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Team OKR: SMART KR & outcome-oriented KR

This article discusses essential steps to evaluate and enhance Key Results (KRs) within the context of Team OKR. Poorly defined or misaligned KRs can hinder the execution of OKRs and lead to subpar outcomes. You must apply two fundamental checks: (1) ensure you have SMART KR, meaning that your Key Results are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound; and (2) focus on outcomes over outputs. Through clear examples and practical insights, the article illustrates the significance of aligning KRs with objectives and introduces the powerful technique of asking “Why” to enhance KRs further. By delving into the underlying motivations and expectations of KRs, teams can create more insightful and meaningful objectives.

Team OKR: How to check and improve your KRs in two simple steps?

Well-written KRs are critical to the success of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), but they are often poorly defined or not aligned with objectives, which leads to difficulties in executing OKRs and unsatisfactory results. In this article, I present two simple checks to improve your KRs:

First, check if the KR is SMART. Next, make sure the KR describes outcomes rather than outputs.

Team OKR: Check that the KR is SMART

KRs (Key Results) must be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound (SMART):

  • Specific: KRs should be clear and specific to avoid any ambiguity or confusion about what needs to be achieved.
  • Measurable: KRs must be quantifiable so that progress can be measured and evaluated.
  • Achievable: KRs must be realistic and achievable, taking into account available resources and constraints.
  • Relevant: KRs must be directly related to objective.
  • Time-bound: KRs should include time-bound references that allow you to monitor progress against the goal over time.

The SMART criteria help make the KRs more tangible and guide the actions needed to achieve them. A specific and measurable KR is easier to understand and monitor, while an achievable and relevant KR helps ensure that the objective is achieved. Finally, a time-bound KR helps you stay focused and ensure that the necessary actions are taken within the time available.

Consider the following example.

– OBJECTIVE: To be perceived by the market and communities as a good place to work in 2023.
– KR: Promote 10 lectures open to the public with reference professionals in the market.

Often, before improving the KR you will need to improve the objective. A poorly written objective will make it difficult to define good KRs.

So, in this example, let’s improve the objective, according to my previous article — OKR Framework: How to achieve aligned, clear, inspiring, challenging and deadline-oriented objectives –. Here’s an improved version of the same goal:

– OBJECTIVE: Become a reference as an employer with a satisfaction rate of 90% by December 2023.

Now, let’s check the sample KR: Promote 10 lectures open to the public with reference professionals in the market.

This KR is not SMART! It is only SMAR – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant – but it is not Time-bound. This KR does not include any chronological reference that allows you to monitor progress against the goal over time.

Let’s say it’s February. We can consider two scenarios: (1) one lecture per month until the end of the year or (2) an event with 10 lectures in December.

In scenario (1), when you arrive in October and have already had 8 lectures, you are doing well in relation to the desired outcome. Whereas, in scenario (2), arriving in October with 0 lectures delivered but starting to plan an event with 10 lectures for December, you still have no indication of progress towards the desired outcome. For instance, if oyur event gets cancelled, you will not have delivered any lecture.

A better KR would be:

– KR: Promote at least one lecture open to the public per month, with reference professionals in the market (minimum of 10 lectures until December).

The KR is SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound – This KR is quantifiable so that progress can be measured and evaluated (Measurable); and it clearly defines a chronological reference that allows you to monitor progress towards the goal over time (Time-bound). In addition to being Specific, Relevant and Achievable.

The Power of Asking WHY: The Objective-Driven KR Inquiry

Sometimes, even with a well-defined and SMART Key Result (KR), it may still feel like there’s more to be explored. That’s where the power of asking WHY comes in. By diving deeper and understanding the underlying significance of a KR, you can unlock additional insights and discover new indicators of outcomes that may have previously gone unnoticed.. To illustrate this concept, let’s revisit the example of a SMART KR:
KR (SMART): Promote at least one lecture open to the public per month, with reference professionals in the market (minimum of 10 lectures until December).

Looking at this KR, you can identify numerous tasks:

  • Create a shortlist of 20 potential speakers.
  • Send email invitations to all potential speakers.
  • Schedule meetings with those who respond.
  • Update the Open Talks agenda based on speaker availability.
  • Maintain and update the Open Talks website.
  • And the backlog of tasks goes on…

But before going deeper into the actions, you should verify your KR as per the objective.

I strongly recommend you make the following Objective-Driven KR Inquiry:

Why is (KR) important for the objective of (OBJECTIVE)?

Asking the WHY question uncovers the underlying reasons, expectations or indicators for a KR. In this case:

Why is (Promote at least one lecture open to the public per month, with reference professionals in the market (minimum of 10 lectures until December))
important for the objective of (Be portrayed by employees as a great place to work in 2023, increasing the score of our internal satisfaction survey by 2 points within 6 months)?

