OKRs can be a powerful tool in an organization’s arsenal for creating alignment, focusing on outcomes instead of just effort or task completions, and surfacing the right operational priorities. They’re just as powerful within departments and teams, and it’s in this latter area that project managers often start to get involved in the OKR process.
But what about using OKRs within the project management discipline?
Today’s article covers everything project managers need to know to understand and implement the OKR framework, both as a project manager guiding a team and within the discipline of project management itself.
Differences between the OKR framework and traditional project management
It frequently falls to project managers to set or track team-level quarterly OKRs, so many people assume the two disciplines or frameworks are roughly similar. This is a bit of a trap, though, because the OKR framework takes a very different approach to thinking about and organizing work than traditional project management.
We’re painting with a very broad brush, but project management generally focuses on projects and the many tasks within those projects. It’s a discipline focused on organizing tasks into logical workflows and facilitating the completion of those tasks. It thinks in terms of task completion, milestones, and deliverables.
The OKR framework, on the other hand, doesn’t focus on effort or specific tasks. It’s a goal-setting framework that focuses on changing outcomes, setting vision, and motivating teams. The framework operates by setting up an objective (the outcome the team wants to achieve) and listing measurable key results for that objective (milestones that show progress toward the goal and incremental outcomes that do the same).
OKRs help teams focus on the why and, to a lesser degree, the how and the what. Project management usually focuses on the what more than anything else.
While the systems are different, project managers can use them in tandem with powerful effects.
How do you create good OKRs for project management?
You may be brand new to the concept of OKRs — if so, that’s okay! Or maybe you have experience creating them for teams or other groups, just not within project management. Either way, the question is the same: What makes a good project managementOKR?
The right set of skills will certainly help: Communication, leadership, and organization are three of the most essential project management skills, and these abilities all contribute to creating, monitoring, and enforcing effective project managementOKRs.
There are practical steps you can also take at the tactical level. These four tangible steps will help you craft stronger project managementOKRs.
1) Identify project objectives and define success
First, make sure you identify all the project objectives that will be relevant in the following quarter (or whatever timeline you choose for your OKR framework). Create a set of effective OKR objectives next, and then define success for both.
This may sound straightforward enough, but be aware of these two important points of clarification.
First, defining success for OKRs is essential because success looks quite different here. One-hundred percent completion actually isn’t ideal; it suggests your objectives should be set higher. Google’s re:Work suggests that a good target or definition of OKR success is meeting 60% to 70% of them. When you set a figure appropriate for your business, make sure all team members know about it.
Second, be aware that your project objectives and your quarterly OKR objectives often won’t be the same. Conflating the two, either unintentionally or in an attempt to save time, is a common mistake. But remember: Your project objectives describe what needs to get done on the project. Your OKRs should describe what needs to change more broadly (along with elements of why and how).
There’s overlap here, no question. But if the two lists look identical, something may have gone wrong in this step.
2) Set achievable milestones and goals to reach
Your OKR objectives should find the right balance. On the one hand, they need to be inspirational and motivational, aggressive enough to challenge your team to greater performance. On the other hand, they also need to be at least potentially achievable.
Push too far, and you’ll demotivate your team (“We’ve got no chance of meeting that OKR!”). But be sure to push far enough that “business as usual” won’t achieve success on its own.
Once you determine the right milestones and goals, note them in your OKR software or project management tool.
3) Document your OKRs and make them transparent for the whole team
The OKR creation process should be transparent and collaborative. Team members should be empowered to provide input. The elements of each OKR should be widely understood, and there should be no mystery about how they were set or determined.
This collaborative element can be a challenge, especially with remote teams. But it’s absolutely worth the effort.
Also, be sure to document your OKRs in a central, accessible location. Everyone should be able to return to them and view them at any point. As you set up a central location, make sure you can track progress on KRs within that same platform.
If you work closely with clients, you may even consider looping in key clients to the OKR development process. This won’t make sense in every industry, but it can be a powerful strategy for showing your clients how serious you are about their growth and performance.
Working this closely with clients brings its own challenges, especially around keeping information organized and accessible — and getting what you need from clients within a reasonable timeframe. Client management software can help here. See how Teamwork transforms the client management process.
4) Track and monitor progress throughout the quarter
Last, set up the systems, processes, and real-time data collection needed to track the progress of each OKR throughout the quarter. Tracking project tasks is already second nature to project managers (and is one reason why they are so important to most businesses of a certain size). Adding another element or layer of tracking shouldn’t be too much trouble. Just remember what we mentioned back in step 1: Most everything maps one to one from projects to OKRs.
