I was channel surfing the other night and came across the 2000 film “High Fidelity” starring John Cusack as Rob, a thirty-something record store owner in Chicago. Rob loves compiling lists and ranking things. In fact, the movie centers on the list of his “Top 5 Breakups.” He and his co-workers have spirited debates about many other topics as well, and it’s clear they’ve put serious thought and consideration into their choices when stitching together personal rankings. While watching, I drifted back to work mode for a moment and wondered: “Do people put that much thought into choosing their key results?”

Less is More

That may seem like a silly question. Of course teams and individuals devote significant mental energy to selecting their key results. Right? Maybe not. The primary reason I suggest this is the sheer number of key results I see attached to objectives. It’s not uncommon to have six, seven, eight or more key results tied to a given objective. If you’ve done even a cursory amount of research on OKRs you know the framework’s tagline is measuring what matters (to quote John Doerr). It’s all about focus – homing in on the critical elements of success, separating the signal from the noise to isolate your efforts on the vital differentiators. It’s difficult for me to imagine – after seeing literally thousands of OKRs over the past several years – that a list of seven or eight key results is evidence of true focus.

There are several reasons for the accumulation of key results, some benign, others a bit more troubling.

  • Mistaking tasks or activities for key results. This is something I see frequently. When crafting key results, writers will list not only the ultimate outcome; the evidence of success on the objective, but every granular step necessary to reach that outcome. To differentiate between a task and key result, use this simple test: If you can accomplish the action in a relatively short period of time it’s more likely a task than a true key result. And if you do find yourself listing tasks, ask, “What will happen when I complete these tasks?” Doing so may lead to a more quantitative key result.
  • FOMO. Which stands for “Fear of missing out.” Broadening that just a bit, some OKR drafters simply don’t want to leave anything out. They feel it’s safer simply to list every possible result, regardless of whether it provides evidence of achievement of the objective or not. Related to that, but falling into the ‘troubling’ camp, we have…
  • Busy Bee Syndrome. There are those among us who will use the OKR process as a stage to demonstrate how busy they are. These martyrs will create multiple objectives, each with a mountain of key results, the totality of which quickly ascends to an impossible number of items to accomplish in a year, let alone the typical OKRs cadence of 90 days. Always remember, OKRs are not meant to showcase your crushing workload or provide a glorified to do list.

How Many is Too Many?

How many key results are enough? My advice is simple; use as many key results as necessary to tell “the story” of your success. Here’s an example from us at OKRsTraining.com. One of our strategic priorities for 2020 and beyond is to expand internationally, which is consistent with our vision of becoming the global leader in OKRs training, coaching, and certification. We have both annual and quarterly OKRs related to this imperative. Here is a quarterly OKR:

Objective: Identify and train potential partners to drive international revenue

Key Results:

  1. Increase partners signed and trained in our methodology from 0 to 3.
  2. Increase international inquiries for service X to Y. 
  3. Increase international partner revenue X to Y.

Your challenge when creating key results is to ensure you actually measure achievement of the objective. In this case the first component of the objective states that we wish to identify and train potential partners. That is measured with key result #1, 3 partners signed and trained in our methodology. Next we must ensure we’ve accounted for the critical part of any objective, the “in order to” or so that – in other words, the business impact. In our case that is “to drive international revenue.” Key results #2 and 3 do just that. Notice the simple, yet comprehensive, story we’re telling with our key results. First we sign and train partners, then we work with them to foster introductions, and that will lead to engagements that drive revenue. Endeavor to apply the story concept to your own OKRs to ensure you’re using just the necessary number of key results to measure the objective in full, and no more.

Think Like Da Vinci!

One of my favorite quotes comes from a book titled, “How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci.”  And who wouldn’t want to think like one of the greatest polymaths in history? The book’s author, Michael Gelb has this to say about the task of making difficult choices: “The discipline of ordering…the discipline of choosing one over another, ranking one a level higher than another, and then articulating why you chose the way you did requires a depth and clarity of consideration and comparison that inspires richer appreciation and enjoyment.”[i] I can think of no better way to describe the arduous, but ultimately rewarding, process of selecting objectives and key results of genuine value. Although it’s a difficult assignment, the hard work of making the demanding choices will leave you with a richer appreciation of what you do select.

Paul Niven is president of OKRsTraining.com, and author of Objectives & Key Results, Driving Focus, Alignment and Engagement with OKRs.

[i] Michael J. Gelb, How to Think Like Leonardo daVinci (New York: Bantam Dell, 2004).