A goal without a timeline is just a dream. People believe in this idea, and yet they still approach the goal-setting process superficially. Bad goal setting in business means your team may never get around to achieving much. If you want to set powerful and actionable goals that have an impact, you need to learn how to set and write them properly from the start.
In this article, we teach you to write actionable goals using quarterly OKRs. You will learn how to write Objectives in a way that encourages people to get things done.
We will cover 4 practical tips that you can use to determine what matters to your business right now, so you can write relevant and actionable OKRs.
- Rule #1: Don’t forget the problem in the midst of problem-solving.
- Rule #2: Use Five Whys to determine the root cause of the problem.
- Rule #3: Come prepared to brainstorming meetings.
- Rule #4: Solve problems that you have and not problems that you think you will have.
One of the best ways to write actionable goals is by using the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) framework, which is all about getting things done. By applying this methodology and reviewing your goals on a quarterly basis, you gain focus, clarity, and can actually make progress towards your goals. Companies gain momentum by asking the right questions, and focusing their energy on the right things. So writing good Objectives and proper Key Results is essential for your success.
There are 2 main levels for the quarterly OKR goal-setting: 1) Company level overarching directional goals and 2) Team level operational (actionable) objectives.
When setting goals within the OKR framework, we always begin with company-wide overarching Objectives. Their purpose is to provide direction and a sense of urgency for the teams.
These overarching company goals are set for a quarter, giving the teams 3 months to improve the business by focusing on specific areas. Some companies are also setting annual goals as big strategic directions, but these have to be further broken down into quarterly Objectives. Annual goals are too broad and not specific enough to take action.
This is why quarterly cadence is the best practice for OKRs: giving enough time to drive actual change but also being focused on the foreseeable future.
If a company wants to beat competitors by offering a better product line, different teams (such as Marketing, Sales, Business Development, Production, Finance, etc.) would contribute to that goal in different ways determined by their competencies.
Team OKRs, therefore, are operational pieces that together lead the company to the desired destination. Some things are easier said than done, and in order for those things to become doable, it is crucial for leaders to learn how to write actionable quarterly Objectives and measurable Key Results.
Rule #1: Don’t forget the problem in the midst of problem solving
To illustrate this point, I’d like to borrow an example from Teresa Torres, product discovery coach, and tell you a story.
Imagine you own a business in the 16th century: transporting goods by sea from Europe to North America. Your biggest order is just about to be shipped off across the Atlantic, so you organize a meeting with the captain and senior members of the crew.
You ask them: "Is there any specific problem we should tackle before you leave".
And the captain is the first to answer: "We need to make sure everyone on the ship is healthy and able to work, and we're often struggling with the lack of Vitamin C, the disease commonly known as scurvy. It's dangerous and can delay us significantly."
"How do we prevent or treat scurvy?"
"Citrus is rich in Vitamin C, so we should bring oranges with us," – says one of the most experienced members of the crew, and another one jumps in: "That's right! But oranges are hard to peel, can we bring grapefruits instead?"
Another person reasonably points out: "Grapefruits would be too expensive and very hard to find at the moment, can we go with apples instead?"
And so it's settled, the crew is to bring apples on their journey.
Somewhere in the middle of this seemingly logical conversation, the crew forgot that the problem they were solving was not about feeding the team a type of fruit, but about treating scurvy. And severe Vitamin C deficiency cannot be prevented or treated with apples, so the solution does not solve the problem which means the crew will not reach the destination on time or at all.
What does this story tell you?
Obviously, you cannot come up with a solution without discussing the problem. But how do we stay on track and how can we tell a convenient fix (apples) from the actual solution (oranges)?
Let’s say ABC company has a time management problem, and someone says: “We don’t have enough time to execute our ideas because our meetings are too long.”
So they forcefully cut the time spent in meetings and, eventually, cancel those meetings altogether. Very soon the management team becomes even more disengaged and no one knows what is happening in other departments, since no one communicates their ongoing progress anymore.
It becomes clear that the problem wasn’t solved because the most obvious solution was not the right one. So, one way to avoid false reasoning is not to jump to conclusions.
"Because our meetings are too long" clearly suggests a solution – to cut meetings short, so when you're identifying a problem ("we don't have enough time to execute our ideas"), don't suggest an immediate solution, it might not be the right one.
Digging up the root cause of the problem and gathering data is the first step in writing actionable goals. The issue in the ABC company clearly was: “We spend too much time talking, and not enough time doing things” but the duration of the meetings was a symptom, and not the root cause of the problem.
Now, how do we find out what’s really behind this issue?
Rule #2: Use Five Whys to determine the root cause of the problem
Five Whys was developed by the Toyota Motor Corporation to improve their manufacturing process. The technique has been borrowed and implemented by thousands of companies around the world.
In Five Whys you keep asking yourself “why something is happening”, with every following “why” being based on the answer to the previous one. This helps you get to the root cause of the problem.
The management team in the ABC company has found a problem to solve, they say: “We spend too much time in the meetings.” Let’s find out what’s causing this issue.
