OKRs without objectives are only half the story

Posted on May 8, 2023.
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When getting OKRs in place many executives will skip the whole “O” process. “Why do we need objectives?”, they’ll ask. “It’s just the numbers that matter.” The immediate response should be, “Why? Why do these specific numbers matter?” However, asking questions in such a blunt manner to your boss can often be a career-limiting move in many organizations. Instead, we have to frame the conversation a bit differently. 

What story will the numbers tell? 

Christina Wodtke, long-time advocate of OKRs and author of Radical Focus (the OG bible of OKRs), advises a different approach. Instead of simply asking why these specific numbers are important, Wodtke advises to ask your boss what “story” the numbers will tell when we achieve them. Note the language choice there. It’s not a question of whether we should work on these numbers (at least not yet) nor whether or not we will achieve them (to be determined). Instead the question refocuses the executive on the story they would like to tell the market, their bosses, colleagues or the competition. The team is just trying to get to the root cause of the key result the executive presented rather than question it directly or push back on the target. 

Let’s look at an example. The head of your business unit comes down and says to your team, “I need you to hit 65k monthly active users of the micro-lending service in sub-Saharan Africa.” It’s a lofty goal given your current user base and high churn rate but you’re motivated by the aggressive target. Nevertheless it’s not clear to you why 65,000 is the key number. So you ask, “When we hit 65,000 MAU’s, boss, what story will that number tell the market?”

Note the language choice again. You didn’t ask “Why should we do this?” and you didn’t argue the target itself, even given current usage statistics. Instead you’re trying to understand why this number is important to your boss. She responds, “When we hit 65k in sub-Saharan Africa, we will have the market credibility and trust to offer a broader array of products to the region.” 

The objective now becomes clear, “Increase our market credibility and trust in sub-Saharan Africa.” The team can now focus not only on the 65k MAU’s but also on how to design an experience that delivers on that trust and credibility promise. They’re aligned and ready to work towards the goal. Without this context, the team is just working towards numbers, trying anything that may drive usage, even if it hurts trust. With the objective clear, the team can take that into account as it works to drive up monthly usage. 

The story always matters

Numbers are always a part of a good story. But they’re not the only part of the story that does. Framing the numbers within a clear context, an objective for the team to use a north star is critical to the choices they make as they work. It’s a productive constraint that focuses the team on the best way to achieve the key result while ensuring the objective is still met. This way of reverse engineering the objective from a number is a powerful tool for teams setting off on their OKR journey.