How relevant context will help you achieve more of your OKRs

A brown fence with a sign pointing to the right with the words "this way"
Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash

One of the main reasons Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) have become so popular is that they help unleash the creative power of teams by not prescribing what they should do, but instead focusing on what they need to accomplish – the objective. But just an objective, and a few key results, won’t tell the story of Why the objective is important. And without understanding the Why, teams and individuals won’t get truly engaged.

Of course, the objective has been carefully selected to take the company closer to its vision by being a step in the company strategy, and is also in line with company principles. In my experience though, these things aren’t internalized by most employees and very few will take the time to find the strategy document and sit down to make sure they understand the connections between the strategy and the OKR in front of them. To make things even more complicated, sometimes the OKR might not actually be so related to the strategy, because something urgent came up that needed to be dealt with – like new regulation or a sudden shift in the market.

An example to show the complexity of a product strategy. Probably not something many will have top-of-mind when reading the latest OKR. From Tim Herbig’s free lesson on how to create a product strategy.

All of the above conspires to rob OKRs of their most powerful trait: they enable teams to be innovative and come up with creative ways to solve problems. How? Because the people reading the OKR don’t have the same helicopter perspective of the situation as the people that wrote it. This means they might struggle to understand the Why and, as a result, won’t become as engaged as they could.

This is where relevant context comes in. Along with the OKR, there should be an easy-to-comprehend summary of the factors that were critical in choosing the current objective. Your goal should be that when someone has read the summary, the OKR should feel obvious and important.

Your goal should be that when someone has read the summary, the OKR should feel obvious and important.

Relevant context is especially important when using the aligning OKRs method (in contrast to cascading), where each level of OKRs are based on the intent of the level above (or even two levels above). Jeff Gothelf recently identified “Access to information remains scarce or opaque” as one thing to watch out for when implementing OKRs in a company. When relevant context summaries become part of your OKR-creating process, you’re making critical information accessible to those that need it.

What is relevant context?

A proper company strategy takes many things into account: the market, the competition, knowledge level of workers, regulation, technology, trends, politics etc. Some of these things will be well understood by most of the people in the company, since they are stable and/or come naturally. Others, however, are not so easy to grasp and may also be new developments. That core of that information, and the conclusions drawn from it, are what should be presented in the relevant context document (given they are a factor in the creation of the OKR).

What will be considered relevant depends on if you are at the team, unit, area or business level. But some things are also relevant regardless of the level you are at. The really broad strokes of why the company has decided to go in one direction or the other is probably relevant for all employees. These big, directional statements should be kept as short and to the point as possible to minimize the potential for them to be misunderstood or glossed over.

Once the relevant-for-all items have been included, it’s time to consider what is relevant for the audience at the level that the OKRs are intended for. When using aligning OKRs, each level of the organization is expected to make up their own mind as to what is a good OKR (or OKR-set) for them, in order to support the intent of the level(s) above. The relevant context for your level is a summary of the analysis done to build your OKRs, including the conclusions you have drawn.

The relevant context for your level is a summary of the analysis done to build your OKRs, including the conclusions you have drawn.

The process of understanding the context, intent and OKRs at the levels above, as well as analyzing and drawing conclusions from the situation at your current level, should repeat at each level of the organization. This will help build engaged and creative teams.

What can a relevant context document look like?

The exact headers will be different for each company and market, but for each topic, you should present a few key facts and, critically, also the conclusions you have drawn from those facts. As an example, let’s consider a fictional company in the SMB software business, and more specifically “Team mobile reporting” inside the reporting unit.

The document starts with insights and conclusions around customers, competitors, and their own staffing and tech/ux debt, before ending with higher level OKRs within the company.

Customer insights

“Although we sell hand-made jewelry, we’ve understood that we are also an IT business and if we don’t shift to integrated solutions we won’t be able to live up to our customers’ expectations.”

  • Many of our customers need to learn the digital commerce game, and go omnichannel long-term
  • Customers want to build on what they have, rather than starting over.
    → There is an opportunity to strengthen the relationship with existing customers, helping them navigate an unknown world and upsell on our existing offer.

Competition and our market

Acme co.: Have a very similar offer to ours but are not expected to have the marketing muscle to reach out to their customer base in a meaningful way.

→ Might become vulnerable if we can get the word going of how helpful we are.

VWD inc.: Are doing education very well already and have a loyal customer base. They lack a few key features but rumors are that they might expand through acquisitions.

→ Have a hard sell to more omni-minded customers but could become a strong competitor in a year or two.

Business area and team status

During the last quarter we have completed our work to increase uptime of our services. We are still only at 85% staffing levels in the area, but our team is looking good at 94%.

→ We have a stable base to build on but will have to choose carefully due to lack of some critical competences.

Company and unit OKRs

The intent of the company is to primarily grow the existing user base through up-selling and decreased churn. The intent of our business unit is to market our integrations and automation features to the top 15% of our existing customers.

Team mobile reporting OKRs Q2 2023

O1: Launch more engaging reporting content on our public website before end of Q2 2023:

  • KR1.1: 10% increase in sign-up from reporting pages
  • KR1.2: 5% decreased churn in 3-month cohort 

O2: Help existing customers get more impact and value from our reporting by Q3 2023:

  • KR2.1: 15% increased completion of advanced-filtering onboarding
  • KR2.2: 30% reduction in average time to successful filter result

In this example you can see how the customer insights are guiding all levels of the company to focus on existing customers. The team is also being true to the intent of the business unit by setting OKRs that will improve both the product marketing and the in-app guidance.

Getting started

In this article I have presented relevant context summaries as an approach to make teams more likely to grasp the context of the situation. That will help them internalize the Why and, as a consequence, be more creative and engaged when working towards achieving the OKRs.

What is your experience from providing context to teams when working with OKRs? I would love to hear what you have learned and what is working for you.

In part II about relevant context, I will dive deeper into how to build the actual context document. How to turn facts into conclusions.