Maximizing the benefits of OKRs

The Ancient Greeks told the story of Sisyphus—a man who was sentenced to push a heavy boulder up a hill for eternity. But every time Sisyphus reached the summit, the boulder would tumble back down and his task would begin anew.

It was endless work with no goal, mission, or purpose.

Many of us will recognize Sisyphus’ feeling of purposelessness. The Anatomy of Work Index, which surveyed over 10,000 knowledge workers, revealed that less than half of all employees understand how their day-to-day work contributes to broader goals. However, unlike Sisyphus, our work does have meaning. The challenge is that we don’t understand what it is.

The thing is, leaders know goals are important. In fact, a recent report found that 86% of leaders say defining a purpose is essential to a successful growth strategy. So, if so many leaders acknowledge how important mission, objectives, and goals are, why do so few employees have clarity?

Where things go wrong is that leaders often fail to connect purpose to daily work—they misdiagnose the challenge of purpose as solely a communication or transparency problem. Managers and executives often turn to Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), a goal-setting methodology popularized by VC investor John Doerr, believing that it alone will provide transparency into an organization’s goals. But simply setting OKRs isn’t enough.

[Read: What are OKRs?]

Sharing your company objectives and key results every quarter may cause a spark of engagement, but it rarely establishes any permanent connection between day-to-day work and goals. In order to reap the full benefits of mission and purpose, you need to embed your objectives and key results in your daily work.

Unlocking the power of purpose

At Asana, we use a concept called the pyramid of clarity to align our teams on our high-level goals and the concrete results we expect our work to produce. The pyramid shows how our longer-term aspirations are built on top of shorter-term goals, whether we’re building our product roadmap or business plans.

Pyramid of clarity

With this system, OKRs don’t sit apart from our day-to-day work. Instead of locking them away in a presentation or document, the pyramid of clarity flows from our company mission to the objectives and key results we set, all the way down to our projects and individual tasks. By connecting our goals to our work, our purpose is automatically included alongside everything we do.

  • Objectives: What you want to achieve.
  • Key Results: How you measure your progress towards your objective.
  • Work: The individual tasks, projects, and processes that drive progress towards a key result.

This is the best way to execute OKRs. It creates clarity and meaning. And when employees have that clarity, they can unlock their best selves: engaged, creative, loyal, and productive. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. When you get OKRs right, you supercharge many different facets of your organization. Employees prioritize the right work because they know what outcomes they need to drive. That maximizes impact and deepens their connection to their team and organization.

[Read: How to set OKRs]

When teams understand how their work contributes to top-level goals, why certain things were prioritized over others, and, ultimately, why those goals matter, they become more motivated and push themselves to achieve more.

Those benefits aren’t limited only to the individual employee. Rather, they combine and ladder up to significantly improve organizational performance. According to Gallup, highly engaged business units drive 21% greater profitability than their more ambivalent counterparts.

Indeed, when psychologists tested the impact of different motivational techniques on group performance, they found goal setting was one of the most effective. Just setting a handful of specific, ambitious goals boosted the participants’ performance into the 80th percentile. Another set of researchers explored what happened when you gave teams a means of measuring their performance against their goals. The result: performance jumped again—up to the 88th percentile.

OKRs don’t just help those with their boots on the ground, either. Having your goals and work in a shared single source of truth grants leaders clear insights into where, when, and how they need to intervene based on progress updates.

To learn how to set great OKRs and maximize the benefits of goal-setting for your organization, download our ebook.

Download the Asana Playbook to OKRs

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