Win at quarterly planning by avoiding these OKRs mistakes

The moment I heard it, my acronym allergy kicked in: OKRs. I’d done S.M.A.R.T. goals at another company, and they kind of sucked. Ditto quarterly As & Os (accomplishments and objectives). Obviously, this OKRs thing was going to be more of the same. One big mistake.
And they did indeed kind of suck. We’d start working out OKRs for the next quarter with a full month left in the current quarter, so it felt like we were always in planning mode. Then all quarter long, I’d go down my checklist of KRs doing the same things I’d probably be doing anyway, wondering how that month of formalizing them wasn’t pointless overhead.

The one thing OKRs had going for them was that people up the chain were setting high-level objectives, then leaving it to the people closest to the actual work (i.e., people like me) to decide exactly how we were going to contribute. That part totally makes sense, and I appreciate that level of autonomy.

Still, OKRs felt like a confusing and unnecessarily process-heavy way of shooting for the stars.

Then I realized I’d been doing them wrong in a bunch of ways. In fact, most of us were getting something about OKRs wrong. No wonder it was confusing. Long story short, we straightened ourselves out and now OKRs are actually fruitful — I’ll show you some real life examples below.

If you hate OKRs, you owe it to yourself to at least make sure you’re doing them right (seeing as you probably have to do them anyway, rage notwithstanding). Below is a list of mistakes that were running rampant around Atlassian, plus a couple bonus anti-patterns you should be aware of.

Full disclosure: we haven’t eliminated all of them. Yet.

What are OKRs, anyway?
“Objectives and key results” (OKRs) is a framework for setting goals, typically on a quarterly basis. Your team sets 3–5 high-level goals (objectives) to pursue, along with 2–3 success measures you’ll use to determine whether you’ve reached it (key results).

At the end of the quarter, you score each KR on a sliding scale from 0 to 1 (0 = no progress at all; 1 = you hit or exceeded your target; .1-.9 = somewhere in between). During the quarter, you check in and predict what the final score will likely be, based on how you’re tracking so far. This keeps OKRs fresh in your mind and serves as an early detection system for OKRs that might need some extra attention.


Mistake #1: confusing themes with objectives
“Ecosystem” isn’t a helpful objective. Neither is “customer experience”. They don’t say much about what you’re trying to achieve or where you want to go. They’re nice themes, sure. But they’re not really goals.

Instead, write your objectives such that you can look back later and see clearly whether you met it or not.

One of our design team’s objectives is “Improve our craft, velocity, and quality of design decisions”. They paired it with KRs like “50% of product releases have a passing UX scorecard”. (I don’t know what a UX scorecard is, but I trust our design team does.)


Mistake #2: capturing all your work as OKRs
Your KRs shouldn’t be an exhaustive list of every single thing you and your team are doing. Stuff that falls into the “business as usual” category like fixing bugs or closing out the quarterly books doesn’t need to be there.

If your objective is to change the way in which you go about business as usual, that might be worth including — “Improve turn-around time on customer-reported bugs” or “Reduce late expense report submissions by 20%”.

OKRs are your highest priority items, and “just enough” is enough. FWIW, I’m a senior-level individual contributor and I typically own 1–3 KRs each quarter.


Mistake #3: confusing key results with tasks
For a long time, I wrote my KRs as nothing more than a to-do list. Check ’em off when they’re done, score ’em all a 1 (more on that in a moment), and call it a day. Satisfying, sure… but again: formalizing my tasks as KRs just felt like busy work. Plus, there were times when, halfway through the quarter, I realized the task wouldn’t get me closer to the objective. “But it’s a KR! I’m honor-bound to follow through on it!” Ugh.

My lightbulb moment was when I got hip to the fact that the “R” stands for “result”. (Duhhh.)

So instead of saying “Publish 3 blog posts related to the Team Playbook”, I started saying “Increase traffic to Playbook-related posts by 15%”. How I get that 15% increase is flexible. I could promote old posts, optimize them for search, publish new stuff, or some combination thereof. Also, getting to a 15% increase feels like a juicy challenge. (‘Cuz honestly, I could churn out 3 posts in my sleep. They’d get crap results if I wrote them that way, but I could do it.)

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