Childhood Illnesses of OKR

Is it normal to get a cold in winter?
Most likely, you'll hear in response, 'Oh, that's bad, I wouldn't want to, but... it's normal, a common occurrence, it doesn't surprise anyone.'

That's roughly how I respond when teams, just starting to implement OKRs, struggle with defining good measurable metrics for Key Results and use a checklist of tasks to measure progress.

On one hand, this is harmful, and below I will explain why.
On the other hand, this is a 'childhood illness' that most teams go through at the start (and sometimes always). Especially if the team's activities are genuinely hard to measure in numbers, or there are many goals aimed at launching something completely new that is still not objectively measurable, and there is no baseline to compare with.

When a completely new activity is launched, a new tool is created, the team doesn't have a starting point and a measurement tool. The result, for which this activity is launched, may only appear at the end of the period. Then the team is tempted to replace the measurement of the real result and observing zeros over a long period with a progress bar with a checklist of tasks.

A typical example:

This example is so indicative that our clients often mention it, and it is still relevant to our company. Write in the comments if you had a similar goal, how you formulated it, and what you measured as results?

The quarterly Objective of the marketing department - Our products are known and purchased by all potential customers.
One of the Key Results - X customers came through the company's blog.

But the blog doesn't even exist yet. And the team understands that this is not an instantaneous process and it's not always possible to directly trace the cause and effect.
Weighing their capabilities, the team decides to replace this key result with another formulation:

Key Result: The company's blog is launched.
This is a milestone-type key result, an artifact, and seems acceptable.
How can the progress of this key result be measured? To some extent, these will be tasks, some measurable, some not so much.
100% - articles are published with a set frequency, traffic is launched to the blog, the number of article views from publication per week - not less than 50.
70% - a writing schedule is created and adhered to, there are always 3 articles in drafts for the future.
50% - a page is designed on the site, 1 article is published.

How strong is this 'formulation' of the key result? Quite normal and often encountered, but still based on activities, not on the result.

Why is focusing on the result important?

Here we will make a small detour and remember that OKR is intended for focused, coordinated, and flexible movement of the company and teams in implementing strategically important changes. OKR is usually used in the area of uncertainty, experiment, where it is necessary to reach a new level or do what has not been done before. For this, it is necessary to look 'beyond the horizon' and form an image of the desired result to then look for ways to achieve it. That is, the team needs thinking oriented towards business results, towards the future.
What happens when the team describes the desired result in terms of steps, tasks, and measures progress by the degree of their implementation? Process-oriented and past-oriented thinking is activated.
With such an approach, we think from our existing experience and describe actions we understand. But then the result we will get will correspond to our current understanding. This will not lead to a breakthrough, to a significant increase. Moreover, completing all tasks may not lead to the desired business result and even the opposite!

Let's return to our example with the blog and imagine that all steps are completed - articles are being published with a set regularity. But for example, writing articles is entrusted to people who write illiterately or provide incorrect information. Will this lead to the ultimate goal - increasing sales? Obviously not! And if you don't have a metric for the result itself - then you won't be able to track and take timely action, but will continue to rejoice at the 'green' cells in your OKR progress measurement table!

How does result-oriented thinking work?
We ask ourselves the question - what do we want to achieve by the chosen time? Why is this important, how will it lead us to achieve strategic goals, implement our vision? Why is it important to focus on this right now?
This gives birth to the understanding of the Objective - which we try to formulate clearly, concisely, and inspiringly not only for ourselves but also for our colleagues.
And how can we track whether we are moving towards that goal or not? What could be the evidence of our success? What result would be the best for us? What metrics can we use to measure progress in its achievement?
Thus, we define the Key Results of achieving the goal.
And only then do we start to think - what actions can lead to these results? Since we have set a 'stretch' goal and still do not have clarity on how to achieve it, tasks are an area of experiments. And that's why it's so important to regularly track - do these actions lead to the required result or not? And change actions!

That's why the logic of forming OKRs is built in this sequence:
  1. Strategic goal
  2. Objective for the selected period, which brings closer to the implementation of the strategic goal
  3. Key Results, which measure progress in achieving the Objective
  4. Actions, tasks that need to be done to achieve the results.
How to cure?

The medicine is not complicated. You need to carefully look at the described steps in achieving the Key Result, and ask yourself questions - why are we doing this? What result do we want to get with this action? - then we can feel the necessary metrics.

In the example with the blog, it might look like this:
Why are we launching it at all? - we want to bring in more customers and increase sales.
That's why it's important for articles to have links to relevant products.
But, as we discussed above, we won't see such a result immediately and reading the article will only be one of the touches, we don't know what from the complex of measures will lead the customer to purchase.

So we ask the question - what ideal result do we want specifically from the blog, which will lead to sales? Probably, the number of clicks on the product link?
If the nature of the product involves a long 'warming up', then probably it's necessary to first create a subscription mechanism, and then we can count the increase in the number of subscribers who came from the blog pages.
If for some reason such actions are not possible (for example, publications on other platforms where links are prohibited) - then you can count the number of article readings. This is a more indirect metric, but it shows the degree of interest of your audience and also highlights which article topics are more popular and therefore, where to direct more efforts.

Thus, thanks to a small study using open questions, we have identified at least 3 metrics that, by the way, we can start measuring from the very beginning - from the appearance of the first article: the number of clicks, the number of subscriptions, and the number of views.

Important - do not overmedicate the team!

But not accidentally did I start the article with a metaphor of a childhood disease. If we protect the team from every sneeze, don't let them get wet in a puddle and scrape their knees, and constantly scold them with remarks - how wrong, and how right, then we won't get anything but rebellion, right?

That's why I always caution OKR coaches against being overly demanding of teams that have just started working with OKRs. You just have to recognize that such childhood diseases are normal, and most teams go through this. If the workshop and feedback during the OKR setting session were not enough for the team to find 'those very metrics', and the key results still turned out to be sets of tasks, disguised as milestones - accept it. Let the team start living with these, even if not perfect, key results, rather than getting stuck in an endless cycle of perfecting formulations.
Along the way - at progress meetings, working group meetings, at retrospectives, you can ask - what will be the result of completing this task? How will we understand that it was successfully completed? And thus, help the team empirically find measurable metrics. This will help at the next planning stage to set stronger key results.

Also, periodic OKR audit workshops (for teams that have lived in the system for at least 3 cycles) work well, considering examples of well-formulated and joint attempts with questions to find the necessary metrics for those key results where you would like to strengthen the focus on the result.
From practice, I can say (don't take this as advertising, but it is) - that attracting an external OKR expert, who has experience in other companies - to get an independent opinion and dig deeper into your metrics, works well.

Embrace these OKR 'childhood illnesses' as part of your growth journey. By managing them effectively, you're building a resilient foundation for future successes.