How committed are employees to their company? A crucial factor in this regard is the interplay between awareness and responsibility in terms of personal goals.
While this may sound trite at first, it remains overlooked at many companies. Most employees—from industrial workers to IT managers—are bombarded with a constant stream of tasks, not least due to modern communication tools, making it difficult to get an overview and set sensible priorities.
Employees often lack two key pieces of information that would help keep them motivated and focused: What goal am I pursuing in my current task? How much progress is being made?
One way of tackling this problem is to generate constant transparency in respect of precisely these questions. This can be done using dashboards accessible to all that outline objectives and key results, or “OKRs.”
In this sense, “objective” means a qualitative goal that an entire company or a department sets itself. This could, for example, be increased performance in a specific area of activity. The purpose of the objective has to be clear to all involved, but it shouldn’t be directly measurable.
The key results—three per objective—should, however, be specific and measurable. These clearly define the criteria for achieving the objective set and can be based on anything that is measurable, such as growth, revenue, participation, or performance.
The core idea behind the approach is to leverage the potential that lies behind employees’ attitudes to their work; if employees are kept informed about current goals and the path to achieving them, all of their actions make more sense. This is partly because jointly set goals go hand in hand with a sense of focus, which is essential in the face of a constant stream of tasks. This shift in focus away from non-goals and minor tasks not only eases the workload of employees in practice, but also significantly reduces stress factors.
Promoting OKRs is an agile management method that many big-name American companies have been using for years and that is increasingly gaining ground in Germany as well. Many advocates even claim that it is one of the pillars in the sustained success of Google, Intel, and many others.
The image below illustrates the structure of a good OKR dashboard. The objectives are briefly elaborated, the corresponding key results are listed, and the current progress is documented for each key result, with this progress aggregated to show overall progress at the top.
Objectives need to be defined for a set time period so that they are perceived as clear goals. As in the example above, the deadlines may vary between objectives.
The corresponding key results should be ambitious (i.e., not too easy to achieve) but should not seem utopian to employees, as this would serve to demotivate them. According to theory, approximately 60% to 80% of key results at an appropriate level should be achieved in order to generate maximum motivation.
Focus, motivation, efficiency
Once a team has set its OKRs, the formulated goals should not simply be filed away, with a review only taking place at the end of the defined period. The key results must be reflected upon in regular feedback meetings.
Team members should come together to analyze where they stand in relation to their goals, how progress (or a lack thereof) can be measured, and what adjustments may need to be made. Involving all employees in strategic responsibilities in this way is a sign of appreciation and of trust in the workforce, which serves as another motivating factor.
The agility of OKRs—and therefore one of their key strengths—lies in this combination of set targets and independently organized iterations.
Errors that demotivate
Certain common errors, however, may cause OKRs to backfire. For example, beware of having too many OKRs, and avoid excessive detail. This soon results in a return to the old problem of having too many or unimportant tasks, blurring the necessary focus.
It is also not advisable to include specific instructions within the key results. This deprives the method of its character, which is about encouraging more personal responsibility and motivation among employees, and soon reduces your OKRs to an old-fashioned to-do list.
Do not link OKRs to payment under any circumstances. This inevitably leads to employees fooling themselves, enticed by the prospect of financial gain. The actual purpose—developing a sense of meaning, progress, and success in your own work—is lost. Instead, the aim is to establish OKRs in such a way that a strong commitment emerges within the workforce and that performance increases to such an extent that there will be plenty of opportunities to give employees a raise in the medium and long term.
A modern culture of communication
The final decisive factor for successful OKRs is clear communication of the goals and transparent tracking of progress for the benefit of the entire workforce, ideally using electronic tools in the workplace itself. This also means that the dashboards need to show the data sources used to track progress.
This way, the progress of the company comes to the fore, giving employees a sense of the effectiveness of their own work and of the team’s overall progress. This empowers everyone involved and gives them a basis for discussion when it comes to talking about the company goals informally and making meaningful contributions to feedback meetings.
The resulting culture of communication leverages potential across the entire workforce and makes it possible for every industry, every company (whatever the size), and every department to get more out of their available resources across all value-adding processes.