Managing Your Career in Tech – Part 2: Leverage OKRs for Personal Growth

Yesterday, I outlined some ways to take ownership of finding meaning at work. But taking ownership of your own career and aligning your personal sense of purpose with your purpose at work isn’t enough to find success. You also need to execute consistently in areas that make this alignment real. To do this, you need an execution framework that will align your work with your purpose.

The execution framework we’ve been using as part of Atomic Object Ann Arbor’s Accelerator is called “Objectives and Key Results,” or OKRs for short. OKRs have been used heavily in large tech companies to steer teams and organizations to success. They’re a lightweight execution approach that helps keep tactical tasks aligned with strategic goals.

Essentials of OKRs

I’ll keep this short as much has been written about OKRs.

A good OKR objective should be:

  • Qualitative and inspirational—you shouldn’t be able to measure it.
  • Audacious enough that you are only 50% sure you can actually accomplish it.
  • Time-bound in some way; we work in quarters, but others work in half years or months.
  • Actionable independently by the individual or team. The more interdependence exists, the harder progress will be. Avoid putting yourself in a position where you are blaming others for your lack of progress.

Key results take the qualitative and inspirational and make it measurable. (Remember, the objective itself shouldn’t be measurable.) To help set key results, ask yourself, “How will I know if I met my objective?” Your answers should define what success looks like. Make these answers as specific and measurable as possible. We have found that focusing on three key results is ideal when working on a quarter timeline.

OKRs for Personal Development

In the Accelerator, we leverage OKRs in a slightly different way. Rather than driving purpose-centric work in an organization, we seek to elevate and guide careers. Members of the Accelerator set objectives around personal growth areas where they want to invest. Some of these have included:

  • Become a generative artist
  • Understand sales & marketing at Atomic
  • Become a better writer
  • Grow as a JavaScript developer
  • Become a video game developer

Key results describe measurable goals that move each member of the team toward their own personal objectives. Each of the three KRs are directly related to the overall objective.

I encourage the group to explore areas that personally interest them, but are not currently part of their daily job or the Accelerator program. As a general rule, I don’t guide or try to influence any member of the group in a specific direction. I want each member of the group to personally invest and take ownership over their own growth.

Setting OKRs

We leverage one three-hour meeting every quarter to set these objectives and key results. Practically, we follow a loose agenda around a rhythm of brainstorming, group sharing, and feedback. The group spends about 10 minutes writing down at least three objectives they are considering. We then share these objectives with the group and spend five more minutes refining those objectives. I encourage the group to copy or steal ideas from others if they connect with them.

Once the team feels good about their objectives, we write them on Post-its and stick them on the wall. Then we take 20 minutes to generate key results on Post-its. Cross-posting ideas for key results on other peoples’ objectives is encouraged. We then take another 5-10 minutes for each individual to select the KRs they prefer. We close out the meeting with each member of the Accelerator reading their objectives and key results for the quarter.

Following Through on OKRs

Throughout the quarter, we meet as a group on Fridays to share progress and keep each other accountable. We call these meetings “celebrations” because we want to emphasize progress, success, and connection. Each member reviews their OKRs, their level of confidence in being able to accomplish their KRs, what they did in the last week to progress toward them, and what they plan on doing next week. Then we usually end the week by hitting a local happy hour.

Gathering weekly for in-person celebration and accountability is a key ingredient for success. I have found that the members of our Accelerator naturally want to come into the meeting with a good report to share. The group is also supportive, and all of us want to see everyone in the group succeed. That weekly shot of encouragement and accountability keeps the team motivated and moving forward throughout the quarter.

We end the quarter by recapping progress for about an hour. We also take time to introspect about what went well, what we want to do better next time, and what we want to stop doing.

OKR Troubleshooting

We’ve been using OKRs for about 18 months in the Accelerator. During that time, I’ve seen a couple of patterns that keep individuals from actively engaging in their OKRs.

Pattern 1: Over- and under-ambitious objectives

Everyone fails their first time out. It’s hard to right-size an objective to a quarter when you’ve never done it before. Most people are over-ambitious and set an objective with key results that aren’t possible to achieve in a quarter. This is totally fine. Spending a quarter of a year on this valuable lesson is a good investment of time.

However, be careful about over-correcting. I’ve also seen people fail to engage in OKRs because they are too easy. If your goal isn’t ambitious and inspiring, you will have difficulty investing time consistently. Remember, you should be 50% sure you’re going to fail when setting your OKRs.

Pattern 2: Non-relevant KRs

Sometimes, we strike out when setting our KRs. We may think something would be interesting, relevant, or possible, but that turns out not to be the case. Instead of insisting people stick to the KRs they set, I encourage honest dialogue about status of OKRs during celebration meetings. If it seems like a KR is off, we allow people to make changes.

Get Started

Don’t wait to get started with OKRs for personal development. Anyone can use them in any organization or role. You just need direction, will, and orientation around the framework. While I can’t give you direction or will, I do recommend Christina Wodtke’s book Radical Focus and her blog Eleganthack for orientation. I have learned a lot about execution from Christina and highly recommend her to you.