Writing unambiguous objectives

Posted on February 20, 2023.
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When I teach Objectives & Key Results (OKR), here is my checklist for writing impactful Objectives:

  • Qualitative
  • Aspirational
  • Inspirational
  • Demonstrate clear value
  • Support the higher cause (strategy)
  • Time boxed

These 6 points are designed to help a team create a motivational objective statement. After all, this is the reason we get out of bed every morning and go to work (in theory).

As part of the instructions I give during workshops and training sessions, I explain that your objective statement will often contain superlatives – phrases like “most efficient”, “easiest to use”, “demonstrably impactful.” 

As an example, a good objective statement can look like this:

Create the easiest way to make cross-border payments in sub-saharan Africa by Q1 2024. 

What I like about this objective statement is that it ticks all the boxes above. Its value is clear. It’s both aspirational and inspirational. It’s qualitative and timeboxed. 

Ambiguous objectives reduce focus

What often comes back from teams writing their first set of OKRs, are objective statements that don’t offer a similar sense of clarity. The statements will often tick all 6 boxes above but will end up with phrases in them like “best in class”, “user-friendly”, or “market leading.” These phrases use the correct syntax but they don’t provide enough direction for the team. 

Remember that objectives are half the battle. To write key results for an objective that challenges the team to build the “best in class solution” in their category, the team has a large number (if not infinite) of choices when it comes to their key results. Without a “demonstrated clear value that supports overall strategy” teams will often write high level key results. These goals end up either too ambiguous or too big for product-level teams to hit. In many ways, ambiguous OKRs defeat the purpose of using them in the first place. They make it nearly impossible to determine what’s the most important thing to work on right now. 

Specificity drives direction

The clarifying question I use to push back on ambiguous objectives is, “What will make your product best in class?” or “What aspects of the user journey do you believe you’d like to optimize?” These are risky questions because teams will often jump to solutions. But with a little light coaching we can get them to realize that instead of “best in class” we can write, “Most efficient way to process credit card payments.” The sharpened objective gives the team direction, focus and guardrails. They know what’s in scope and more important, what’s out of scope. The key results that follow this objective will also be more specific. 

OKRs should have an opinion if they are to succeed. Leave them too ambiguous or un-opinionated and the team has no idea where to focus their efforts. Languishing too long without direction and sharp definitions of success leads to OKR abandonment and a regression to old ways of working. Instead, insist that your teams’ objectives are specific, demonstrate clear value and push forward a strong opinion. 

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