[Workflow Guide] Transform the Way You Set and Track Goals with OKRs

A simple framework used at companies like Google, Disney, & BMW to align aspirations with day-to-day actions

Guide to OKRs banner
Illustration by Vicente Niro

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is the fabled goal-setting tool used by the likes of IBM, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Dropbox, Spotify, Disney, and BMW to get thousands of employees moving toward the same ambitious goals.

But you don’t have to be a multinational corporation – or even a team leader – to benefit from OKRs. This simple framework is equally powerful for setting personal goals too. In short, it’s a system for making sure what you want to happen, happens.

OKRs might be the perfect fit if you:

  • Are looking for a more rigorous way to set and track goals
  • Put in a lot of work but feels like you’re not progressing on the right things
  • Have a hard time saying “no” and sticking to priorities
  • Feel like you’re plateauing in your personal growth and want to challenge yourself
  • Need to set priorities and align action across a company, division, or team

This guide draws on lessons from John Doerr – venture capitalist, OKR evangelist, and author of the New York Times Bestseller Measure What Matters – to give you an overview of what OKRs are and how to make them work, individually or as part of a team.

If you’re already familiar with OKRs, you can skip right to the section on how to track them in Todoist.

Common misconceptions about OKRs:

  • “You have to be data-savvy to do OKRs.” OKRs are way simpler than you think and can be implemented without any special data skills.
  • “Measurable means numbers.” Lots of people will tell you OKRs have to be based on numbers – eg, Make $10,000 of new sales, get 5,000 new subscribers, reduce churn rate by 25%. That’s not necessarily true. While many key results are numbers-based, plenty of worthy key results can be measured only as a 0 or a 1 — either you did it or you didn’t. The more important question to ask of your OKRs is: “At the end of this time period, will I be able to say I accomplished this or not?” If the answer is yes, then it’s a measurable result.
  • “OKRs are only for teams and companies.” While OKRs are usually talked about in the context of companies, you can use OKRs just as effectively for yourself, whether you’re a company of one or just want a more rigorous way to track your personal goals.
  • “OKRs should encompass all of your work.” OKRs are meant to emphasize your most important work. So while some items on your to-do list are related to your OKRs, many (like one-off tasks, regular meetings, answering emails) are not.

What are OKRs?

Let’s start with the basics. OKRs stand for objectives and key results. Put simply, objectives describe where you’re going. Key results are how you get there. Here’s a simple example of a personal OKR to illustrate:

Objective: Run a marathon in under 4 hrs

Key results:

  • Join a marathon training group
  • Train 5 days per week with 1 long run each week
  • Increase mileage by 5 miles per week
  • Drink at least 3 liters of water every day
  • Sleep at least 8 hours every night

In Measure What Matters, Doerr describes objectives and key results as the yin and yang of goal setting. Without key results to make them actionable, objectives are just wishes. Without objectives to ground them in a higher strategy and purpose, key results are just a directionless to-do list.

However, when taken together, OKRs represent the best of both worlds, pairing inspiring ambitions with concrete actions. Big, high-level goals may motivate and give purpose, but it’s your short-term actions that ultimately drive results. You need both to be effective.

Objectives

  • Describe where you’re going or what you want to accomplish
  • Higher-level and bigger-picture
  • Aren’t necessarily time-bounded – can rollover quarter to quarter or even year to year
  • Concrete & action-oriented, but may or may not be objectively measurable
  • Inspirational – should connect back to your overall mission and why you do what you do

Example objectives:

  • Become a company that attracts and retains top talent
  • Improve 1-month retention rate by 20%
  • Self-publish a novel

Key results

  • Describe how you’ll get there, or the actions you’ll take to accomplish an objective
  • Time-bounded – should be completed by the end of the cycle
  • Concrete and measurable – at the end of the period, you must be able to say “I did or did not accomplish this result”
  • Constantly being evaluated and evolved throughout the cycle

Example key results:

For the objective “Become a company that attracts top talent”:

    • Redesign our company website and job descriptions to better represent our ambitions and culture
    • Boost PR and social media presence of our leadership team
    • Make ongoing recruitment a top priority for the leadership team
    • Hire a head of HR
    • Create ongoing mentorship and career growth opportunities within the company

For the objective “Improve 1-month customer retention rate by 20%”:

    • Conduct 25 interviews with lapsed customers to identify current pain points
    • Clarify value proposition on main landing page
    • Revamp email welcome series
    • Create new in-app onboarding experience
    • Identify & double down on marketing channels with best retention rate

For the objective “Self-publish a novel”:

    • Write 1,000 words a day
    • Find an editor
    • Identify the best self-publishing platform
    • Build a personal brand on social media

How often should you set OKRs?

