Inspiring Exceptional Performance through OKRs

By Jason Richmond, CEO and Chief Culture Officer at Ideal Outcomes, Inc.

In the NFL world, Bill Belichick is much admired for his coaching skills, having won a record six Super Bowls as head coach of the New England Patriots. He likely provides regular, detailed feedback to his team, but imagine if he only gave feedback to his key players once or twice a season. How well would the Patriots continue to perform?

Yet, in my experience as the founder of a culture-change consulting company, this is how many businesses manage performance among their team players. They set annual (and often meaningless) goals that are rarely revisited. I've also observed managers who do a poor job of giving feedback (and not just negative or constructive feedback). Unfortunately, I've seen many who struggle just as much with giving praise. Finally, they do not know how to develop employees, coaches, or course correct.

Rethinking how we manage performance is long overdue. So, let's start with the concept of "managing performance." I believe a simple shift in perspective to leading performance will lay the foundation for a more inspirational, motivational approach. Leading implies empowerment and autonomy. It means the manager is a coach and guide to team members, rather than a top-down boss.

I suggest you implement an OKR goal-setting methodology. OKR stands for objectives and key results, and the concept was first introduced in the 1970s by Andy Grove at Intel to give employees a very targeted focus. There are three critical components to OKR performance leadership systems: objectives, key results, and follow-up.


Objectives are big-picture and qualitative in nature. They should be inspirational and exciting. Think of them as a mini-mission for a specific period of time (typically a quarter, though shorter time frames, such as a month, can be appropriate). Objectives provide organizations, teams, and/or individuals with a rallying cry. They tell you in a bold manner where you want to go, and they get you all rowing in the same direction.

Senior leaders must set the stage by establishing organizational objectives. An example of such an objective is: "Create an organizational culture that makes us an employer of choice." Business units and teams can then establish their own objectives, preferably with input from all employees, to support the company-wide objectives.

Key Results: 

KRs are focused and quantitative. They tell you how well you are progressing toward your objectives. A rule of thumb: Establish about three key results for each objective. Don’t shoot for 10. Who can monitor and focus on 10 results without watering them all down?

KRs tell you quickly if you are on the right track or need to shift your focus. Organizations typically use KRs such as growth, employee engagement, market share, and quality. KRs can measure other results, depending on the objective. Examples might be net promoter scores, employee turnover, quality of hire (a KR that would be useful for the example objective above), customer retention, and so on.

The key to effective KRs is twofold: First, they need to be developed by the team or individual accountable for achieving them. It is said that people own the world they create, and you want people to own their results. Second, KRs should be challenging but achievable. If they are too hard, people will give up. If they’re too easy, you aren’t doing anything to inspire exceptional performance. You want to stretch people so that when the KR is achieved, the sense of pride is palpable.


Follow-up, along with regular communication, is critical. But how often? Timing partly depends on the level of experience of your employees. Green employees might need follow-up almost daily as they ramp up their learning curve, while seasoned employees will not need so much hand-holding.

Many of my clients, including those not in information technology, apply an Agile approach. They hold short weekly meetings where everyone working toward the objective and the KRs briefly shares progress, asks for help where needed, and discusses potential barriers to success. They also share the next steps, such as what they are going to get done this week. Finally, it is helpful to take a team pulse: How confident are they overall that the KRs will be met?

Follow-up also includes celebrating successes. A weekly or biweekly meeting solely focused on sharing successes, giving people bragging rights, and spotlighting achieved KRs or progress is a powerful way to keep engagement high. It’s also a great way to build teamwork. Imagine the impact when the sales team thanks the service team for helping them retain a key customer or deliver three new contracts. And don’t forget food (e.g., cake, pizza, or whatever fits your budget) as a reward. Develop your own traditions, such as rotating a trophy or other symbol of success. Finally, make sure key senior executives are in attendance.

Organizations that set inspiring objectives, track and measure them with targeted and challenging key results, and follow up on progress are well on their way to becoming high-performance cultures.