OKR Pro Tip: Change the question you’re asking

Posted on July 24, 2023.
question mark on chalk board
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As companies set out to implement OKRs they are often overwhelmed by the many things that have to change in order for the new goal-setting framework to work. A big change is risky. Feeling like it’s insurmountable likely spells the end for any big organizational transformation. Like any large initiative, we can take small steps to start the journey. In each small step we attempt to score a small win. That win adds evidence to further justify the transformation. Every small bit of evidence adds up to drive bigger and bigger change. In this post I’m going to focus on just one of those small bits of change you can undertake to start your OKR journey: the question you ask at the beginning of an initiative. 

Traditionally we focus on production

At the outset of any new initiative the question on everybody’s minds and eventually their lips is, “What are we going to build?” We like to think in terms of output. It’s easy. It’s concrete. It’s tangible. It often has a name. It’s also easy to imagine what the work will look like when we can answer that question definitively. When we know what we want to build, we can start planning. We can estimate. We can tell the sales team and eventually the world what’s coming. This approach, while tempting, isn’t focused on the customer. It’s focused on producing something – a feature, a product, a service, a campaign or an initiative. We bake many assumptions into the plans for the thing we want to make. We take on a lot of risk – not just feasibility risk but also viability and desirability. Do people even want it? Can we build a business around it? We don’t often consider those questions until much farther downstream. 

Ask a question that focuses on behavior change

To get the team focused on outcomes – behavior change – and primed for a small OKR-related win, change the question you ask at the beginning of the initiative. Instead of focusing on what the team will make, ask, “What will people be doing differently if we succeed?” This is a simple but fundamental shift in mindset and approach. From the get-go we are focused on changing behavior. We have to define whose behavior we want to change. We need to come up with which behaviors of those folks we want to impact. And, finally, we need to decide by how much we want to change

Notice that in none of those questions are we worried about what we’ll make. We’ve started the shift to Objectives & Key Results just with one simple question change. The answers to “What will people be doing differently if we succeed?” start to lay the foundation for your key results. They should all be behavior changes in your target audience – especially the target audience you want to go after first. Even if we don’t immediately move away from features as our measures of our success, we’ve notched a small win in simply discussing how we will know we’ve chosen and built the best feature for our customers.