There’s no prescribed OKR cadence you must follow, but Doerr believes that 1-3 months is the sweet spot – long enough to see results but short enough to make action feel urgent. You may also have overlapping timelines. For example, you might set high-level, annual OKRs, then break those down into shorter quarterly or even monthly OKRs.

To continue with one of the example OKRs above, if your company’s annual objective is to “improve 1-month customer retention rate by 20%”, the key result “revamp email welcome series” might become the first quarter objective of your growth team with its own key results:

Q1 Objective: Improve email welcome series to engage more customers

Key results:

  • Increase open rate to 75% and click through rate to 55%
  • Identify the key user actions correlated with high retention and build email series around those actions
  • Implement new welcome email series by March 1
  • Develop 10 A/B tests for the email series and iterate based on the results

Remember, your objectives may stay the same for years at a time, but your key results must be time-bounded.

3 important caveats about key results

You don’t have to be a data scientist to set OKRs

Setting key results can be daunting, particularly if you don’t consider yourself a “data person”. While key results must be measurable, that doesn’t mean you have to have a sophisticated data system to track them.

If you’re a writer with an objective to write a bestselling novel, one key result might be “Write 1,000 words a day”. If your objective is to hire a VP of marketing, a key result might be to “interview 10 candidates”. You don’t need fancy tools or specialized knowledge to track either of those numbers.

Key results can even be measured in a simple 1 or 0 result: Did I or did I not complete Result A in the given timeframe? For example, “Create final design spec with buy-in from the team by April 15” is a perfectly good, measurable key result even though it has no numbers attached to it. Viewed this way, key results become a much more flexible and useful tool that can encompass both the planning and execution stages of a project.

Key results shouldn’t capture all of your work

Key results should not be a laundry list of every task you need to complete in a day. For example, most of us have to respond to emails as part of our regular job duties, but you wouldn’t set “get to inbox zero every day” as a key eesult. Rather, OKRs should be used to shine a spotlight on just the most important work you need to do to move toward your objectives.

Avoid misaligned incentives by pairing quantity & quality results

There’s no lack of cautionary tales when it comes to the single-minded pursuit of numerical goals. Doerr holds up the infamous examples of the Ford Pinto where safety was sacrificed for the sake of weight and price targets resulting in exploding gas tanks, hundreds of deaths, and the recall of 1.5 million vehicles in 1978. More recently, Facebook and YouTube both created content recommendation algorithms aimed at maximizing time spent inside their respective apps. Unfortunately, the algorithms also boosted the amount of factually inaccurate content users were exposed to. That’s why OKRs should be crafted with unintended consequences in mind.

Doerr recommends pairing quantity results with quality results. For example, if your objective is to “Build a world-class digital publication”, a key result might be “Reach 100,000 newsletter subscribers”. That quantity-oriented result might incentivize using free giveaways that attract a lot of new subscribers who are only interested in getting free stuff. You might counterbalance that quantity incentive with a paired quality-oriented result like “Maintain a 75% open rate and 50% click rate” to ensure that new subscribers are actually engaged with your content.

Imagine what the world might look like if Facebook or YouTube had balanced a quantity key result of “time in app” with a quality result like “percentage of recommended articles considered factually accurate”.

What makes OKRs so effective?

