining cats and dogs and you’ll drive to work. It can all balance out. KR#2 -> 1.0
Let’s say you used a tracking app on your phone the whole week and now, when you look at the stats, you see that you have drunk at least 3l of water and tea on 5 days this week. This is a 5 / 7 = 0.7 score. Nice. Keep it up. KR#3 -> 0.7
This week you have lost another 0.9kg. This is -1.1kg in 2 weeks, which means that you’ll lose 6.6kg in 12 weeks, which lands you at 6.6 / 8 = 0.8 score. This is much better. KR#1 -> 0.8
This week you caught a cold and stayed in bed for 3 whole days! Bummer. You got only 2h of walking to work, 1h at the gym, and didn’t feel like jogging after that cold. This adds up to 9.5h of exercize in the first 2 weeks. At this rate, you will have excercized 57 hours in 12 weeks, which is 57 / 63 = 0.9 score. Still looking good. KR#2 -> 0.9
Due to your cold, you drank a lot of tea and scored a minimum of 3l per day on all 7 days, which gives you a solid 1.0 score. KR#3 -> 1.0
As weeks go by, we track progress regularly, on the same day every week. After 12 weeks, we sit down once again to add up the numbers and see if you have reached the objective.
You have lost 5.1kg total. This amounts to 5.1 / 8 = 0.6 score for KR#1. KR#1 -> 0.6
You have spent approximately 60 hours doing various physical activities over the last 12 weeks. This amounts to 60 / 63 = 0.9 score for KR#2. KR#2 -> 0.9
You have reached your goal of minimum 3l of water or tea a day on 72 days. This amounts to 72 / 84 = 0.9 score for KR#3. KR#3 -> 0.9
The average score for objective Get fit until New Year is (0.6 + 0.9 + 0.9) /3 = 0.8. This may seem displeasing, but remember what we said at the beginning: anything above 0.7 is considered good enough. If you forget the numbers for a second, you will see that you have lost more than 5kg, increased your physical activity for more than 40% and drank over 3l of water almost every day. This really does mean you got fitter and healthier, and significantly so. The numbers were there to keep you on track!
There are many questions which this one article with one example cannot answer, such as:
- How many objectives can you set per cycle?
- What to measure?
- How to set up activities which will lead to completion of your objective?
- How to keep yourself (or your team) focused and responsible?
I suggest you read the following two books, and in that order. I will try to explain why.
Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with Objectives and Key Results by Christina Wodtke is an easily digestible introduction to OKRs which you can read in a day. The first part is somewhat of a short novel about a startup on their journey of discovering and implementing OKRs, failures and all. You will read it in a heartbeat. The second part is a handbook of sorts, which gives you tips and tricks about implementing OKRs in various businesses. In my opinion, this is all you need to start with OKRs.
Measure What Matters by John E. Doerr is much longer and much less concise. Why, then, do I recommend it? I found it hugely inspiring. It contains testimonials from various business leaders who have successfully implemented OKRs, including Bill Gates, Mike Lee (co-founder of myfitnesspal) and Bono (appearing as co-founder of ONE foundation, not U2 lead singer). Call it bragging about which cool people the author got a chance to work with, which is how many readers have rated it online, but you cannot deny the power of a good testimonial! Audio version is much more digestible and enjoyable.
Ready. Set. Go.