Experts agree that Key Results must be measurable and time bound. Nonetheless, there is no consensus on how many OKRs to set. Let’s look at one point of contention: how many OKRs should you set?
OKRs experts recommend that companies manage just one Objective and its Key Results. John Doerr and the folks at Google recommend that each team has at most 5 Objectives with 4 Key Results per Objective. Jeff Walker, the Oracle CFO who helped take Oracle from $20M to over $1B in the late 80s, claims that each team should have 5-6 Objectives with 15-20 Key Results per Objective!
While it’s important to prioritize, one key result is rarely sufficient. I have yet to see an organization that can function with just one key result. Key results have a strong emotional appeal; if you’re lucky enough to have Christina help you with key results, I highly recommend you take advantage of that opportunity. However, in helping dozens of organizations deploy key results, I’ve only seen one organization try to stick with just one key result. They ended up creating a fairly generic key result that looked something like this:
Objective: Grow the business
- Key Result: Establish a Marketing Department including a new VP by end of Q
- Key Result: Achieve 10% Q over Q revenue growth for all Quarters in 2016
- Key Result: 10 teams document a contribution to the growth of each Q
My client created the third Key Result to ensure that each team could feel connected to the top-level OKR. The only way to accomplish this with a single top-level Objective was by creating a Key Result to capture “everything we want to measure and execute on in the company.” The result was an Objective that lacked concreteness.
If you really want just one OKR at a time, I advise setting up a set of OKRs, and then picking one as the primary goal.
“Well, actually the scoring doesn’t really matter. It’s about what you learn.”
OK, but I just hope you don’t wind up learning that you nailed all your Key Results except that one that mattered most!
As John Doerr suggested, many companies are adopting the trend of having 5-7 Objectives with 4-5 Key Results. However, this leaves out a detail: how to deal with Milestone Key Results? Here’s some background on the Types of Key Results from an earlier post. This brings me to my final option for OKRs: lots and lots of Objectives and Milestones.
If you’re not using milestones, you’re missing out on a key aspect of goal tracking. One OKRs vendor elegantly solved this problem by enabling users to create what I call “Milestone Key Results.” Milestones are either done or not done. They are binary. When you complete a milestone, you get to check a box and get that sense of satisfaction. Also, specifying the milestones lets everyone know how you’re going to measure progress.
If you think of each Key Result as its own milestone, it’s perfectly reasonable to claim that a given Objective should have 15-20 Key Results. No one that I’ve met would argue that a given Objective should have 15-20 metrics. However, with 15-20 metrics per a given Objective, it’s unlikely you’ll go more than a couple of weeks without completing a metric. More metrics increase the odds of making consistent progress, which is very important for OKRs and for OKR users.
The right approach combines Doerr and Walker. In this hybrid solution, the best number of Key Results per Objective depends on whether they are Metric Key Results or Milestone Key Results and whether you want to count each underlying milestone in a Milestone Key Result as its own Key Result or as a sub-Key Result. To make this easy and actionable for all my prospects and clients, let’s conclude that your great set of OKRs for a given team leader will include 2-6 Objectives. An Objective will have 1-20 Key Results.
- Doerr is right when an Objective has only Metric Key Results. In this case, the Objective should have 2 or 3 Key Results, and at most 4.
- Doerr and Walker are both right depending on how we define a Key Result in cases when an Objective has only Milestone Key Results. Such an Objective could easily have 18 Key Results assuming we count each milestone as a Key Result. The math is simple. An Objective with 3 Milestone Key Results, each with six milestones could be considered an Objective with just 3 Key Results (Doerr is right) or an Objective with 18 Key Results (Walker is right) based on 6 Key Results (milestones) for each of the 3 Milestone Key Results.
Regardless of how you count Key Results, you will often end up with a dozen or so binary milestones. These milestones will be measurable and time bound, so why not classify them all as Key Results? In the end, I side with Walker here. Checking a box and making progress throughout the quarter will be one of the most rewarding and important parts of your OKRs journey.