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As we look ahead to our new fiscal year here at Microsoft, many teams are in the process of creating and reviewing FY24 Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).
Working through this process in our own organization, a topic has come up in discussions more than once: Should we layer secondary key results, (aka sub-KRs), beneath our high-level Key Results (Fig.1), or stick with high-level Key Results only (Fig.2)?
When it comes to Objectives, the consensus is clear. Keeping Objectives pithy, direct, essential, and limiting the number of Objectives you commit to will drive the best outcome. Viva Goals advises readers of their Microsoft Learn OKR 101 primer to select 3-5 Objectives that are clear, concise, and inspirational. Said differently, they should be like a slogan that could fit on a t-shirt: simple and focused. Limiting the number of objectives enables teams to rally around common goals and focus on progress in areas of agreed value.
Makes sense to me. Why introduce nuance and confusion with too many Objectives? After all, Objectives are the first thing we see in Viva Goals. They command the best real estate on the page, and they are the umbrella under which all Key Results live.
But there is a bit more gray area when it comes to Key Results. Your Key Results are where the rubber meets the road. They are specific, measurable, and tell you whether you are achieving your Objective or not.
In Microsoft’s own Vetri Vellore’s book “OKRs for All,” he notes that 3-5 solid Key Results per Objective is the sweet spot for bringing the best clarity and focus to an Objective. And once the Key Results are defined, they should favorably pass the “necessary and sufficient” gut-check questions:
• “Are all these Key Results necessary to reach our Objective?”
• “If I accomplish all my Key Results, will I have achieved my Objective?”
But when creating said Key Results, we’ve bumped into the thought that brings me here today: should we layer Key Results (sub-KRs) below our high-level Key Results? How specific is too specific?
Take, for example, a team that wants to measure downloads and adoption of a newly introduced app. Although the app was built for a wide audience, the team has identified the Consumer market as a key user group and are channeling time and resources into looking at usage in that specific segment.
Would it be more effective to add a detail about Consumer downloads and usage in their KR commentary monthly (Fig.4) or add a Consumer specific sub-KR under the overall App KR? (Fig.3)
One side may argue that a sub-KR highlighting Consumer downloads is critical information that should be surfaced and seen, and deserves its time in the sun. By naming and framing your goal into a sub-KR, there’s a level of transparency and accountability that comes with having it “in writing,” which can be especially helpful for large or matrixed organizations.
The flip side of the debate may advocate for an all-up uber KR that measures the full app usage, with relevant commentary notes on specific segments, Consumer amongst them. This keeps the attention solidly on the main goal, with notable call outs earning space in commentary.
This is debatable—and rightfully so. I would argue that there likely isn’t a one size fits all answer to this question.
But in terms of pure content management, (my arena), there is a clear advantage to keeping KRs at the all-up level and forgoing sub-KRs.
• Keeping the focus on the bigger picture. Perhaps there are more appropriate meetings and forums where specifics (such as the status of Consumer adoption) should be discussed. In our structures, KR review meetings focus on facilitating a productive discussion at the leadership level. Adding more and more layers of nuance and details could pull attention and effort from the big picture- the impactful review we are trying to drive.
• Avoiding additional layers of contributors and requirements on a monthly basis. A large part of my role in our OKR process is getting folks on board with the what’s, how’s, and why’s of our monthly KRs. Turnover within teams is inevitable and getting folks in the rhythm is no small task. Tactically we have deadlines, commentary standards and review cadences that must be met. I see and feel the benefit of keeping KRs “necessary and sufficient,” which in turn keeps our monthly requirements manageable and highly aligned to overall objectives. In my realm, this boils down to less is more and simplicity drives focus.
Which path is your organization taking? To sub-KR or not sub-KR? Please share your thoughts below.
-Maria Vermeer is a Business Program Manager on Microsoft’s IDEAs Team