Ally.io
October 13, 2021

How to prioritize using OKRS

Lucy Hitz
Director of Content, Ally.io

As you work to solve business problems at your organization and set the right goals, the objectives and key results (OKR) methodology can provide the structure and alignment you need to be successful. 

Learn the basics of OKRs here. 

How can OKRs help you prioritize?

The process of writing OKRs in itself is an exercise in defining problems. Objectives define where you want to go (or, what the future will look like when you solve your problem), while the key results define how you will get there (or, how you will solve the problem). Articulating your business goals in this way provides you with immense focus and empowers your organization to intentionally work toward the results you want to achieve.

OKR Example

The problem is, most organizations have a long list of things they’d like to achieve, but limited resources to commit to achieving them. It’s therefore important to be able to prioritize which objectives are most worthy of your time, money, and resources. 

How, then, do you prioritize your OKRs? In this post, we’ll identify the tactics and techniques that you can implement at your organization to effectively prioritize your OKRs and start driving business results.

Step 1: Push beyond the business as usual (BAU) mindset

In order to identify which OKRs to focus on, let’s make sure we’re clear on the intentions of this methodology. The OKR methodology is not for maintaining business as usual (BAU). It is for pushing beyond BAU to grow and expand your organization. 

The below growth-share matrix will help you visualize the difference between OKRs and BAU. It maps the metrics of market growth against market share. We’ll break it down into each quadrant, but the takeaway here is that you should be prioritizing OKRs that will result in growth, not that will maintain business as usual.

 

Source: Radical Focus by Christina Wodtke

  • Bottom right. The “Exploit” quadrant represents BAU, where an organization has already identified how to generate money in today’s market. While improvements do get made over time with BAU, it typically delivers the same general output day after day, so there’s very little growth here. This isn’t the area you want to focus your OKRs.
  • Bottom left. These are your exits. You do not want to focus your goals on what’s not working because it won’t help you grow or profit.
  • Top left. Exploration is worth your efforts because you have an opportunity to stay ahead of the curve if you make an investment into where the market is growing. OKRs that fall into this quadrant will help you grow your business.
  • Top right. In areas where the market is growing and you already have a footprint, you are best positioned to expand your capabilities and achieve results. It’s a good idea to focus your OKR attention here.

As you’re writing OKRs, it can be incredibly helpful to refer back to this graphic to check that you’re not being lured into BAU-land. If any of the objectives you’ve written will lead your organization to simply maintain BAU, cross them out. Keep only the ones that will propel your business forward.

Step 2: Choose a prioritization exercise

The 5 whys (root cause analysis) exercise

What it is: The “5 Whys” is a method that helps you determine the root cause of a problem by successively asking the question, “Why?” Usually, you have to ask this question five times to get to the root, hence the name of the method. Completing this exercise helps you ensure that solving for your objectives will lead to business growth. 

How to use it:  Here’s an example of how you can ‘interrogate’ your objectives with this tactic:

Objective: Increase employee retention from 75% to 90%

 WHY? → Because our employee churn rate is higher than ever.

 WHY? → Because our top talent is leaving for competitors.

 WHY? → Because we’re not engaging our employees.

 WHY? → Because we’re not providing them with feedback or celebrating their progress. 

 WHY? → Because we have no progress or performance management tool in place. 

Card sorting to prioritize goals

What it is: In a card sorting exercise, each participant has the same set of cards that they organize in a way that makes sense to them. Doing this with OKRs helps you understand which goals are most important to your team, because it’s unlikely that everyone is going to prioritize the same way. 

How to use it: Give every participant a set of “cards” (they can be scraps of paper, nothing fancy needed!), each with a single objective written on it. Ask them to rank the cards in order of priority. Then, record the rankings and organize them in a spreadsheet. 

It should look something like this:

Card Sorting

Next, use conditional formatting to color-code the top, middle, and lowest rankings.

Conditional Formatting

Those that rank between 1 and 3 are highest priority (green, below). Finally, count how many times each objective fell into the top 3 rankings for a given participant. The objectives with the highest frequency of top rankings are your winners (remember, you only want to end up with 3-5 objectives).

Dot voting to prioritize equally important goals

What it is: Dot voting is when each participant gets only a limited number of “votes” for a group of items (in this case, objectives). We love how hyper-constrained this is, because it forces participants to prioritize which objectives they care most about. 

Collaboration Boards

How to use it: Put each objective on a sticky note on a board. Give each participant 3 stickers, dots, thumbtacks, or magnets (whatever you have around) and ask them to select the 3 sticky notes they feel are most important. Whichever sticky note gets the most “dots” are your highest priority objectives.

2-factor matrix for priorities

What it is: This is another categorization tactic that helps you map items against a two-factor matrix. There are many different variations of these matrices, depending on which factors you determine are most meaningful for your organization. Again, what’s important here is that the two factors serve as constraints to force you to prioritize, and also offer an opportunity to have rich conversations about your objectives. 

How to use it: Create a four-quadrant matrix against two factors of your choice/that make sense for your organization? and place your objectives into the categories accordingly. In the below examples, you’ll be able to quickly eliminate any objectives that fall into the lower right quadrant. You’ll want to focus your attention on the top row, instead. 

Matrix

Notice that the effort-impact matrix (on the right) doesn’t have four equal quadrants. That’s because us humans tend to underestimate the effort it takes to make an impact. 

Re-prioritizing goals with “now, next, later”

What it is: Sometimes it hurts too much to completely cross off an OKR that’s not a current priority, and can feel better to classify it as a priority “next” quarter, or at a “later” date. This tactic allows you to categorize your OKRs with an emphasis on the near-term. It gives you a flexible roadmap for meeting your objectives without constraining yourself too much by specific calendar dates. 

How to use it: Create a visual roadmap with the categories now, next, and later, and assign each OKR to a category. Those that fall into the “now” category have emerged as your highest priority objectives for the upcoming planning cycle.

PRO TIP: For OKRs that fall into the “next” or “later” categories, make a note of why they wound up there. This will save you time later on when you revisit your OKRs, so you don’t have to have another hour-long conversation about why you did or didn’t focus your efforts on one objective or another.

Step 3: Limit yourself to 3-5 objectives and 3-5 key results

Now that you have a viable list of true OKRs, it’s time to prioritize. To get the most out of your OKR program, we recommend limiting yourself to 3-5 objectives, each with its own set of 3-5 key results. When everything feels critical, narrowing down your goals can feel easier said than done. 

It’s important to go through this exercise, though, as a lack of prioritization can lead to stagnation, and stagnation is a killer for any business looking to compete in the modern economy. Priorities will keep your business moving forward towards the future state that you desire. To get you started, we’ve outlined a few of our favorite tactics for prioritizing your OKRs. 

It’s important to note that these tactics may not all result in an “answer.” They will, however, provide the constraints you need and help facilitate the conversations you should have in order to determine your top priorities.

Prioritize goals and OKRs by building buy-in along the way

You’ll notice that the above tactics are team exercises. That’s because it’s immensely important to engage key stakeholders in your OKRs from the beginning. Otherwise, they are less likely to be engaged and motivated to achieve the goals you’ve set.  

In addition to including your team in these prioritization conversations, we also recommend that you document the process. This way, you will be able to explain the decision making process to your organization, your team, or your manager and increase the likelihood they’ll buy into the OKRs you’ve chosen. 

Want more information on how OKRs help you ruthlessly prioritize for better business results? Check out our guide, Why OKRs? How to determine if OKRs are right for your organization. 

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