Objectives and Key Results

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"Many people fail in life, not for lack of ability or brains or even courage, but simply because they have never organised their energies around a goal." — Elbert Hubbard

Working towards a goal requires planning; that's common knowledge. But there will always be things that come in the way of working on your plans. That famous John Lennon quote definitely applies to an IT operations business! And even in a world without interruptions, there's an endless list of things we could or even should do. Separating the important from the (seemingly) urgent and the less significant is imperative.

We needed to find ways of focusing on important work while still leaving enough space and freedom to deal with unplanned work and the unexpected things that come up in life. In order to have a common way of defining and tracking results, we have adopted a practice called "Objectives and Key Results" (OKR). It works like this:

  • For every quarter, we define objectives. These are the most important results we'd like to achieve within the next three months. They answer the question "Where do we want to go?", and during the coming weeks they'll have a "fast lane pass".

  • We define these objectives for every level of the business: for the company as a whole, for our teams and for each individual.

  • These objectives tend to be heavy, so three objectives on each level is usually enough, five is the maximum.

  • By breaking down the work for each objective into a few key results, we clarify what needs to be done and define the milestones that we are going to track periodically in shorter intervals.

Let's take an example:

Objective: Replace our current data centre backup solution with a more scalable one.

Key results:

  1. Find three alternative solutions.

  2. Compare their features, with a focus on scalability, and assign scores.

  3. Discuss your favourite alternative with the team.

  4. Build a prototype of the new system.

  5. Switch the new system to production and shut down the old system.

Setting objectives

Objectives express goals and intents. They must be tangible, objective, and unambiguous. State each objective in a way that makes it easy to say/prove that it has been completed; it should be obvious to a rational observer whether an objective has been achieved or not.

From personal objectives up to company objectives, there should be a continuous narrative. Choose objectives that allow you to draw a line from your personal objectives up to one or more company objectives:

  • A better backup solution means...

  • less busy-work in the operations team, which enables...

  • higher team velocity, which allows for...

  • better product quality, which leads to...

  • more satisfied customers, causing...

  • increased monthly recurring revenue.

The successful achievement of an objective must provide clear value for you, your team, the company. Avoid low-value, "business as usual" objectives. Objectives should be challenging, motivating and rewarding. Ask yourself: Are we going to finish this objective saying "It's so awesome that we got this done!"?

We challenge ourselves (and each other) to get out of our comfort zones, so we highly encourage setting stretch goals. It should mean a reasonable accomplishment to reach 70% of what you've set out to do.

Defining key results

The purpose of Key Results is to allow us to do a quick check if we're still on track with an objective. That's why they should be high-level milestones, not detail accomplishments. If an objective requires fine-grained task management, create a separate implementation project and link it to the objective.

Tracking objectives

In your weekly 1-on-1, you'll discuss the progress towards your objectives with your manager. This is the place to take a critical look on what works for you and what doesn't.

By doing this on a regular basis, we learn. And sometimes, these learnings may give us reason to change course. Objectives are not set in stone, they can change during the quarter.

The OKR cycle

  • Start of next quarter minus 2 weeks:

    • Company OKR locked in

    • Draft team and personal OKR

  • Start of next quarter minus 1 week:

    • Draft OKR reviewed

    • Current quarter scored

  • First week of new quarter: Drafts locked in as new OKR

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