Tuesday, January 25, 2011

New Year's resolutions & OKRs

Hello, 2011!

Every quarter at Google we write these things called OKRs: Objectives & Key Results. Each individual has OKRs, each team has team-level OKRs, and Google itself has company-wide OKRs. Objectives are big-picture things that you want to accomplish: achieving world peace, making users happy, becoming an awesome roller derby skater. Key results are measurable ways that you will quantify your progress toward said objectives. Key results for achieving world peace might include reducing the number of people killed weekly in conflict zones by x%, or reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles by y%. Key results for becoming a rollergirl might include getting onto a roller derby league, or getting your 25-lap time down to ≤ 4 minutes.

There are several things I like about the OKR system. It not only requires you to set goals for the quarter, but to think about why you're picking those goals. What objectives are you trying to achieve? Just making a to-do list of things you need to finish this quarter doesn't ensure that those things are meaningful. Listing objectives first, and then KRs based on those objectives, forces you to think about where you want to go before you think about how you want to get there.

At the end of each quarter, we grade each of our KRs from 0.0 to 1.0 depending on how well we met each goal. Setting measurable KRs is important because then you can grade them quickly and objectively, unlike a qualitative goal such as "Get better at [blah]" (what does "better" mean? How do you know when you've reached it?). If your key result was to write 5 blog posts and you only wrote 3, you score a 0.6. Easy. Average each set of KRs to see how well you met each objective, and average all your KRs to see how well you met your goals for the quarter.

But maybe the thing I like the best—especially when I start to think about OKRs outside of the workplace—is that you're supposed to set stretch goals. At Google, if you're performing well and meeting expectations, you should be hitting ~0.7's on your OKRs. Fully meeting an OKR (scoring a 1.0) means you went above and beyond and accomplished something extra special. This encourages people to set aggressive goals and to try to achieve more than they think is likely. It's actually looked down on if you get too many 1.0's too many times in a row—it means you're not setting aggressive enough goals for yourself.

I used to make New Year's resolutions in the half-assed way that many of us do: as an overly-optimistic wish list of what I'd like to become in the next year (more fit, more successful, less stressed), rather than a list of things I intended to achieve. I'd think big but inside I secretly wouldn't expect myself to be able to achieve that much, so I'd never seriously try to reach the goal. The problem with New Year's resolutions is that we see them as binary: in December, you can either say "I achieved that resolution this year," or "I did not achieve it." If you resolved to go to the gym 3 times/week and at some point you missed a week or two, you've already failed that resolution and there's less incentive to keep going for the rest of the year: even if you go 3 times/week for the rest of the year, you won't have fully met your resolution. This type of black-or-white assessment of goals practically guarantees that you're setting yourself up for disappointment.

For the last several years I've set something that's closer to "New Year's OKRs." They're stretch goals, and I think of "optimum performance" as scoring 0.7 on them. If I resolve to go to the gym 3 times/week and I miss a week or two, I'm still scoring a 0.96 on this goal, which is damn good! In fact, I could miss 13 weeks (hey, stuff happens) and still score 0.7 and feel good about myself. I've also noticed myself setting more and more measurable goals, such as "Design & publish 4 knitting patterns" rather than just "Design more patterns." It feels really good when you can score a solid 1.0 on a goal and know that it's not just because you're allowing yourself an overly-generous interpretation of "more" or "better." I still set qualitative goals too—be less judgmental, take the bus—but I feel like the score-things-as-OKRs-rather-than-resolutions perspective has helped me feel like I can set aggressive goals for myself and actually expect myself to follow through on them. Now, even if I feel guilty about slipping up on a resolution, that one slip isn't able to derail my ability to follow through on the resolution for the rest of the year and to feel good about my accomplishments at the end.

Here are some of my New Year's OKRs for 2011:

  • Finish knitting 3 sweaters
  • Design & publish 1 sweater pattern
  • Knit 11 shawls
  • Buy more often from independent yarn dyers
  • Get my unfinished knitting projects under control (I'd like to have ≤ 3 at the end of the year. Don't ask how many I have right now!)
  • Be less judgmental
  • Take the bus to work in the summer

What are yours?


Anonymous said...

Hi Susan,

I feel jealows with your OKRs
My own are:
-More free time for my wife and kids,
-A brevete of >60km on my bike every sunday (70% success)
-A beatifull journey this year out of Europe. (I am Greek)

I think I will start knitting :-)

Unknown said...

Hi Susan,

I am jealous - working for Google is my dream employment wise! However for now this will inspire me to apply this concept for my little UK company!

Many thanks,


Aman said...

Great read on Okr's... Alwayz wanted to find out what google employees do for their OKRs... Will use this for my own team.

Where could I get more info about OKRs.

Susan said...