8 concrete ways that Google's famous 'OKR' goal-setting technique can supercharge your life and work, from business leaders who use it every day

  • Google's objectives and key results (OKRs) goal-setting system helped it become a trillion-dollar business.
  • Many household-name businesses now use the method, including Slack and Dropbox.
  • The technique is simple: You set a number of high-bar objectives, and for each one, choose a set of key results to help measure your progress. But mastering it takes time.
  • We spoke to leaders from Slack and Dropbox, as well as a former Google product manager, about how you can use the system in both life and business. They said you should aim high, be specific, and use OKRs to push for a pay rise.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In 1999, Google employees gathered around a ping-pong table to listen to a presentation that would change the company's future. New board member and ex-Intel employee John Doerr introduced the young team to a system of objectives and key results (OKRs), a blue-sky thinking technique that helped take the company from garage start-up to trillion-dollar business. It identified long-term objectives and a series of key, specific results that track whether the objective has been met.

Doerr recounted in "Measures What Matters," his 2017 book, that when he told Google about the goal-setting system, cofounder Sergey Brin said: "Well, we need to have some organising principle. We don't have one, and this might as well be it." Google still uses this technique — Larry Page, cofounder of Google, said in a forward to Doerr's book that "OKRs have helped lead us to 10× growth, many times over." The system has also been adopted by Slack, Dropbox, and the ONE anti-poverty campaign, backed by Bill and Melinda Gates. 

OKRs help business leaders measure their success, and organizations stay on track when faced with disruption. Business Insider spoke to senior staff from Slack, Dropbox, and the ONE campaign, as well as a former Google product manager, about how leaders and their teams can use this technique to thrive in 2020. 

The two questions OKRs should answer

Doerr heard about the system from Professor Andy Grove, who devised Intel's OKR system and is often credited as the "father of OKRs." In the 1970s, when giving a course at Intel, Grove said the OKR method should answer two questions: 

  • Where do we want to go? 
  • How will we know when we've got there? 

The objective is where you want to go, and the key results are how you know you've arrived. When internet entrepreneur Niket Desai left Google, where he was a project manager, to launch Time by Ping, a time-keeping tool for law firms, he took the OKR method with him to give his company structure. "We often create a laundry list of things to do rather than directional work with milestones along the way," Desai tells Business Insider.

Aim higher than you think with your goals

If you smash your OKRs easily, you didn't aim high enough. Google's lofty mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible." Desai has written many OKRs, and says they take a while to perfect. Specificity is important. "If you have, for example, a new-year goal of losing weight, your objective might be to 'lead a healthier lifestyle that empowers my happiness' rather than just losing weight," he says. 

The milestones to reach this goal need to be directional and measurable. "As well as a weight drop, you could you say I will 'walk four out of seven days' or 'eat a 600-calorie meal 10 times a week,'" he adds.

Work smarter by focusing on outcomes, not outputs

Andrew Fong, Dropbox's vice-president of infrastructure, says OKRs encourage you to work smarter, not necessarily harder. Focus on external outcomes, rather than internal company milestones. "Focus on outcomes, not just outputs. Key results are meant to measure progress; but if you're measuring outputs, your goal might not benefit customers and the business. 

"For example, rather than setting a goal to simply build a feature, set a goal to launch the feature to 100% of users. Or even better, set a goal for the feature to be used by a certain percentage of users," he says.

Narrow your focus

OKRs provide clarity when everything appears urgent. When you are setting objectives, limit yourself to just a few. Any more than this, you could start to feel overwhelmed.

Until the ONE campaign implemented OKRs they were setting too many goals. In "Measure What Matters," David Lane, ONE's former chief executive, told Doerr: "We needed a process of discipline to stop us from doing everything."

Nurture talent by getting staff to write OKRs, too

In addition to a company announcing its OKRs annually, its employees can write personal OKRs for the year. "OKRs help grow the strategic thinking of up-and-coming leaders in the company by exposing them to key areas of focus for the company which benefits them in their career," says Desai.

Use OKRs to show you deserve a pay rise

Asking for a wage rise when the world is facing a recession is hard. Google doesn't use OKRs in performance evaluation, but they can help staff remember their achievements. Rick Klau, senior operating partner at Google Ventures said at a workshop for employees in 2012: "You can use them to summarize your contribution to the company and impact." If this recession means you cannot get a wage rise, OKRs can help build a case for career progression.

If you run a business, make your OKRs public

Whether they are for individuals, teams, or the company, OKRs need to be made public. This makes sure that everyone is in alignment. Desai found the method invaluable when he launched Time by Ping in December 2019. "When the pandemic struck, we were thrown into chaos, amidst the many other challenges of starting and maintaining a small company. OKRs were a reliable means to communicate what we needed to do plainly."

Get your team to help write company OKRs

People will take ownership of something that they have helped create. If you are a manager, ask your team to help you define the team goals. When Matt Loop, head of Asia-Pacific at Slack, writes an OKR, he will write it with the input of others in the team. "The entire process was transparent, so that each person held accountable to the OKR is part of the process of setting it in the first place," he says. 

If you need to change direction, OKRs can point the way

When you're faced with a crisis, you may need to find a new North-star goal. ONE's objective is to eradicate extreme poverty. Yet the pandemic meant it had to pivot and created the ONE World campaign. The team created three new objectives: ensure timely treatment and vaccination for everyone, prevent economic collapse in Africa, and prepare for the next pandemic.

A ONE spokesperson tells Business Insider: "Our work has benefited enormously from this balance, enabling us to remain ambitious and responsive to COVID-19 in a tactical and focused manner." If you keep your big goal in sight, you can make sure any pivot keeps you in alignment with your original objective.

No method is fail-safe, but OKRs have helped many businesses stretch themselves. As Google's cofounder Page once told Sundar Pichai: "If you set a crazy, ambitious goal and you miss it, you'll still achieve something remarkable."

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