Always add numbers to your key results

Posted on July 17, 2023.

Some of the teams I train and coach on Objectives and Key Results resist adding numbers to their key results. They’re comfortable with determining which human behavior they’d like to shift but when it comes time to quantify a sufficient amount of behavior change they freeze. This isn’t uncommon. It’s also a sub-optimal way of kicking off your OKR journey.

You are making a commitment (as you should)

The first reason for not adding numbers is that teams resist making a commitment to a defined goal. Once it’s written down with a number, the team is on the hook for it. This is terrifying for some teams because they don’t know if this is a realistic goal for them. What this usually signifies is that the team is more afraid of what will happen if they don’t hit the number rather than the number itself.

It’s worth discussing that possibility with your stakeholders before you set off to test and build product ideas. Set your stakeholders’ expectations that you’ll hit between 70-80% of the target number. If, along the way, you realize the number is unrealistic, tell your leaders as quickly as you can. This way you’ve got time to adjust course before committing too heavily down a particular path. Regardless, the commitment you’re making to this key result is for the next quarter. If it ends up not being realistic, discuss that at your quarterly check-in.

Numbers tell you when you’re done

Without numbers your key results are directional. “We want more of this” or “we want less of that.” But how much is enough? How will you know when you’ve changed behavior to a point where any further work no longer returns on the investment? We work on continuous systems that can be optimized forever. Deploying features no longer means we’re “done” with the work. In fact, we’re just getting started once we get ideas into the hands of our customers.

Adding a number to your key result tells the team when it’s done and it can move on to something else. There’s a fundamental difference between “increase return visits” and “increase return monthly visits from registered customers by 35%.” When you get close to that 35% you have done the “right” amount of work. The team can now move on to another part of the customer journey.

A fear of numbers is a symptom

As someone who meets with lots of teams each month, when I come across a team that is afraid of attaching numbers to their key results it’s a red flag. It’s one thing if the team doesn’t know what the number should be. That’s a relatively easily solvable problem. In the majority of cases though this is a symptom of a deeper cultural issue around what gets celebrated, rewarded and promoted at the organization. It’s also a clue into how the leadership team handles the process of shipping, sensing and responding. Inevitably some failure will creep in there. If the organization doesn’t tolerate “failure” teams will hesitate to add specific numbers to their key results, fearing for the jobs if they miss. The other result could be teams committing to numbers but they’re so low there’s no risk of them no hitting them. Either way, we’re not seeing the best work from our teams. Numbers in your key results are powerful and valuable. If you’re team is resisting adding them, consider why.

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