Given OKRs’ simplicity, it’s tempting to dismiss the framework as just a trumped up Silicon Valley rebrand of every other goal-setting approach. But it’s not the framework itself but the mindset behind it that makes OKRs transformational. In Measure What Matters, Doerr describes the four “superpowers” of OKRs that set the system apart from other goal setting frameworks:

1. Focus. OKRs create a clear understanding of what needs to be prioritized. They give you and your team permission to say no to everything else. Doerr describes how liberating OKRs were in his early career at IBM: “When people came to me mid-quarter with requests to draft new data sheets, I felt I could say no without fear of repercussion.”

2. Alignment. The beauty of OKRs is that they’re both a top-down and bottom-up approach to goal setting. While the company sets high-level, strategic OKRs (top down), teams and individuals are empowered to define their own OKRs (in consultation with their managers) to best meet the company’s goals (bottom up). They then own that specific piece of work.

Company OKR:

Objective: Increase profits by 50%

Key results:

  • Add 100,00 new users in 2020
  • Reach 200,000 weekly active users

Corresponding product team OKR to support the company OKR:

Objective: Implement highly-requested feature X to boost customer acquisition.

Key results:

  • Create detailed spec with input from all platform teams by Jan 15
  • Have feature ready for beta testing on all platforms by Mar 1
  • Launch feature bug-free on all platforms by Mar 31
  • Work with marketing and customer support teams pre-launch to communicate feature benefits to users
  • Reach 80% feature adoption in the first week after launch

Doerr writes about alignment in the context of corporations with hundreds or thousands of employees, but it applies to individual goal setting too. When used well, individual OKRs align your day-to-day actions with the bigger goals and purpose you’ve set for yourself.

3. Accountability. OKRs support what Doerr calls a “spirit of no-judgment accountability”. Clear deadlines create urgency, objective measurement removes subjectivity, and regular check-ins ensure that prompt action is taken if a key result gets off track or needs to be adjusted. In the age of knowledge work, where output is often difficult to measure and define, OKRs can be a mutually agreed upon reference point to assess what’s working, what’s blocking, and what needs to change.

4. Growth. When used right, OKRs can be a powerful motivating force to stretch yourself, your team, or your company beyond their current abilities. Setting OKRs should make you feel uncomfortable, while at the same time making failure and subsequent learning a natural part of the process.

7 Key Tenets for Making OKRs Work

OKRs may seem simple on the surface, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to implement in practice. Doerr boils down decades of experience helping companies implement OKRs into 7 essential lessons for making them work in any context:

  1. Less is more. Doerr recommends 3-5 key results per objective. Any more than that, and it dulls the clarity and focus that OKRs provide.
  2. Set goals from the bottom up. As management expert Peter Drucker observed “When people choose a course of action, they’re more likely to see it through.” Doerr recommends that teams and individuals should set about half of their own OKRs in consultation with their managers, rather than all goals coming from the top.
  3. No dictating. Even high-level, top-down OKRs set by company leaders should be arrived at through a collaborative and inclusive process. Collective agreement and buy-in is essential for success.
  4. Stay flexible. OKRs are meant to be agile in response to changing circumstances. Key results can be modified mid-cycle or even discarded if it becomes clear that they no longer make sense. While objectives tend to be more long-term, they too can shift as needed to adapt to new realities and information. For example, when Motorola began stealing market share in 1979, IBM had to quickly shift priorities in response. On a more personal level, if you get injured while training for a marathon, you’ll need to adjust focus on a new objective of recovery instead. Without flexibility, OKRs will quickly become irrelevant.
  5. Set “stretched” goals. You shouldn’t achieve 100% of your OKRs. Google famously aims for a 60-70% success rate. A 100% success rate means you played it too safe with your targets. OKRs should stretch you, your team, and/or your company beyond what you’re currently capable of. If a subset of your OKRs makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re doing it right.
  6. Never tie OKRs to monetary incentives. For companies, Doerr makes clear that for OKRs to work, they must remain separate from compensation. Once key results are tied to bonuses and promotions, people have an incentive to play it safe. To underscore this point, Doerr quotes Andy Grove, IBM executive and the “Father of OKRs”: “[OKRs are] meant to pace a person – to put a stopwatch in his own hand so he can gauge his own performance. It is not a legal document upon which to base performance reviews.”
  7. Be patient. Setting OKRs is hard. What worked at IBM or Google likely won’t work in the exact same way at your organization or for you personally. The flexible, trial-and-error mentality behind setting OKRs applies equally to the process of applying the system itself. You’re unlikely to get it right on the first try, but by constantly reevaluating and adjusting your approach, you’ll get closer to what’s most useful for you.