Or rewritten:

Why is (promoting these monthly lectures with industry professionals)
important for the objective of (being portrayed as a great place to work)?

The answer reveals an important insight: People’s satisfaction with these lectures can increase the score of our internal satisfaction survey.
This information allows you to create a new KR that is explicitly linked to the objective: “The Open Talks initiative shows up in at least 10% of the surveys as one of the reasons for a high score.”

By asking WHY, you gain clarity and complement the original KR with a more outcome-oriented one. Let’s explore the revised objective and KRs:
Objective: Be portrayed by employees as a great place to work in 2023, increasing the score of our internal satisfaction survey by 2 points within 6 months.
KR1: Promote at least one lecture open to the public per month, with reference professionals in the market (minimum of 10 lectures until December).
KR2: The Open Talks initiative shows up in at least 10% of the surveys as one of the reasons for a high score in the next six months.

KR2 enhances KR1 by providing a more comprehensive perspective on the expected result. While both KRs are SMART, the inclusion of KR2 uncovers an explicit indicator of the desired outcome, which is crucial for tracking progress towards the objective. By considering both KRs together, you strengthen your OKR and set yourself up for greater success.

Asking WHY is a powerful tool in refining and expanding the Key Results. It helps uncover underlying motivations, expectations, and potential indicators for our objectives. Remember to ask WHY for each KR, and if the answer is not explicit, consider adding it to your KR list. By doing so, you can ensure the KRs are comprehensive and aligned with the desired outcomes.

Team OKR: KRs should be outcome-oriented rather than output-oriented

It is important to understand the difference between outcomes and outputs. Outputs are deliverables, tasks and activities. While the outcomes are the desired results. The outcomes are directly related to the objectives and, therefore, are more relevant to assess whether we are closer to the objective or not.

Focusing only on outputs can lead to a task-oriented approach, where the goal is simply to deliver the required deliverables. However, this does not guarantee that the strategic objective will be achieved. For example, a team can deliver all planned outputs, but still not achieve the desired outcome.

On the other hand, by focusing on outcomes, it is possible to keep attention on the expected result and assess whether the deliverables, tasks and activities are contributing to achieving this result. This helps you stay focused on strategic objectives and make results-oriented decisions.

Let’s go to another example of OKR.

  • OBJECTIVE: Increase Lean Inception Training sales by 30% by the end of the year.
  • KR: Create a new landing page for the Lean Inception book by the end of the semester.

This KR is SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. But even so, it can be improved. In this case, this KR is an output, a task, an activity. Instead, you should try to describe KR as an outcome, not an output.

To convert an output-focused KR to an outcome-focused KR, describe why the KR helps with the objective. Answer the following question:

Why is (output-focused KR) important for the objective of (OBJECTIVE)? The answer to this question will help you convert an output-focused KR into an outcome-focused KR.

Let’s apply it to the sample OKR we are trying to improve:

Why is (Create a new landing page for the Lean Inception book by the end of the semester) important to (Increase Lean Inception training sales by 30% by the end of the year)?

Answer: We believe that a new landing page for the Lean Inception book will reduce the CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost) of new students from $30.00 to $15.00.

So, an OKR focused on outcome would be,

  • OBJECTIVE: Increase Lean Inception Training sales by 30% by the end of the year.
  • KR: reduce the CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost) of new Lean Inception Training students from $30.00 to $15.00.

WORK ITEM (output): Create a new landing page for the Lean Inception book by the end of the semester.

Note that the deliverable, the activity, the task, the initiative to create a new landing page for the book Lean Inception is a piece of work that will help us validate a hypothesis that we have:

We believe that by delivering this output, we will achieve this outcome.

The deliverable, activity, or task might be an important item for our backlog of work. But, it not necessarily for the definition of OKR. The mapping from OKR to the backlog of work is a topic for another article.

In summary, ensuring your KRs are SMART and focused on outcomes is critical to the success of your OKRs. By following the two simple checks presented in this article, you will be able to identify and improve poorly written KRs, aligning them with your goals and increasing your chances of success.

Remember that:

Writing effective OKRs requires time and attention to be carried out effectively. But, by following these two simple steps — SMART and outcome-oriented KRs –, you will be taking a big step towards the success of your OKRs.

Did you like this content?

If you are interested in the topic, check out more details about the following training: Team OKR Mastery: Unlocking Team Success with OKRs and join this WhatsApp group with the people interested in this training.

Paulo Caroli

Paulo Caroli is the author of the best-selling book “Lean Inception: How to Align People and Build the Right Product” (the first on a series of books on business agility). He's also the creator of FunRetrospectives.com , a site and book about retrospectives, futurospectives and team building activities. Caroli writes on this blog frequently. Receive the next post in your email. Sign up here.
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