As a junior developer who’d heard the term OKRs, I struggled to set my own and really understand the framework until I swapped out work for running, which helped me understand the OKR framework and its value. Here’s how OKRs helped me reach my goals and work through them in a systematic, sane and dare-I-say-it “fun” way.
What are OKRs, and what do they do?
OKR stands for objectives and key results. It’s a framework that breaks down goals into simple key results. Knowing the results we want to achieve enables us to take simple actions to reach them. These actions are measured against the key results, which provide a way to keep track of our larger goals!
- A common way to break down large projects into smaller achievable goals
- A common language and understanding to discuss projects across business functions
- A means to measure progress and, if necessary, take remedial action towards achieving the desired result.
Why OKRs didn’t make sense to me at first
I first encountered OKRs at work and found them pretty confusing. The objectives were intangible, things like “Be a better software developer” or “Ship features faster”, which made the framework hard to understand and measure. Because the goals were broad and abstract, OKRs didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t see how I’d reach the big, general goals.
While setting OKRs as a mentee in OfferZen’s Project Thrive, I used my running as a lens to understand them, and suddenly it clicked! Using a tangible, measurable goal simplified the framework, and being able to start with my key results, then create my objectives and adjust my key results accordingly made it clear how everything was linked.
After setting my personal running OKRs, I understood the core principles behind setting OKRs, outlined below.
Step 1: Set a well-defined goal
When goal setting, the first thing to do is decide what you want to achieve. Go on and pull out that dusty goal list sitting in your notes! It’s necessary to really think about the goals that have real meaning to you and what physical action would be needed to move the needle regularly towards achieving them.
The scope of this article won’t cover goals and how to set them, but you’ll want something audacious enough that, once achieved, will make a difference in your life. The GROW model was helpful for me when setting goals.
My goal was that I wanted to be fit. It’s something that I cared deeply about and something that I could achieve in a year. The important part is to set your goal as your north star, make sure it means something to you and get excited about it.
My running goal helped me understand what’s important about goal-setting within the OKR framework: When starting, it’s best to have well-defined goals. Goals are made up of objectives and key results, so well-defined goals make it easier to set your OKRs.
Step 2: Set the objectives you need to achieve your goal
The next step is to determine your objectives. An objective is similar to a goal in that it’s about what you want to do but is smaller and more short-term than a goal. I find that most of the work in the OKR system is in thinking, and this is where we do a large portion of it.
Objectives are actionable and make up our goal. When setting objectives, break down your goal into smaller, more manageable objectives. For instance, I set my objective to “work out more often” to help me reach my goal of getting fitter.
Choosing and designing our objective is hugely important because that’s how we determine if our efforts actually help us reach our goal. Thus, it’s essential to be very careful _what _you set as your objectives, as this will determine what we will achieve.
Finding the right objectives and goals might take a few iterations, but iterating and breaking them down helps you to be more specific and focused.
When setting objectives, the critical question is, “does achieving this objective bring me closer to my goals”. If the answer is yes, you’re doing it right!
Often, you need more than one objective to reach your final goal. In my case, eating healthier meals was an additional objective to help me get fitter. Each objective should be tracked separately while contributing to the final goal. This brings us to the next step in the OKR framework: When setting objectives, you need to define what specific results you’d like to see and what “success” looks like to you.
Step 3: Set the key results that let you measure your progress
Now comes the final part of the thinking process: setting the key results. Key results are the small, measurable milestones to achieve your objectives. If my broader goal is to be fitter and my objective is to work out more, the action I take to complete my objective is running 5km every day. My measurable key result then is that I ran 5km daily.
- Are irrefutable and provable. They’re binary: I ran 5km/day or didn’t.
- Work best when they are numeric because they’re easier to track.
- Must be broken down enough to be measured over time so you can see your progress and, if necessary, what remedial actions you need to take to get back on track.
- When setting timelines, I find it useful to break up my quarterly goals into weekly actions because the more focused timeline helps me to see that I’m accomplishing my goals.
- Are even better when they are repeatable and can be built into your lifestyle as a habit. When it’s repeatable, it’s easier to get over the hurdle of doing the thing, making it easier to stick to goals. For example, running every day at 4pm makes my body know that it’s time to run when it’s 4pm, and similarly, every morning from 8 to 9am I go through pull requests and then write code from 9 to 10am.
From that point on, it becomes relatively straightforward because you’ll be working towards clear targets that will accumulate to help you reach your goal. You’ll find that you’ll develop your actions into habits, track your progress and adjust your behaviours as needed to ensure you hit your targets. And that’s all there is to it!
I have found the OKR framework to be effective in almost every area of my life. It creates a structure for repeatable success.
I found that simplifying my OKRs first to something personal and easily measurable enabled me to set more complex, professional goals. The goal that initially didn’t make sense to me at work, “be a better software developer”, was then easier to understand using the OKR framework:
- Goal: Be a better software developer
- Objectives: Complete Java Fundamentals Course & Capstone Project
- Key Results: Complete at least one two-hour module daily
In the example above, we first need to figure out what being a better software engineer looks like. As a self-taught junior software developer who had just begun working on the backend with Java, being a “better software engineer” meant having a deep understanding of backend Java programming fundamentals.
Only after determining my current baseline knowledge was I able to set an objective to complete a suitable learning program. Much like my running, where I knew I was fit enough to run 5km/day, which translated to 1022km for the year, I began with what I knew and built my OKRs from the bottom up. Because I’d previously worked with Go, Python and SQL, I knew I had a knowledge gap in Java. Additionally, I had recently started working with Java and realised that learning more about Java would help me be better at my job. So, my goal became less broad.
What seemed like a too broad and abstract goal became easier to define when I began from the “bottom”, i.e. my baseline of wanting to build my Java programming fundamentals knowledge.
How would I achieve a deep understanding of programming fundamentals? I realised I could do this through learning and practical application—specifically through a Java fundamentals course. I specifically chose the course because senior engineers recommended it, and it fit into our company’s quarterly learning timeframe.
After doing this, I could break it down further into a daily commitment as a key result. If I wanted to finish the 60-hour course by the end of the quarter, I’d have to do at least two hours per day. This was doable for me as I had free time to dedicate to it in the evening.
It became a lot easier to set my professional OKRs because running helped simplify the framework and clearly show me the connections between goals, objectives and key results. Using something quantifiable and simple enabled me to understand the core ideas behind setting professional OKRs. The goals that seemed too big and broad became easier to break down using this OKR method.
If you’re struggling with setting professional OKRs, start with something easy and personal, like running, cooking, or even spending less time on your phone.
I truly hope you succeed in using this framework and always remember that, as with anything, it takes time to reach any meaningful success. Start small and stay consistent. Good luck!
For more information on OKRs:
- Measure What Matters: https://www.amazon.com/Measure-What-Matters-Google-Foundation/dp/0525536221