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Get your OKRs out of my GEMs

Kathy Keating Strategy

If you’re like most of the people in business I talk to, you hate OKRs and SMART goals. Objectives set by senior leadership are vague, no one knows who is measuring the key results, and the path to “get from the objective to the key result” is, well, non-existent. 

Leaders and individual contributors I coach often say: What the heck is this OKR thing? Why am I doing it? Why is it so confusing and hard? What am I not smart enough to write SMART goals? Why can’t I just focus on the tasks you asked me to do? What do you mean my bonus and performance is tied to this?

Many mid-level managers are asked to “cascade” the OKRs to their teams (this never ends well) and some companies actually give people personal OKRs. OKRs and SMART goals often leave everyone floundering and frustrated.

Goal, Experiments, Measures

Navigating OKRs is difficult and it doesn’t have to be this way. OKRs are confusing because they are missing the most important ingredient – the action plan! For the last several years I’ve dismissed the idea of OKRs and followed a different path.

I call it GEMs which stands for Goal  → Experiments → Measures. GEMs are clear and simple.

If your company wants to hang onto the confusing OKR framework at the leadership level, go ahead and let them. I’ll explain how we can simply crosswalk our company’s existing OKRs into the GEMs framework. We can also use the GEMs framework to crosswalk over to SMART goals. 

Let’s walk through how GEMs work.

the simpler way to set a goal

As a company leader, our job is to set a clear direction for the company that will align everyone toward the successful outcomes we want for the company. Setting goals is important. Delivering on those goals is even more important.

One of the failures of SMART goals and OKRs, is that the explanation of both of these frameworks wraps people up in trying to “set the goal” and figure out “how to measure” it all at the same time. For the moment, let’s just throw out the measures and simply think about the goal.

This is your opportunity to dream big! So what are your goals?

Investors like to see us increase revenue or expand our customer base. Employees want to know that the customers are happy with the service they are receiving. For government or healthcare, many of the services we provide are critical services that could lead to life or death if they aren’t accessible and deliver on the outcomes they promise. 

For personal goals, we might simply want to get more sleep, or lose some weight so that we feel healthier. Or maybe we want to run a marathon, or climb some mountains.

Close our eyes, take a deep breath, and envision the future. This picture of the future is what our goals are meant to represent. Our goals paint the picture of the world that we hope to live in when we get there. We want our goals to be directional and inspirational.

Here are some examples of great goals:

  • We increase the adoption of our product by enterprise customers
  • We increase revenue by premium customers
  • I get more sleep so that I feel refreshed for the day
  • I eat more healthy so that I can lose weight

what are some ideas for how to get there?

By this point in this article you’re probably stressing about how these goals aren’t “measurable”. Suspend disbelief for a few minutes and trust me — we will get to that later. 

First let’s think about several ways you might be able to do in order to get closer to your goal. Don’t hold back or constrain yourself — simply put all the ideas on the list. Here are some examples:

GOAL: Increase adoption of our product by enterprise customers

IDEAS: get SOC2 certification; add Single Sign-On; create administrative roles; add volume discounts to our pricing model; add customer managed keys to the database; add enterprise account representatives; create a premium support offering

GOAL: Eat more healthy so that I can lose weight

IDEAS: eat a healthy salad every day; eat an apple a day; eat fish once a week; eat an avocado twice a week; switch to organic fruits and veggies; restrict my eating window to only 8 hours a day

When our ideas are unfettered by how we plan to measure a goal, we end up getting way more creative. Some of our ideas are easy, and others are audacious or complex.

bring a bit of order to the chaos

Once you have a bunch of ideas, sort them into an order that feels comfortable and most “doable” to you. Most people place ideas into the order that they subjectively believe will have the most immediate impact on the goal. Other people place ideas into the order that is easiest to implement first. Sort them however feels right to you and your team. 

While you’re sorting, remind yourself that these are all just ideas. While we might have strong opinions about which ideas will actually work, we want to remind ourselves that these are just opinions. Many people, during this sorting exercise, will have strong opinions! Some will argue how confident they are that idea number 5 will obviously get us to goal.

Confidence is great, and it can lead us in helpful directions, but I still have not met a single person that could accurately predict the future. Since we cannot accurately predict the future, all these ideas are simply experiments. Some of these ideas will get us toward our goal, and others will not. 

Defining experiments is the only use that I’ve found for my college physics class so its great that I get an opportunity to put it into practice. 

how will you know you were successful?

Take a look at all the experiments on your list, and now look back at your goal. For each experiment, once it’s well underway, how will you know the experiment successfully moved you toward the goal? Jot down some ideas for how you’ll know you were successful. 

