28 May 2019

Goal Setting Like Google: What Is OKR?

One of the great things about working in digital is the exposure to a range of interesting and innovative business practices you get from organisations that are at the leading edge of organisation management best practice. Technology and digital companies lend themselves to an environment where they have the agility to try methodologies that can be tried, tested, and improved over time. Leading to the quick adoption of proven techniques.

What does OKR stand for?

OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. They provide a clean bridge between setting a big goal and the measurable outcomes from actions required to deliver on them.

  • Objective - What are we going to achieve.

  • Key results - How we are going to achieve this.

Fundamentally, OKRs are meant to facilitate excellent execution.

Why use OKR for goal-setting?

OKR is meant to replace the goal-setting framework that can be too simplified, lack a sense of purpose or are uninspiring. OKRs are scalable, meaning you can apply the concept to organisations, teams and individuals - however with a different set of OKRs used at each level.

How does Google use OKR?

While many people reference Google as a lead example of a practitioner of OKR. The OKR concepts have its origins with Andrew Grove, a co-founder of Intel. Andrew was influential in mentoring John Doerr (a venture capitalist) who brought the concept to a very early stage Google. A significant number of companies other than Google use OKRs, such as LinkedIn and Twitter.

Selecting an Objective

There are a few important tips when setting an objective. First, OKRs are usually set for a monthly or quarterly period.

  1. Fundamentally answer - "Why?"

  2. It can't include a number, it's not measurable like that.

  3. It must be a statement that inspires people to action.

  4. The objective should not be easily achieved^

^Interestingly, common practices recommend that you set a goal that can't be 100% achieved with your planning timeline. These are intended to be a 'stretch goal' - something that is challenging or ambitious.

Selecting the Key Results

For every objective, there should be 3-5 key results.

  1. Must include a number

  2. The key results need to be able to be concretely measured. Did we achieve this - yes or no.

  3. Based on growth, performance, revenue and engagement

An example - Thought Leadership

We recently ran some workshops with an organisation in Singapore and we used OKR to frame their work to frame their thought leadership activities.


To get them thinking about what an objective could be. An objective isn't to "be a thought leader".We asked the client to use phrases to describe what change they wanted to see happen in the world if it worked. We finally came to: 

'We want to open people's eyes to never before seen results in [client's deep area of expertise]'

  • It's compelling and inspiring.

  • It did not include any numbers.

  • It sounds difficult.

Key Results

To define the key result, we translate progression against the objective as fixed measurable improvements.

Have 100,000 visitors to our new thought leadership positioning content

  • It's a number

  • It's a big number

  • It's easily checked

  • It relates to opening people's eyes

Increase the number of invitations to industry events to 20

  • It's a number

  • While a small number, this represents a significant increase in the number of invitations

  • It represents that people are listening to them, and want to hear more about their thinking.

OKR vs SMART goals

Everyone knows about SMART (Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals. They are attributed to management thought leader Peter Drucker in the 1950's. 

While SMART is a good framework for setting goals, it fundamentally defines a flat list of achievable goals.. eg "We will increase sales by 10% in Q4." It meets all five criteria of SMART, it's not particularly catchy nor would it inspire people to action.

Not too fast...

OKRs are a goal-setting framework. Not a solution to all of your business problems. It's very easy to get excited by the new management trend but they are not meant to be a replacement for good communication, team building, and proper planning. Our tips:

  • Socialise the concept internally before commanding this is The New Way, gain buy-in.

  • Nothing smells worse than the rotting corpses of past failed improvement activities. If you have had recently failed improvement projects, before starting another, perhaps consider a retrospective on the previous project first to see what went wrong there. It may help find additional problems that could prevent the adoption of OKRs.

Further Resources

Objectives and Key Results TED Talk

What are OKR's: Learn the basics of Objectives and Key Results

Greg is the Managing Director of Lamb Agency, a digital agency focused on creating industry-leading websites.

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