The 4 Secrets of OKRs That Actually Work

The 4 Secrets of OKRs That Actually Work

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In isolation, goals are simply to-do list items. That’s where Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and Conversations, Feedback & Recognition (CFRs) — your secret to humanizing and aligning your goal-setting process — come in.

To take advantage of the power of OKRs, you’ve got to integrate them into your continuous employee success process — out with the old ways of performance management in which goals were prescribed from on high, and in with a more agile and effective employee success program where goals are collaboratively and frequently set. We’ll show you how it works.

What are Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)?

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are a goaling method critical for organizational alignment.

Objectives are high-level goals that define where an organization wants to go. Think about objectives as a destination. Where do you want to be when you reach your goal?

Key results are the directions you use to reach your destination. Key results should be quantifiable or measurable in some way.

Who developed OKRs?

The OKRs management method was developed by Andy Grove, Hungarian-born American engineer and businessman, and former CEO of Intel.

Because of his influence in the global electronics manufacturing industry, Grove came to be known as one of the great business leaders of the 20th century, as well as “the guy who drove the growth phase” in Silicon Valley. Grove used an OKR cycle to align all levels of an organization with the overall company goals.

How do OKRs work?

OKRs are critical for organizational alignment. Here’s how they should be working at your company:

At the highest levels in the organization, leaders set the company’s objectives. (These are high-level aspirations, tied to the organization’s quarterly and/or annual goals.) Then, those objectives are broken down into key results. These are time-bound, measurable, outcome-based benchmarks that indicate progress toward the goal.

In isolation, goals are simply to-do list items.

So how does this drive alignment?

Once the company defines its high-level OKRs, each department identifies the role it can play in achieving the organization’s objectives. Then, each team and team member create their own goals to define and measure progress toward that objective. So every team member, has a clearly defined and aligned role in achieving the organization’s high-level goals.

At the end of the day, the OKR method empowers organizational leaders to take an aspirational objective and break it down into a set of measurable outcomes, then track progress in a measurable, verifiable, and scalable way.

WorkTango’s Goals & Feedback solution gives team members and managers instant, always-on access to organizational, departmental, and individual goals. They can record new quarterly goals, track progress, give real-time updates, name risks, and adjust mid-cycle if needed. Having constant goal tracking access ensures alignment, strengthens motivation, and increases the sense of collaborative connection.

Example of a organization-level OKR

What does a high-level OKR look like? Here’s an example: your company set an objective to increase employee retention next year. It’s important that the entire organization is aligned, because the increase in retention will impact organizational culture, employee success and productivity, and the overall bottom line.

Since there are many factors that impact employee retention, the next step is to determine the key results. What are some specific, measurable outcomes that would indicate whether or not retention is on an upward trend? Here are some samples:

  • Voluntary turnover is reduced by 15%
  • Exit interviews are conducted with 100% voluntary terminations
  • 100% of the workforce participates in quarterly Check-In performance reviews

If the objective is the big, shared outcome you want to see, then key results are the clear criteria that must be met by various departments, teams and individuals along the way in order to achieve it.

Larry Page, co-founder of Google, credits the OKR methodology with Google’s successful growth. “OKRs have helped lead us to 10x growth, many times over,” Page wrote in the foreword of John Doerr’s Measure What Matters. “They’ve kept me and the rest of the company on time and on track when it mattered the most.”

So why aren’t our OKRs working?

If you’re reading this article, chances are, your organization’s OKRs aren’t driving the kind of alignment and change you want. Too often, we set OKRs in a vacuum, without taking the time to align and connect with those around us. And when we don’t integrate OKR’s into our employee success processes, they become to-do list items, rather than guiding forces.

How do we maximize the benefit of OKRs?

By making them more human, and bringing them into our everyday work lives.

What are Conversations, Feedback & Recognition (CFRs)?

Meet your alignment and humanizing super toolset! Conversations, Feedback, & Recognition (CFRs) is a workplace model that brings OKRs into the company culture so that they can be realized at their maximum potential.

Who developed CFRs?

In his book Measure What Matters, American investor and businessman John Doerr added to the OKR framework by introducing Conversations, Feedback and Recognition, or CFRs. Doerr attributes his success in business, which includes a net worth upward of $7 billion, to his focus on setting goals, and tracking them with OKRs and CFRs.

CFRs add a human element to the OKR system by providing an organized way to motivate individuals and teams. Doerr described CFRs as “giving OKRs their human voice.”

CFRs give OKRs their human voice.

In order to meet ambitious goals, it’s likely many employees will need to develop new skills. Conversations, feedback and recognition help them do that.

Since CFRs may seem nebulous at first, we’ll start by clearly defining each term in a management context. Then, we’ll follow it up by outlining the best practices for implementing your own CFRs. And as a bonus, we’ll introduce you to Incentives, the motivational powerhouse that ties it all together.