We want the measures we write to be measurable and time-bound. Lets look at some examples:

GOAL: We increase the adoption of our product by enterprise customers

EXPERIMENTS (IDEAS): get SOC2 certification; add Single Sign-On; create administrative roles; add volume discounts to our pricing model; add customer managed keys to the database; add enterprise account representatives; create a premium support offering

MEASURES: two new enterprise customers sign up for our product every quarter; NPS for enterprise customers is greater than 30 within 90 days of onboarding

GOAL: I eat more healthy so that I can lose weight

EXPERIMENTS (IDEAS): eat a healthy salad every day; eat an apple a day; eat fish once a week; eat an avocado twice a week; switch to organic fruits and veggies; restrict my eating window to only 8 hours a day

MEASURES: I drop 5 pounds every 45 days; I drop one pant size every two months

Let’s look at these measures a bit more deeply for a second. 

  • They are all easily measured.

  • They don’t utilize a calendar date by which the measure has to be achieved. Instead they are time-bound to a recurring schedule. In other words, if we implement the experiment, and it’s a success, we are going to keep measuring to ensure we sustain that success.

This is called building a habit.

All about fast, effective flow

What’s great about Experiments is that you can keep adding to the list or you can remove Experiments that aren’t moving the measure. Our goal here is fast, effective flow that drives to positive outcomes.  

If one of your early experiments doesn’t move the measure far enough or fast enough, your team can simply add another experiment to the list.  Make your experiments small enough to be implemented relatively quickly.  Get them out into the hands of users so that you can get feedback quickly.

If one of the experiments isn’t driving the measure forward, then don’t keep doing it.  Companies like Google deprecate features all the time that aren’t working.  This shouldn’t be something that we’re afraid of.  Our goal is to drive outcomes, so if something isn’t working, simply try something else. 

This is what being agile is all about.  So treat this as a living process where you’re refining the process with each experiment. You want your team to be actively involved. Also, make sure you build some automation to make capturing the measures really easy. 

OKRs and SMART goals get it wrong

Pay close attention to the fact that none of the measures in these examples involve “completing a task”. The completion of the task is actually the experiment. The only way to know an experiment was successful or not is to measure the outcomes.

This is a failure point I see too often in leaders, and it is exactly where both OKRs and SMART goals break down. Neither framework gives us a path to how to implement these goals. GEMs does. 

GEMs put the experiments into the forefront. These experiments clearly define our path to get from A (where we are today) to B (where we want to be in the future). 

Creating a clear path, from A to B, is the most important part of any healthy growth process — both for a company and for a person.

always keep score

Many OKRs and SMART goals sit on the shelf gathering dust because there is no clear implementation path defined. Let’s kick OKRs to the curb and instead install GEMs which makes it easy to keep score. 

With GEMs, it’s easy to put a scorecard in place for every goal. The scorecard can be actively managed in your weekly team meetings, or every weekend when you prepare your meals for the week. 

Here is what a scorecard typically looks like. We’ve listed the goal, the experiments and the measures. We’ve also used a simple red, yellow, green rating system for keeping track of the measures.  And we indicate when the goal is reached.  

Crosswalk to OKRs and SMART goals

It’s the easiest thing to remember that GEM stands for Goal  → Experiments → Measures.  Hopefully this exercise has given you more tools to do goal setting effectively and simply.  

I know, change is hard. Your senior leadership is unlikely to let go of OKRs or SMART goals. You don’t need to fight them on it. If GEMs works for you, there’s an easy way to crosswalk GEMs back to both of these frameworks. 

If your company is using the OKR framework:

  • The Goal (G) is your Objective (O)
  • The Measures (M) are your Key Results (KR)

In the SMART goals framework simply combine your Goal and your Measures into a single statement. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Increase the adoption of our product by enterprise customers
    by onboarding two new enterprise customers every quarter
    and by retaining an NPS of greater than 30 within 90 days of onboarding
  • Lose weight by I eating healthier
    so that I drop 5 pounds every 45 days
    and drop one pant size every two months

you can do it!

I created GEMs when I founded my second company, and I’ve been using GEMs now for several years with great success.  I’ve applied it in several ways depending on the mood of the company I was working with:

  • Sometimes I’ve successfully encouraged leadership to adopt GEMs.
  • Other times I’ve applied the thin veneer of OKRs terminology over my GEMs scorecards to pretend we were doing OKRs
  • Some people are afraid of the word “experiment”, so occasionally I’ll refer to them as Actions (but GAM is not a great acronym, so don’t go there).

If your leadership isn’t on board, then let scorecards and experiments be your little secret. Someday your leaders will say “wow, we are so effective at reaching our objectives this year!”, to which you can respond, “well, I’ve got this GEM of a process you might want to check out”.

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash