What are OKRs? And how do you use them well?

When it comes to productivity and alignment, HR has turned to key result areas (KRAs), key performance indicators (KPIs), and now objectives and key results (OKRs).

OKRs are a framework for ambitious, strategic goal setting whereby a company focuses on an objective and determines how close (or far) they are to achieving their goal with measurable key results.

Goal setting and productivity:

UK productivity among the lowest of the G7, finds ONS

Heffernan: KPIs and targets create “perverse outcomes”

Goal setting: It takes two to manage your mindset

When the book Measure What Matters by John Doerr came out in 2017, OKRs started gaining traction as readers became familiar with the success stories of Silicon Valley tech giants.

Many leaders jumped on the proverbial OKR bandwagon and brought their companies along for the ride.

With the best of intentions, OKRs were rolled out before many people even knew what they were or what they should be doing with them. They soon became an HR nightmare. After facing disappointing results, many companies soon kicked them to the curb.

The thing is, those Silicon Valley guys didn’t (and still don’t) have a secret to achieving their breakthrough results; it goes beyond the scope of budget or even luck. Their success depends on: strong leadership, empowered teams, relentless devotion to customer value, and above all, hyperfocus on one, bold, strategic goal.

For companies who had poor experiences with the framework - OKRs only accelerated what was already present. So, how can we build up the competencies that position us for OKR success?

By applying lean philosophy to the existing OKR model it can be achieved. This is an evolved version of OKRs I call lean OKRs.

Lean is based on the history of Japanese manufacturing techniques often associated with the Toyota Kata. Lean homes in on creating excellent value for the customer by continuously pushing for improved business processes. This is done by adjusting and adapting human behavior of both customers and employees alike. 

When done right, OKRs define the purpose of a company and its teams, which leads to higher morale, motivation, and increased performance.

Here’s how it works: Lean OKRs thrive on one single, overarching OKR decided upon by senior leaders after evaluating their strategy and hashing out which objective is the best one to proceed with.

Based on the company-level OKR, leaders swarm around it and define team-level objectives that will impact the company OKR. Leadership then needs to bring the strategic context to their teams and collaborate with them on defining key results (measurable outcomes) and challenge them on the ambition level.

If leaders define objectives with corresponding outcomes (or hard problems to solve) for teams, rather than dictating which solutions to build, the result would be innovation from the core of their business.

Here are three easy lean OKR strategies that leaders and teams can start implementing today:

  1. Focus on one single OKR per team at a time. Use strategic thinking. Target behavior change. Battle it out - pick one high-performing team to start with.
  2. Install a lightweight process to achieve your OKRs based on plan, do, check, act. Study and try scientific thinking with your team.
  3. Lean mindset. Learning and continuous experimentation is used to achieve stretch goals with as little excess as possible.

Lean OKRs encourage cross-departmental team collaboration and alignment. There is room to for teams to quickly pivot because the why of a particular goal is more important than how it is achieved.

It is for precisely this reason that companies working with lean OKRs seem to be more agile than their competitors. When a speed bump appears, teams can troubleshoot independently and realign with other teams.

This concept is based on the principles of a single strategic, aspirational goal, understanding customer value, continuous learning, autonomy of teams, and a consistent schedule of check-ins.


Bart den Haak is CEO of Moving the Needle and author of Moving the Needle with Lean OKRs: setting objectives & key results to achieve your most ambitious goal