Drowned in Tasks? Choose only the key results that matter!

April 23, 2021
4 min read
Coaching

While channel surfing the other night, I came across the 2000 film “High Fidelity” starring John Cusack as Rob, a thirty-something record-store owner in Chicago. Rob loves compiling lists and ranking things. In fact, the movie centers on the list of his “Top 5 Breakups.” He and his co-workers have spirited debates about many other topics as well, and it’s clear they’ve put serious thought and consideration into their choices when stitching together personal rankings. While watching, I drifted back to work mode for a moment and wondered: “Do people put that much thought into choosing their key results?”

Choose the key results that matter to avoid drowning in tasks
Choose the right key results to avoid drowning in tasks

Less is more

Seems like a silly question? Teams and individuals devote significant mental energy to selecting their key results. Right? Maybe not. The primary reason we suggest this is the sheer number of key results attached to objectives. It’s not uncommon to have six, seven, eight, or more key results tied to a given objective. If you’ve done even a cursory amount of research on OKRs you know the framework’s tagline is measuring what matters. It’s all about focus — homing in on the critical elements of success, separating the signal from the noise to isolate your efforts on the vital differentiators. It’s difficult for me to imagine — after seeing literally thousands of OKRs over the past several years — that a list of seven or eight key results is evidence of true focus.

There are several reasons for the accumulation of key results, some benign, others a bit more troubling.

  • Mistaking tasks or activities for key results — This is something we see frequently. When crafting key results, teams list not only the ultimate outcomes; the evidence of success on the objective, but every granular step necessary to reach that outcome. To differentiate between a task and a key result, use this simple test:

If you can accomplish the action in a relatively short period it’s more likely a task than a true key result. And if you do find yourself listing tasks, ask,

“What will happen when I complete these tasks?” Doing so may lead to a more quantitative key result.

  • FOMO — Stands for “Fear of missing out.” Broadening that just a bit, some OKR drafters simply don’t want to leave anything out. They feel it’s safer simply to list every possible result, regardless of whether it provides evidence of achievement of the objective or not. Related to that, but falling into the ‘troubling’ camp, we have…
  • Busy Bee Syndrome. There are those among us who will use the OKR process as a stage to demonstrate how busy they are. These martyrs will create multiple objectives, each with a mountain of key results, the totality of which quickly ascends to an impossible number of items to accomplish in a year, let alone the typical OKRs cadence of 90 days. Always remember, “OKRs are not meant to showcase your crushing workload or provide a glorified to-do list”.

How many key results are too many?

How many key results are enough? Well, you can use as many key results as necessary to tell “the story” of your success. 

Here is a quarterly OKR:

Objective: Identify and train potential partners to drive international revenue

Key Results:

  1. Increase partners signed and trained in our methodology from 0 to 3.
  2. Increase international inquiries for service X to Y.
  3. Increase international partner revenue X to Y.

Your challenge when creating key results is to ensure you actually measure the achievement of the objective. In this case, the first component of the objective states that we wish to identify and train potential partners. That is measured with key result #1, three partners are signed and trained in our methodology. Next, we must ensure we’ve accounted for the critical part of any objective, the “in order to” or so that — in other words, the business impact. In this case, it is “to drive international revenue.” Key results #2 and 3 do just that. Notice the simple, yet comprehensive, story being told with the key results. 

Firstly, sign and train partners, then, work with them to foster introductions, and that will lead to engagements that drive revenue. Endeavor to apply the story concept to your own OKRs to ensure you’re using just the necessary number of key results to measure the objective in full, and no more. Check out some OKR templates to get started with your KRs.

Think like Da Vinci

One of our favorite quotes comes from a book titled, “How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci.” And who wouldn’t want to think like one of the greatest polymaths in history? The book’s author, Michael Gelb has this to say about the task of making difficult choices:

The discipline of ordering…the discipline of choosing one over another, ranking one a level higher than another, and then articulating why you chose the way you did requires a depth and clarity of consideration and comparison that inspires richer appreciation and enjoyment.