How to track your OKRs in Todoist

For OKRs to work, your day-to-day tasks need to align with your key results. An easy way to visually prioritize OKRs in your Todoist is with projects and sub-projects.

Setting up your OKR projects & sub-projects

Start off by creating a project for each of your objectives. This project may not hold many tasks itself, but will serve as both a folder for organizing your key results and a visual reminder of the purpose behind each key result.

Underneath each objective project, create 3-5 sub-projects, one for each key result. It can be helpful to color code your projects so it’s easy to see at a glace which tasks are associated with each OKR.

OKR projects
Create a project for each of your objectives and sub-projects for each key result.

Create a task in each sub-project that represents your target for the cycle – for example, “Hire an editor”. Give the task a due date for the end of the cycle, then work backwards to determine which tasks need to be done when in order to finish on time.

key result subproject
Plan out the steps you’ll need to take to reach each objective. Keep adding more throughout the cycle as needed.
➡ Read more on how to effectively manage projects in Todoist.

Be sure to include a weekly recurring task to review each key result, identify what’s going well and what needs to be adapted, add any new tasks that have come up, and plan out your priorities for the coming week.

weekly OKR review
Review your OKRs weekly – assess progress, update your key result projects, and plan our your actions for the week ahead.
➡ We wrote a more detailed guide on how to conduct a weekly review.

Depending on your OKRs, it may make sense to keep track of one or more key results as tasks rather than sub-projects. For example, if you’re objective is to “Self publish a novel”, the key result “write 1,000 words a day” probably makes more sense as a daily task rather than its own project.

Some key results may make more sense as tasks. Adjust your task and project structure to fit your specific OKRs.

Remember to stay flexible! Each OKR is unique and may require a slightly different setup.

marathon OKR
An example of key results that fit better as tasks rather than projects.

Creating an OKR filter

Add even more emphasis to your OKR-related tasks by separating them out into their own filter view. Use the filter query “next 7 days & ##objective project” to see all of the tasks in your “objective project” and its associated key result sub-projects that are due in the next 7 days.

At the start of the day, open your “OKR Tasks” filter to see the work you should be focusing on next. You can even add the filter to your favorites, so it shows up right underneath the standard “Next 7 Days” view within easy reach.

OKR filter
Keep your upcoming OKR tasks separate from your everyday to-do list. Work on these tasks first.

Keeping track of team OKRs with Todoist Business

If you use Todoist Business to manage your team tasks, add your team’s OKRs as tasks in your Team Inbox so everyone can reference them at any time.

Use project sections to split OKRs up by team and assign each key result to the person who will own it. Each key result owner can post regular updates in the task comments so everyone knows where each OKR stands.

Team inbox
Document your company’s OKRs in your Team Inbox so everyone knows what the priorities are and how their work fits into the big picture.

This level of transparency reinforces all four of OKRs’ superpowers for your team:

  • Focus: Everyone can clearly sees the company’s priorities.
  • Alignment: Everyone understands how each team’s OKRs fits with the rest to support company-wide OKRs.
  • Accountability: Each key result owner commits publicly to their OKRs and is responsible for reporting progress back to the whole team.
  • Growth: With public OKRs and updates, the whole company can see that “stretched” OKRs are something to be embraced and that failures are a learning opportunity, not something that’s punished.

When it comes to accomplishing your goals, there’s no substitute for hard work. But hard work won’t get you where you want to go if it’s aimed in the wrong direction. The next time you sit down to think about where you want to be next month, quarter, or year, try using the OKR framework to set big, audacious goals and lay out a concrete, measurable path to get there.

Special thanks to Anthony Coppedge, agile consultant and coach, who took the time to introduce me to the OKR mindset and walk me through how he teaches it to the teams he works with as the Agile Transformation Lead for Digital Sales at IBM.