Most key results are incremental or measurable, and many can even be mapped to a percentage-based progress bar. Seeing demonstrable progress toward a goal or objective can be a huge motivator for many team members. Showing that progress means tracking whatever metrics or milestones go into it.
Of course, tracking this kind of data requires the right tools. Project management software from Teamwork is the perfect location to store this data and perform this tracking. Check out Teamwork’s OKR template here.
3 OKR project management examples
If you’re looking for inspiration on how you might incorporate OKRs into your project managementworkflows, here are a few project management OKR examples that demonstrate how OKRs work in this discipline.
Bear in mind that OKRs must be tailored to your company's culture, needs, and organizational goals if they’re going to be effective. The examples below are just that: examples. If you’re more involved in task management or product management, you may need to adjust these significantly to fit your context.
And the percentages and dollar figures may be wildly off from your business’s scale and current operations, so feel free to adjust as you see fit. Here we’re only demonstrating the OKR methodology, not telling you exactly how to use it with your project teams.
Let’s start with a common objective near and dear to every project manager’s heart: on-time delivery.
Objective: Deliver 95% of projects on time
This objective is fairly straightforward. A timeframe — usually either a quarter or a year — is implied and doesn’t need to be stated within each objective as long as everyone involved understands your organization’s OKR cycle.
With an objective like this, it’s safe to assume the organization or department has not reached 95% yet. This is a stretch goal that should push the team beyond what it is currently achieving.
Reduce bottlenecks/work stoppages by 20%.
Minimize the time spent on projects by 15%.
Decrease resource conflict from 40% to 20%.
Each of these KRs supports on-time project delivery, and we assume in this example that the math is pretty solid. In other words, achieving these key results makes it extremely likely that your team will also achieve the objective.
One weakness of these KRs is that, while they can be measured and tracked, showing incremental progress is a little bit muddled. Visible incremental progress is a great tool for motivating your team, but using it isn’t a hard-and-fast requirement.
Objective: Improve project budget management
We’ve kept this objective general because we don’t know how you need to improve project budget management. You’d certainly want to give this a little more heft or context in real life: “Improve project budget management to reduce overspending” might work, or you could get more specific than just “improve” using real-world data from your last OKR cycle.
Achieve an average project budget variance below $3,000.
Reduce budget iterations from 10 to seven.
Audit five projects to identify common areas of overspending.
These key results highlight areas of weakness in our fictional company’s project budget management. It’s safe to assume on KR #1 that the average right now is higher, perhaps considerably so. KR #2 tells you exactly what happened in the last budget and where we need to get this time. And KR #3 addresses the elephant in the room: Fixing budget management requires knowing the top spots where spending exceeds the budget.
Objective: Optimize project effectiveness
Here again, the objective is simple and straightforward, but you’ll want to add more specifics to it to fit your context. What does project effectiveness look like in your business? Why does it need optimizing?
“Optimize project effectiveness by reducing errors and non-billable hours” gets a lot more specific, letting everyone on the team know exactly what areas need optimizing.
Increase training and research hours from 15 hours to 20 hours.
Decrease the number of unplanned change requests from three to zero.
Keep billable utilization hours between 20 and 30 hours.
The key results all contribute well to the objective: More training and research should reduce errors and build synergy. Keeping change requests from stakeholders out of the picture keeps the project on track. And improving billable utilization hours brings in more money if you’re a service firm.
We’ll wrap up our project management OKR examples here, but there’s plenty more to explore. If you’re looking for more examples of OKRs, our OKR examples article has plenty to consider (including organizational OKRs).
For even more OKR goodness, feel free to check out the examples at What Matters with John Doerr, the utmost authority on OKRs. Their database includes real-world OKRs that businesses and government agencies have used in previous OKR cycles.
Track and manage your project managementOKRs with Teamwork
Transitioning your team or organization to an OKR framework is a big undertaking. Doing it while also juggling traditional project management responsibilities? That can feel like a lot.
One smart way to mitigate the challenge of tracking and managing both is to step up to a project management tool that can handle both.
With Teamwork underpinning your project management and OKR tracking efforts, you’ll have all your project data in the same place as the metrics and KPIs feeding your objectives and KRs. No more juggling multiple apps and spreadsheets — everything lives in one streamlined, centralized hub.
Simplify your OKR creation and tracking processes by using Teamwork’s OKR template. Check it out now and get started with Teamwork for free today!