So the meetings are long because people are not limiting themselves in preparation. Perhaps there’s even no preparation whatsoever, and participants come to the meetings with everything they’ve got and go with the flow.
Now that we know the root cause of the problem, how do we write an OKR that can help us focus on solving this issue? And which team will take ownership of delivering the results?
First of all, improving the productivity of the meetings is a part of a bigger Company level overarching goal: To become more efficient as a company.
In ABC company only top management is participating in executive meetings, so improving the productivity of these events naturally lies within the competence of the management team.
And here is what the actionable OKR for the management team might look like:
From the example, you might have noticed that Team level Objectives and Key Results:
- address what matters to the business right now,
- will be executed by a team in collaboration,
- are set for a quarter (12 weekly meetings),
- and should be updated on a weekly basis.
With Key Results being the numeric outcomes that we expect to achieve, we still have a possibility of trying out different plans and activities to move those numbers. So if the first draft of the agenda is only confirmed by 10% of the team (not 100%), we know that we need to rewrite the draft.
And if the agenda was confirmed by everyone but the Plans are not moving to the Progress section, we need to come up with a different approach.
We can try out different tactics (Weekly Plans) to move the needle on Key Results and analyze what's working best for us.
Rule #3: Come prepared to brainstorming meetings
Creativity thrives in the sweet spot between too much order and too much anarchy. The computer scientist, Christopher Langton, concluded a long time ago that innovative environments are borderline chaotic but not completely without discipline.
That brings us to the topic of organized brainstorming.
Brainstorming is often reduced to letting everyone speak their mind and exchange ideas with no restrictions. These are the meetings that last for hours, very often bringing no practical value in the end.
To tap into the collective intelligence of your group, you should introduce some restrictions to the ideation process. Creativity asks for restrictions because, evolutionary speaking, our brain works better when it’s challenged with overcoming obstacles. Restrictions force us to think harder and think better.
So before scheduling a brainstorming meeting, structure your teams' thought process and ask them to answer these questions:
The answers to these questions would present good ideas for your Objectives that could be further discussed and recorded in a shared document for later review and feedback.
Click here to download a spreadsheet for recording and categorizing ideas.
When the answers are thought through and added to the shared document, allow a week for reading each other's thoughts, give feedback and hold 1:1 discussions.
When the most shared concerns are clear and particular Objectives are upvoted by most of the team, you can finally schedule a brainstorming meeting with a clear purpose: to come up with an action plan for execution.
Rule #4: Solve problems that you have and not problems that you think you will have
When you are building a new software from scratch, you need to figure out “what happens if I click here” before you can even start optimizing around what color the buttons should be to generate more clicks.
That’s why roadmaps were invented. Because you can’t get from Paris to New York without crossing the ocean. And to reveal what’s hiding around the corner, you have to move your feet first and point your searchlight into the shadows.
Imagine that your company set out to go viral on the internet. When you try to come up with a viral idea, you have no way of predicting whether it would pick up and whether you'd need to tackle other issues that come with virality (reputation management, website crashing due to traffic overload, etc.). But what you can do is to try out different things and give people various reasons to talk about the product.
Whichever idea generates more buzz should be considered a winner and developed further. If your adorable cat video didn’t go viral, you change the content and try something new until you move the needle on your Key Results (for example, Increase post engagement on Twitter to 20%; Increase website traffic by 50%, etc.).
Before you've figured out the way to go viral, you shouldn’t set a goal to increase your server capacity to handle the overload of new traffic.
It might be nice to think that this is a problem you'll need to solve in the future, but it is not the problem to solve right now.
If you decide to "prepare" ahead of time for when virality hits you, you might ask your IT team to work on the server and dedicate their valuable time to solving the issue that might or might not occur. While long-term planning and preparation in itself is a good thing, what might actually happen is that in a month your Marketing team finds a better way to get new users and abandons the original idea. At this point, your IT team would have lost the time they could have spent fixing real issues. Wasting a team's time is demotivating and has a long lasting effect on morale. People deserve to feel that their work is valuable.
So focus your attention on figuring out your current business problems and opportunities and make sure to tackle them immediately.
Don't try to get ahead of yourself and solve problems that you might or might not have in the future.
In conclusion, we’d like you to remember that absentmindedly striving for growth will not make things happen. You need to define an area for improvement with your Objective, measure its progress with Key Results, try different things to drive change, compare results, and understand what makes a difference.
And OKRs provide you with a framework to keep your focus in place while you’re trying out different tactical approaches.
How actionable OKRs help you succeed
If we had to summarize this whole article into one sentence, we’d say: your OKRs should be focused exclusively on the things that could have the biggest impact right now, and everything else should wait. When you are chasing everything, you are catching nothing.
Objectives and Key Results help you see your main issues and improvement opportunities clearly, and not mix them up with day-to-day operations. Not everything you do for your business should be considered an OKR. OKRs should cover the areas you need to improve: from the ways you work (internal processes) to the ways you think about growth opportunities.
Whenever you feel like there are a billion improvements you absolutely have to implement, remember that in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. So keep your eyes on the prize, and don’t give in to distractions.