• Marissa Forbes

OKRs: The next level in strategic planning

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard the term ‘OKR’, or you’ve starting working with them in your organization. If neither apply, congratulations! You’re about to learn some new lingo in strategic planning methodology.

I’m not going to provide a business case for employing OKRs (objectives and key results) in your organization. Plenty of others, like Paul Niven and Ben Lamorte have made it their job to do that. Instead, I’d like to give you my perspective on OKRs — a subjective crash course, if you will, on what you really need to know if you’ve been asked to create one, be responsible for one, or help accomplish one.

First and foremost, they aren’t new. OKRs were born from improvements made to planning methodologies of the past. However, the intent remains the same — focus the attention and resources of the organization on activities that are expected to “move the needle”.

What’s meant by “move the needle” has somewhat evolved, as well. Organizations are no longer only concerned with competing on a global scale, they are up against unique challenges — political, legal, economic, and environmental — that have never been part of the strategic landscape before, at least not in the ways we’re seeing today. However, the single most significant challenge organizations face now, is us — people, customers. We expect more, better, faster, but that’s not all. We expect all of that to be done in a personalized way — “know me, anticipate me, and show me you care”. Hence the rise of the customer journey!

In 2016 a trend in organizational planning emerged. The customer became the focus. Yes, there were several notable companies that did a great job putting their customers first well before 2016. However, the practice became more prevalent around this time, and the definition of customer, expanded to include internal customers as well. Organizational leaders started to understand that good products and services weren’t enough, they needed to provide extraordinary experiences. Mapping the customer journey became a critical exercise for organizational planning.

So, while OKRs aren’t new, they are the product of an evolved version of strategic planning, which includes leveraging the customer journey or experience. Not all companies that employ an OKR method use the terms ‘objectives’ and ‘keys results’, but the hallmark traits or characteristics are still there. 

Development of the objective before and outside of the key result. This allows leaders to first root their objective in the mission and vision, as well as the customer experience, without being hindered by questions on how to measure such things.

Few and focused key results. Once the objective is defined, the activity of measuring achievement is obviously critical. Leaders often get bogged down with existing metrics and data issues. The exercise of key-result development forces leaders to narrow in on the few (2–5) metrics that really matter.

Multi-level involvement. OKRs are intended to be created by the people for the people. They are established by leaders using a well-oiled feedback and analytics mechanism that incorporates external and internal data. They are not the top-down goals of yesteryear.

Quarterly planning cycles. OKRs have a lifespan of about three to six months. The old ways of annual planning do not apply to OKRs and have no place in today’s fast-paced world. The annual set-it-and-forget-it method is the best way to become stagnant at best, obsolete at worst.

Understanding OKRs, especially their grounding in customer experience helps to frame the necessary conversations for execution. Execution is the harder part. We can create objectives and figure out cool ways to measure them all day long, but execution is where they become real. The dedication to and honest advocacy of the objective, and commitment to consistent language is where organizational leaders find their true test. This is also where I leave you, because no one can teach this part. To pass this test, you have to dig deep and find what you need from within.