Setting OKRs in project management

OKRs in Project Management

Recent research conducted by Ally found that only 29% of U.S. adults in the workforce are familiar with OKRs. Earlier this year, in Forbes, Stephen Wunker mentioned that “OKRs are having their moment,” as many companies turn to OKR software in response to the growing remote and hybrid work era.

Whether you’re a project manager who is unfamiliar with OKRs, already leveraged them pre-COVID, or you’re learning the OKR framework due in part to remote work changes, one thing is sure—understanding and learning this framework is top of mind in the business world. And if we go one layer deeper, there’s a connection between OKRs and project management that can be pivotal and game-changing. 

Keep reading to learn:

  • What the OKR framework is 
  • The ins and outs of objectives and key results
  • How OKRs and project management complement each other
  • OKR project management examples that pull the concepts together 
  • The difference between OKRs and KPIs

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What is the OKR framework?

OKR is a goal-setting framework. The acronym OKR stands for “objectives and key results.” American investor and venture capitalist John Doerr popularized the OKR movement and spread his idea through his book Measure What Matters. John Doerr learned the concepts from Andy Grove as one of his seminar students. (For more great advice from Andy Grove: The ultimate guide to writing a great Software Engineering performance review.) Grove transformed Intel using OKRs during the 1970s.

Thanks to Grove and Doerr, organizations like Google, The Gates Foundation, and Bono leaned on the OKR framework to exceed expectations and rise to meet business goals and needs. 

Now that we know what OKR stands for, let’s take a deeper look at the definitions of objectives and key results as part of this technique. 

Explain objectives and key results

On the Measure What Matters website, there’s an entire learning library and kickstarter course titled Get Started With OKRs—featuring a step-by-step guide for setting and achieving goals using this framework. I completed the first set of lessons to summarize the concepts and save you some time. Here’s how the founders of Measure What Matters explain objectives and key results:

Lesson 1.1: Why OKRs?

  • The system is simple, and the founders know it works because incredible places from Intel to Google to Bono use them 
  • OKRs can’t fix things like workplace culture or lousy leadership, but they can surface the right priorities for teams to work on

Lesson 1.2: What is an OKR? 

  • OKRs are a vehicle for turning a company’s mission or purpose into action, and they break up goals into measurable components
  • Many organizations share what their mission and vision are but don’t do a great job articulating ways to get there—or what measurement they need to show progress 
  • The OKR framework turns a vision into a concise way to articulate that vision, adds measurement and progress, and a way to communicate with team members 
  • An objective is the “what” or the thing you and your team are setting out to do in a short timeframe (such as the next 30 or 90 days) 
  • Key results are how we get there or the measurable benchmarks that show progress

Lesson 1.3: What makes good OKRs?

  • OKRs are not simply KPIs; they’re the things you need to address at the moment and are the most pressing for you and your team
  • They represent meaningful changes you want to see
  • OKRs detail the criteria for success, which enables your team to understand if they need to course correct or change direction 
  • Your objectives should be meaningful, audacious, and inspiring 
  • Your key results should be specific and time-bound, aggressive yet realistic, and measurable and verifiable 

For every objective, there should be 3-5 key results. Now let’s apply the OKR framework to project management. 

OKRs in project management

Are you wondering how OKRs and project management work together? Read on to learn how they complement one another, how project management office (PMO) directors and managers can set OKRs for project managers, and how project managers can set OKRs for their projects.

OKRs and project management complement one another

Project managers can use the OKR framework to plan and structure projects or more extensive programs of work. While project management techniques and OKR goal-setting are inherently different, they can work together under the right circumstances. 

A project is a set of tasks that a team must complete to arrive at a particular outcome. Project management deals with resource allocation, budgets, and managing tasks to achieve the project’s goal on-time and within budget. Conversely, OKRs look more at broader company objectives and the strategies to measure progress toward achieving those objectives. 

When we set OKRs without breaking down the tasks required to achieve each key result (this is where project management can help), we increase the likelihood of failing. Conversely, projects running in silos without a clear tie back to the overarching team or company objectives can waste time.

