The science of setting goals and OKRs

Kenneth Paul Lewis is the Director & Co-founder of OKR International – one of the leading OKR services company across South Asia, South East Asia and the Middle East. He is also an investor, serial entrepreneur, change management expert and leadership coach. In this Voices of OKR piece Kenneth examines the science and psychology of setting goals with OKRs.

One might wonder, what science has to do with setting goals. Let alone a goal management framework such as OKRs. For the uninitiated, Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is rapidly becoming the go-to methodology for organizations to set, track and achieve ambitious goals. Most organizations report that this framework has enabled exponential success – e.g. Google, Intel, LinkedIn, Adobe, etc. And unlike plug-and-play management models, OKRs are deceptively simple. Making it very easy for any organization to get it wrong.

Different branches of science have been studying Why people do what they do, How they do what they do and Do they do what they set out to do. Neuroscientists, behaviorists, socio-economists, and psychologists have produced numerous studies on these topics. Most of this research excites me as a management consultant.

For the past two decades I have been helping individuals, teams and organizations be more productive. It was only a few years ago, that I became acquainted with the OKR business mantra. I call it a mantra, because OKRs are more than just a management system. They help organizations rapidly transform their work ethos.

But like with any organizational system, it takes human beings to draft, collaborate, decide, and execute goals. Therefore, while doing setting goals using OKRs, you need to be conscious of human factors. This article will help you understand how certain physio-psychological traits can increase or decrease the effectiveness of OKR goals.

Challenging, tricky, yet achievable goals pump up our Blood Pressure

This enhanced spike is seen in our systolic blood pressure (Stern & Balcetis, 2013), which actually increases our zeal to achieve those goals. That’s what we’re looking for in every OKR setting – that sweet spot between doable and extremely difficult. And when done en masse in an organization, there is palpable energy that’s created. OKRs act as the framework that directs this energy towards goal fulfillment.

Implementation Intentions (or Artifacts) reduce anxiety

The same research by Balcetis and Stern shows that Implementations Intentions such as milestones, key results, regular check-ins, and dashboards reduce anxiety.There’s a reason why all competitive sports have scoreboards – they boost serotonin and give players a reason to keep performing as they lead to a perceived proximity to a futuristic goal.

The ‘70% is the new 100%’ target gives individuals a sense of challenge and hope. Even though the goal may be moonshot, the act of constantly talking about the progress towards it helps reduce anxiety. When OKRs are delinked from compensation, it liberates those individuals who want to give their all. It reduces the assumed ramifications of failure. OKRs allow for failure to happen, where learning isn’t just given lip service, but actively tracked and celebrated.

Consensus builds Trust

Trust is a combination of two factors: Emotional Trust and Rational Trust. Rational trust is built when team members live up to their commitments. Emotional Trust is built on quality of relationships, transparency, inclusion, and motivation to trust others. In the OKR world, the collaborative method of setting goals increases commitment of the team. It’s a given that collaboration brings meaning and adds value to the way team members perceive their job. The OKR meeting formats encourage individuals to speak up and constantly connect what they do with their colleagues (top, bottom and cross functional). This builds sense of community and belongingness to the organization, which results in team members trusting one another.

Our brain loves short term goals

If the goal seems too far-off, broad or unimaginable, the medial prefrontal cortex activation lowers significantly. This is why we may lose interest in sticking to the goals or lose the vision of what might be the best ways to achieve them. Thankfully OKRs are short term, cyclical and have ways to ensure everyone stays constantly abreast. They help everyone involved to have a clear sight of the end goal. The KRs act as the visible and felt part of the Objective. This makes the OKR goals more relatable and imaginable. Moreover, when you start winning (no matter how small), your brain releases dopamine, wanting you to only achieve more and more.

The Neural pathways

When a goal is set, it is first achieved in your mind. And the process of goal creation strengthens the neural pathways that eventually lead to goal fulfillment. What this means is that the OKR process prepares our minds to pick up information that makes achievement possible. Many of us have heard about the concept of the Self-fulfilling Prophecy. Well, science supports it as well. The groups of brain cells called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) picks up information relevant to what a person is focused on. For example: If you have decided to buy a particular model of a car, you will notice and pay attention every time you see that model on the road. Before this, you may have completely ignored the thousands of times those cars zoomed past you. This dogged focus, and the many artifacts of writing, planning, talking about, and checking one’s OKRs helps build those pathways in your brain.

The power of OKRs

OKRs have taken the best of goal management methodologies and inadvertently created a scientifically powerful system. The critical factor in all of this is to ensure that you create an OKR framework that allows for the above positive factors to thrive.

I have seen many organizations create short cuts when implementing OKRs, believing that the methodology itself will bring exponential growth. But little do they realize that it is these human factors, that, if tapped into correctly, create the energy and rigor.

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