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A new quarter is about to begin, and that’s when teams start thinking about what the next priorities should be. We’ve written a lot about what constitutes a good OKR (see this list of articles). This time we’ll share some tips for team leads for identifying the right OKRs for their team, and making sure they’re set up to be accomplished.

The team should understand the importance of OKRs

Whether your team members like OKR or not (not everyone will), they all should understand why OKRs are important:

  • OKRs force you to start with the end in mind
    Starting with the end in mind is one of the famous seven habits of highly successful people. And for obvious reasons: without knowing where to go, it’s impossible to figure out what to do to get there. In other words: OKRs help everyone in the team decide each day what deserves their attention and what they can safely ignore.
  • OKRs are how you negotiate what’s important and what’s not
    You and your team members, and—perhaps even more importantly—you and your superiors, should be on the same page regarding what to focus on next quarter. The OKRs are going to define how a lot of people within the team will spend a significant amount of their time. Time is your scarcest resource, so you want to do everything possible to make sure you spend it in the best possible way. Working on the right things is what’s important, effectiveness trumps efficiency. 
  • OKRs ensure you’ll be working on things that matter
    To most people, work is about a lot more than collecting a paycheck. We all want to be sure that we add value. Through OKRs the team can rest assured that they’ll be working on things that actually matter and drive value for the business.

Completing tasks and initiatives is a great feeling. It releases dopamine in your brain. But, in the end, it’s not the completion of tasks that matters—it’s the results that those tasks are intended to accomplish. Those results are reflected in your OKRs. So OKRs let you see if you’ve done something useful.

Note that we recommend teams to set both KPIs and OKRs, so that they’ll really have a full overview of what matters. Here’s why.

Start with Objectives, not with people

When setting OKRs for the upcoming quarter, the aim is to identify the right problems or ambitions to work on. The aim is not to ensure that everyone in the team is leading one or more OKRs.

Wally Goals

Therefore, when drafting OKRs, don’t discuss with each individual team member what his or her OKRs should be. Instead, get together with the team to collect everyone’s input. Give every team member the opportunity to say what they believe is important (the more involved they can be, the stronger the sense of ownership they’ll have). At this stage, ignore who could or should be working on it. All you’re doing right now is figuring out where you and your team can have the biggest impact, which problems to tackle first.

What discussions do you want to have: what Michael’s OKRs should be, or what marketing problems need to be tackled? Do you start with your resources and then figure out what their OKRs should be? Or do you start with OKRs, and then figure out the resources that you need to achieve those OKRs. I suggest you do the latter.

Whilst going through this process, answer for each possible Objective why it is important and why it is urgent. This exercise will help you decide whether or not it should indeed be a priority for the upcoming quarter. The question ‘Why is it important?’ also encourages you to use actual data in your decisions.

Align with superiors before creating Key Results

When drafting OKRs, a significant amount of time will go into setting the right Key Results. You want to avoid putting in all this effort before having agreed with superiors that these are indeed the right Objectives for your team to focus on next quarter.

You often hear that (quarterly) OKRs should be set bottom-up. That statement certainly has its merit. As Steve Jobs famously said: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; you should hire smart people so they can tell you what to do.”

However, the fact that OKRs should come bottom-up shouldn’t be interpreted by teams as carte blanche to do whatever it wants. The company has a mission & vision and a strategy, and it’s up to the teams to deliver it. Aligning with superiors on the Objectives simply makes sure everyone is on the same page regarding how to implement and execute the strategy.

At the same time, executives (and especially the CEO) shouldn’t misuse the statement that bottom-up OKRs are preferred to completely disconnect themselves from the OKR program. They’ve set out the strategy and need to work closely with the teams to help them deliver it. If the team fails to deliver, it’s the executives who carry the end responsibility. In the end, the shareholders will replace the executive team—not the teams—if the organization fails to deliver.

It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do - Steve Jobs Quote

Distribute accountability

When you have identified an important OKR for your team, you need someone to look after it. In other words: you need to make someone responsible.

As the team lead, you should not be responsible for all the OKRs of your team. You simply don’t have the time. Instead, you should delegate responsibility and act as a coach (ie, help your team members / direct reports achieve their goals). 

In the Perdoo software, we call the person who is responsible for a goal, the lead. Only one person can lead a goal (the adage goes: “if multiple people are responsible, no one is”). The lead is like a project lead. He or she is responsible for identifying the right Initiatives to work on, making sure the Initiatives are completed on time, monitoring progress of the Key Results, and so on. He or she is also the main point of contact for the particular OKR.

Emphasize the importance of contributors

Even though there can only be one lead for an OKR, that doesn’t mean that the lead is the only person working on it. In most cases, the lead will need the help of several others to complete Initiatives that will (hopefully) drive progress for the OKR. The people that work on those Initiatives are the contributors.

I often see team leads want every team member to lead his or her own OKRs. This doesn’t promote collaboration and is often just a way to micromanage or track an employee (no wonder some people hate OKRs). Instead of making sure that every team member leads his or her own OKRs, make sure that every team member is contributing to an OKR.

Contributors are your most important asset. These are the people that actually put in all the work to achieve an OKR. What’s more important? That everyone leads an OKR, or that the OKR that you’ve identified will actually be achieved?

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