Definition: a verbal exchange between manager and employee that drives performance and success, covering employee development, engagement, behaviors and competencies.

Few things are bigger drivers of success than a positive manager-employee relationship. And positive relationships are based on mutual trust, which is built and maintained through frequent and authentic conversations.

Conversations support individual goal alignment with OKRs and other organizational objectives by providing a safe place for ongoing progress updates. Plus, when organization OKRs are part of the ongoing conversation, they stay top-of-mind, ensuring they don’t fall to the back burner until the employee’s goal cycle ends.

4 best practices for having effective conversations

  1. Be consistent. Don’t wait until there’s an urgent need to have an important conversation. Instead, schedule regular 1-on-1 Sync-Ups on a weekly or biweekly basis. WorkTango’s platform can help you stay on track with reminders about upcoming Sync-Ups and quarterly performance Check-Ins.
  2. Co-create an agenda. Minimize the mental labor required to have an intentional conversation. Establish a consistent structure. Our Goals & Feedback solution supplies a place where team members and managers can add topics to the agenda that will guide their next Sync-Up conversation.
  3. Listen. Conversations are, by nature, bidirectional. Listen just as much as — or better yet, more than — you talk. Use the platform to take notes during the conversation and list action items in the space designated for follow-up. That ensures that both parties feel heard and are clear on the plan going forward.
  4. Up your EQ. Emotional intelligence is foundational to good communication. Learn to be direct, empathetic and non-defensive. This will greatly improve your ability to build trust through authentic conversations. How will managers know if they’re effective communicators? By asking their teams about their experience. WorkTango’s Surveys & Insights solution allows organizations to frequently pulse employees about leadership. Managers receive the results in an easy-to-read report, which includes recommendations for learning and action based on team members’ responses. Employee identities remain confidential so there’s no fear of reprisal.

2 examples of how to use conversations with OKRs

So what does an individual goals conversation sound like? Here are a couple of examples:

  1. “Last week you mentioned feeling stuck in meeting your key sales goal to increasing your individual sales by 10% by month-end. How’s that going? Have you tried the strategy we talked about?”
  2. “I know you’re working toward our team objective of increasing brand awareness. Let’s take a look at our marketing analytics to see how your new blog posts are contributing.”


Definition: Communication up, down, and across organizational lines that assesses behaviors and outcomes, and guides improvement.

Feedback is a response to an individual’s behavior or work. Though constructive feedback can initially be uncomfortable to give and to receive, it’s critical for employee growth and direction. Plus, when you integrate both positive and constructive feedback into your regular conversations, it actually removes the fear factor. When feedback is as frequent as topping off your coffee, it becomes an expected (and valuable) part of your day.

Feedback supports individual goals and business OKRs by providing timely necessary course corrections along the journey to completion, with the intention of helping individuals and teams grow and develop.

4 best practices for giving effective feedback

  1. Be specific. General feedback such as “Do better next time” is much, much less effective than feedback that points out precisely what someone can  start doing, stop doing, or continue doing.
  2. Tie feedback to impact. When people are able to see a cause-and-effect relationship between their actions and the impact those actions have on a broader scale, they’re often able to course correct on their own.
  3. Give feedback in real-time. Give feedback immediately to allow the person to process the information while it’s still fresh. That way, they can incorporate any necessary changes into their current work or feel good about having done something well.
  4. Avoid using the “positivity sandwich.” Many leaders and coaches buy into the positivity “sandwich,” which packages negative feedback between two pieces of positive feedback. But we say — stop! Giving positive feedback is good and necessary. But bundling it with criticism can feel inauthentic and confusing to the recipient. It’s better to keep things clean and clear by focusing on one piece of feedback at a time.

2 examples of using feedback with OKRs

  1. “Blakely, I’m frankly concerned that at this pace you may not hit your- key results on time. And that’ll delay our new brand launch as a whole. Let’s take another look at your timeline to see what we can prioritize and where I might be able to help you succeed.”
  2. “Anjali, I’m impressed with how quickly you’re hitting your goals. It looks like you’re going to achieve your measurable results well before the end of the quarter. So for you to keep growing and learning, let’s think about how you might make those goals more ambitious next quarter — it seems like these aren’t enough of a stretch.”

If you’re wondering whether employees in your organization are getting the kind of feedback they need—why not ask them? You can use Surveys & Insights to gather employee sentiment about the quality and frequency of feedback. Track trends over time and slice results by department, team, geographical region– or any other specification you choose.


Definition: The demonstration of appreciation for effort, attitude, and achievement.

Recognition is the single most powerful driver of engagement. 81% of employees say they feel motivated to work harder when their manager shows appreciation. Organizations with effective recognition programs see 31% lower turnover. That’s right — just a simple thank you can drive productivity and improve retention. Of the CFR components, this may be the most fun to implement. And it boosts morale immediately.