Although these systems differ, they are complementary. Projects should fit into and support long-term objectives. Teams can use project management methodologies and practices to achieve key results successfully. Likewise, once an organization sets OKRs at the company and team levels, project managers can help break down key results into lists of actionable tasks. 

Setting OKRs for project management teams

Regarding team OKRs, PMOs and project teams can use the OKR system to guide their project managers and leads. Setting OKRs for a team that likely doesn’t spend much time working together can be unifying and inspiring. Project managers might sit in one unit under the same manager or director. However, they probably spend most of their time with other stakeholders and key players on their specific projects. To unite the force for good, consider setting OKRs and giving project managers a shared goal and purpose.

Project managers can set OKRs for their projects 

Project managers can implement the OKR framework as part of the project planning process. Integrating OKRs into project management keeps teams engaged and focused and provides a framework for ensuring project work aligns with company objectives. In addition to focusing on success metrics and outlining tasks for the project, consider adding an OKR development session to the project initiation phase.

OKR project management examples 

Suppose you’re a project manager joining a project team, and the work is kicking off. The project initiation phase is the perfect time to set OKRs with your stakeholders and project team to ensure everyone is aligned and working toward an inspiring goal and purpose. Here are some examples of OKRs for specific projects:

Website redesign project

Project description: The marketing team has enlisted you as the project manager for their upcoming website redesign project. The project includes revamping the homepage, sales form, and services offerings to drive lead generation and secure new business. Here’s how we can tie this work back to an OKR:

Objective: Obtain the highest number of website conversions to date by the end of Q4

Key results: 

  • Run an A/B homepage test and implement the winning copy (notice how this key result fits into the project scope) 
  • Improve sales form visits by 25% (this would be following the sales form revamp, so you could develop a project plan to move from the old sales form to the new sales form) 
  • Increase free consultation appointments scheduled by 15% (perhaps you could project manage a marketing campaign around free consultations) 

Instead of only tracking the project’s end goals, the team tied measurable results to the work and a larger objective at stake to help guide the team.

OKRs for a growing PMO team

Need some examples of how to set OKRs for project management teams? Below is an example of specific OKRs for a team of project managers within a PMO:

Objective: Aspire to have a seamless process for managing internal projects from start to finish by the end of Q3 

Key results:

  • Increase the number of project plans drafted by 50% 
  • Decrease the number of project milestones missed by 30%
  • Decrease the number of budget change approvals by 25% 
  • Send monthly status update reports for all projects every month
  • Develop a project retrospective format and templates 

OKRs vs. KPIs

You might hear OKRs and KPIs pitted against one another, but it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. The good news is that businesses can and should leverage both. 

OKRs define what you and your team want to do in the next few months with measurable benchmarks outlining how you will get there. The framework is for goal-setting and future performance. OKRs are audacious, specific, quantifiable, time-bound, and aggressive-yet-realistic. You can think of the OKR framework as strategic and visionary.

KPI stands for a key performance indicator. KPIs are metrics that many organizations use to track business operations, monitor benchmarks, and measure certain aspects of a business. KPIs are sometimes standalone metrics to measure business health, so they don’t always tie back to a larger vision. 

KPIs are similar to key results because they are both measurable and qualitative. And sometimes, KPIs make great key results. For example, a marketing team could have a KPI around increasing the total number of shares on LinkedIn from 50 to 250 per month. You could translate this KPI to a key result supporting an objective of increasing social media engagement across platforms by 40% to achieve record reach.

You don’t have to choose between OKRs and KPIs. Instead, use them to complement one another.

Be audacious and set those OKRs

OKRs are a simple and practical goal-setting framework that stands for “objectives and key results.” Many large corporations have used OKRs to bring their company visions and goals to successful execution. An objective is what you set out to do, and the key results are how you will do it.  OKRs and project management complement one another, and project managers and business leaders can use them in tandem. OKRs differ from KPIs, but KPIs sometimes make great key results as part of a larger OKR. 

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