Reusable OKRs: why and how?

Scott Provence is the founder of Scott Provence Consulting and advises companies on Learning and Development strategy at every stage and size of business. He specializes in creating award-winning minimum viable products (MVP) for training and objective-setting. In this Voices of OKR piece, Scott explains why OKRs can and sometimes should be evergreen, renewable resources – and how the key to reusable OKRs is to make sure you don’t mix up results and tasks.  

“You’ve got a plane to catch.”

an ariport information board showing flight information

That’s the story problem that first introduced me to Objectives and Key Results. It went something like this: Your Objective is to make it to the airport in time for your flight. Your Key Results are the checkpoints you hit during your drive. If your flight leaves in two hours, but it takes one hour to drive to the airport, you’d better make sure you’ve got some Key Results to measure along the way. Otherwise, good luck trying to get on that plane.

There’s a lot to learn about OKRs from this basic story, from pairing leading and lagging indicators (e.g., KR1: Reach downtown by 3pm; KR2: Average speed of trip <65mph) to learning the difference between results and tasks. It’s this second lesson I often spend the most time on when coaching organizations through the OKR process.

Reusable OKRs

“Yes, yes,” companies say. “We know the difference between tasks and results. Tasks are the list of actions. Results are the list of wins. And sure, our team occasionally writes a set of Key Results that’s more like a to-do list. But so what?”

To this I ask them, “How often do you recycle your OKRs?”

Imagine you had to catch that same flight from the airport every week. Could a reusable OKR help you on every trip? Absolutely. You could use that same Objective of getting to your flight on time. And you could use those same Key Results to measure the progress of your drive. Objectives and Key Results should be renewable resources. But the only way to make that possible is to ensure you’re not polluting your OKRs with tasks.

Let’s say the first time I make that weekly trip to the airport I need to grab lunch along the way. Let’s say during the second trip my car needs gas. Let’s say on my third trip I get a late start. If I was using a poorly constructed OKR, I might have initially included “Stop at a drive through” as a Key Result. I mean, it was super-important during that first trip, right? Okay, so it’s more like a task, but what’s wrong with that?

What’s wrong with tasks as KRs?

What’s wrong is that even though I have to make the exact same trip next week, I now need to redo my entire OKR. No big deal, I’ll just add a new Key Result that says “Have a full tank of gas.” Except I’ll need to redo this OKR again on my third trip. And since I’m running late that third time, I might think I have to change my Key Result from “average <65mph” to “average >90mph.”

What do you think is better? Telling myself (or my team) that dangerous speeding is now a Key Result, or using my KRs to keep everyone safe, even if it means not hitting our goal?

Just because you can quickly revise an OKR doesn’t mean you should. If you find you are constantly updating or rewriting your OKRs, check to see if they are acting more like to-do lists. In my ideal vision for the companies I assist, there exists a set of reusable OKRs that executives can pull out whenever they need to perform a repeatable action (e.g., launch a new product, boost employee engagement, etc.). Yes, OKRs are forever changeable. But if you give them a chance, they can also be evergreen.

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