Recognition supports the goals and OKR process by motivating team members to contribute at their highest level. Case in point: 41% of companies that use peer-to-peer recognition reported seeing increases in customer satisfaction.

4 best practices for giving effective recognition

  1. Celebrate the small wins. This is one of the beauties of shorter goal cycles– there are more opportunities for celebrating successes. WorkTango’s Recognition & Rewards solution allows you to send a sincere word of thanks or congratulations–instantly. If you see that a team member has completed or made impressive progress toward a goal, hop on the Recognition feed to cheer for them. Top it off by sending reward points to show your appreciation for their dedication. The whole process takes seconds– but the payoff is huge in terms of motivation, engagement, and connection.
  2. Make it public. People like being recognized. And many people love being recognized publicly. Technology makes it easy to send appreciation that’s visible to the whole organization. If a person prefers private recognition, that’s an option our solution can handle too.
  3. Be timely and specific. Just like constructive feedback, recognition is most effective when it’s timely and specific. Act quickly, and take the time to say exactly why you’re so appreciative.
  4. Encourage peer-to-peer recognition. Manager-employee relationships are critical, but so are those among coworkers. Make it easy for your team to share recognition stories with each other by using our Recognition & Rewards solution. Your aim is to build a culture where appreciation flows continuously. It fuels motivation and strengthens a sense of belonging.

2 examples of using recognition with OKRs

  1. “Diego, I noticed how much effort you put into getting the brand refresh ready to go this month. Thank you.”
  2. “One thing I’ve known about you for a while, Shaynia, but that I really appreciated this week, is that you always have such a positive attitude. Thank you for bringing your energy to our team day in and day out, and for making the people around you better.”

Bonus: Incentives and OKRs

Definition: A reward that reinforces a desired action or behavior.

John Doerr defined CFRs as the all-star tool set. WorkTango adds one more, and we recommend you do, too: Incentives. These custom bonuses encourage employees to participate in activities that drive your organization’s culture and goals. This could include attending a webinar or training, giving a presentation, completing a pulse survey, or even participating in your HR team’s wellness program. It’s a light form of gamification that rewards people for doing things that support individual and organizational success. Connect Incentives back to your company’s priorities, whether those are OKRs, learning & development, culture, well-being, or social causes.

We use Incentives ourselves at WorkTango (the writer of this article just earned points in our rewards platform for “Breaking a Sweat” with an hour-long yoga practice, for example). Incentives keep people motivated with their goals and engaged in building organizational culture.

4 best practices for supporting OKRs with incentives

  1. Create incentives that are consistent with your company culture and values. What behaviors do you want to support? Start by listing out your core values and high-level objectives. Then work backward from there.
  2. Update incentives to reflect change. As the world changes, so do your organization’s needs. For example, earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, we created new incentives for sanitizing your workspace and getting a flu shot.
  3. Tie incentives to goal-setting. Offer incentives for entering new goals, or for completing them. (At WorkTango, we earn points for goals completed- a nice bonus.)
  4. Ask for feedback. Company culture comes from the people. Ask employees at your organization for incentive ideas so that you stay in close step with the culture, rather than seeming out of touch.

2 examples to use with OKRs

  1. Set a goal. Create a bonus for setting goals at the beginning of the cycle. (Specify that individual goals have to be aligned with departmental or organizational goals.)
  2. Complete a goal. This is a great incentive to offer in the platform. Keep in mind that OKRs are meant to be stretch goals with a 70%-80% success rate, so employees should not necessarily be hitting this one every quarter.

What about SMART goals, OKRs and CFRs?

Does your org love SMART goals? WorkTango does, too. In fact, we advocate that you don’t choose between them. Instead, use the SMART methodology to inform your key results when you set OKRs.

That’s because these two methodologies aren’t opposed to each other. They serve different purposes. As we explain in our article, How to Set and Use SMART Goals at Work, SMART goals are a formula for writing effective individual goals. OKRs do the broader work of aligning these goals to organizational and departmental goals.

OKRs and CFRs in continuous employee success

To succeed in today’s world of work, outdated forms of performance management (like annual goal setting and reviews) just can’t keep up. You need continuous employee success practices. OKRs and CFRs support that shift. While OKRs help answer the question “What will we accomplish?” CFRs help answer the question, “How will we develop and motivate our people in order to accomplish it?”

Together, and in contrast to the traditional (and often dreaded) annual performance review, OKRs and CFRs speed up and simplify the review process, resulting in better communication and a bigger impact.

Keep goals on target with WorkTango

We hope this exploration of OKRs and CFRs has planted the seeds of transformation in the way you think about goals. We can’t emphasize this enough: goals in isolation are simply to-do list items. You can take full advantage of the power of business OKRs by integrating them into your continuous employee success process. And we’re here to help.