OKR

The One Mistake Almost Everyone Makes When Setting Key Results

Last Modified: 22nd August 2018

Setting Key Results

When it comes to setting Key Results, there is one mistake that almost everyone makes when getting started: all too often, people confuse Initiatives with Key Results.

Why confusing Key Results with Initiatives is a huge problem

Setting Objectives provides direction for your team or company, setting Key Results allows you to measure progress towards these Objectives.

Initiatives are the things you will be doing to achieve these results. They’re basically your hypotheses for how to make it all happen. While progressing on your Initiatives, you need to keep an eye on your Key Results to see whether these Initiatives deliver the desired outcome.

Setting Initiatives as Key Results prevents you from actually measuring the things that influence your success. It also keeps you from focusing on what really matters to drive progress.

For a software company like Perdoo, launching a new feature doesn’t indicate success. What we want to know is whether that feature actually added value to our users, so we measure how people interact with it.

The difference between Key Results and Initiatives

Initiatives (tasks, projects etc.) are things that you do, and the owners of Initiatives must have full control over completing them. This means completing them should not be dependent on something or someone else.

Key Results are the results you expect to achieve by working on your Initiatives. They tell you if you are getting closer to your Objective. Learn more about setting Key Results in our interview with Christina Wodtke, author of the OKR bestseller ‘Radical Focus’.

To clarify the widespread misunderstanding when setting Key Results, let’s use a simple non-business example:

Objective: Get back in shape after holidays

This is your destination. It answers the question “Where do I want to go?”

Key Result: Decrease body fat by 5%

This is a feedback mechanism telling you whether you’re actually getting closer to your Objective. It answers the question “How do I know I’m getting there?”. Decreasing your body fat is within your circle of influence, but you don’t have full control over it.

Initiative: Run 5 miles every week

This is what you will actually do to move the needle at you Key Result. It answers the question “What will I do to get there?”. You have full control over it. Unless you break your leg, no one can stop you from running 5 miles every week.

Whereas decreasing your body fat by 5% precisely defines what getting back in shape after holidays means to you, running 5 miles every week is only a hypothesis of what could bring you closer to your Objective. It will not necessarily turn out to be successful. Maybe you’ll have to adjust the distance (X miles), the frequency (X times every week), or pick another form of training.

Back to business

In a business context, Run 5 miles every week could be something like Send out a press release. This is not a Key Result, even though you might find a lot of examples similar to this one if you look at your company’s OKRs.

The outcome of the Initiatives Send out a press release should be a Key Result like Get covered in 20 media outlets. If your Objective is to Get maximum exposure for our company, sending out a press release itself doesn’t actually tell you whether you’re getting closer to it, but the press coverage generated clearly does.

It’s time to get your Key Results straight

With the difference between Initiatives and Key Results in mind, you already understand the OKR method better than most rookies.

If your company already sets OKRs and the borders between Initiatives and Key Results are fluid or nonexistent, share your newly acquired knowledge with the person in charge of your OKR program. It will drastically improve the quality of your company’s OKRs and boost the positive impact of the framework across the organization.

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