a banner with the text "Begin with the End in Mind: A Tale of OKRs" in white accompanied by a yellow flag and a light green location symbol

by Brian Ralph | 5 Minute Read

In Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he invites the reader into an exercise for setting life goals, by beginning with the end in mind. In the chapter, Covey paints a bleak picture for his reader: he invites us into a funeral scene where there is a casket, and the corpse lying there? You, the reader.

There are loved ones standing in front of the casket, greeting family and friends as they walk past you. What do they say about you? What did you accomplish in this life? Will they say you worked hard, delivered great projects? Or would they say how you were there for them in their time of need— how you impacted their lives, the lives of your friends, and family and your community. a grey speech bubble accompanied by a document numbered 1-4 With these questions, Covey masterfully pulls us out of the many distractions of life for a moment to focus our lives on what is truly important. Considering what people said about us, Covey then instructs the reader to create their life’s mission statement. It’s a shocking but clever exercise to cut away the plethora of distractions that vie for our time in this life, such as the emergencies that pull us away from the more important goals of life.

I read Covey’s book in 2007, which was the same year I became an Agile Scrum Master. On my first assignment, I came across a software development term called Test Driven Development (TDD). A developer explained to me that before he wrote a line of code, he began with the test cases that the code must pass. Until the proper code was written, the test cases would fail. Once all the code was correct, all tests would pass. a grey paper with a code symbol on top with a green check mark next to filler text followed by a red x next to filler textHe said that the art of Test Driven Development was harder than it sounded. “As humans,” he said, “we are inclined to rush into action instead of determining the end goals that our actions must meet. We are output driven,” he continued. “But TDD creates outcomes that our actions should drive us toward.” “Genius,” I said. I wondered if the TDD people had been reading Covey’s chapter when they came up with the idea.

In 2017, while coaching a team of leaders on the most effective way to write their annual objectives, I introduced a concept called Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). I will touch on it briefly, as many experts (such as Felipe Castro) explain it better than I. In a nutshell, you write an Objective (O) and then the Key Results (KR) to measure your progress toward achieving the Objective. A personal example might be, “Get healthy in 2022 (O), as measured by (KR) a reduction of 10lbs by July.” One of the actions to hit that KR may be to stop having sugar in my coffee or go for morning jogs.

a banner showing how an objective is measured by key results
Figure 1: Objectives as measured by Key Results.

With the team previously mentioned, we began creating their first Objective. “The Objective is vague,” one leader said. “That’s alright for now,” I responded. “Because the Key Results will force us to sharpen the Objective.” We moved on to Key Results and here are some of the stickies they wrote (I am using fictional ideas to protect their intellectual property).

Grow the division this year, as measured by:

a yellow sticky note with "Releasing 3 new products by the end of December" in black text
a yellow sticky with "hiring 7 new leaders" in black text

We finished and went home, but I walked away that evening feeling uneasy. The KRs had numbers, as I had instructed them, but I knew they were not right. So, I went away and scratched my head for a while and played around with their words:

a yellow sticky note with "Releasing 3 new products by the end of December" in black text and "What if customers hate the products? What leading indicators tell us if they love them or hate them?" in red text
a yellow sticky note that states "Hiring 7 new leaders" in black text with "What does that give us? Is the extra work they are hired to do worth doing? Does that work have an OKR?" in red text

It was then that Covey’s book and the friendly software developer from a decade earlier, came to mind. The team I was coaching had written code but not test cases. They needed their test cases first. I had been fooled by the numbers in their Key Results. The release of the products was actionable, but they needed more specific measures to identify if they successfully met their Objective. They needed to find a way to measure an increased user base after the products were delivered. As for the seven new leaders to be hired? That also was an action but was it even the right action? What outcomes were they trying to attain by hiring those people?

The words of that software developer have always stayed with me. We are conditioned to act right away and not slow down first to determine the goal we are trying to meet. It is easy to hit the ground running. It is hard to begin with the end in mind.

In figure 1 above, if you realized that ‘go to gym 3 times a week’ was not a Key Results but an action to get to a Key Result, please take a bow. You caught me on my trickery. It is not an OKR. What if I go to the gym three times a week, watch TV and have a donut? How does that help me achieve my Objective to get healthy?

When coaching OKRs, realize that the team and you are wired for action so watch out for actions disguised at Key Results. Set the Key Results first, and then create your actions to achieve the Key Results.