A product strategy is made up of a lot of different moving parts that make up the overall direction of your product. You start with a solid product vision that includes your market plan and opportunity, customer and industry analysis, and product positioning. Then, you craft some product goals everyone can get behind.
Your product goals, whether they’re business goals, team goals or operational goals, can’t leave room for doubt or misinterpretation. They should be a set of clear and specific objectives with measurable and achievable expectations.
Product managers use different methods to specify, measure and deliver goals. Some PMs use different methods at the same time, depending on the needs the team has. Systems like MBO (Management By Objectives), KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable/action-oriented) and North Star metrics work well depending on the types of goals.
There’s one methodology that works well across all types of product goals: the OKR method. OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) give you and your team a measurable success strategy. After all, having a great product strategy means nothing if you don’t define exactly how you’ll carry it out.
“The thing that I saw at Google that I definitely have applied at Twitter are OKRs - Objectives and Key Results. Those are a great way to help everyone in the company understand what’s important and how you’re going to measure what’s important. It’s essentially a great way to communicate strategy and how you’re going to measure strategy. And that’s how we try to use them. As you grow a company, the single hardest thing to scale is communication. It’s remarkably difficult. OKRs are a great way to make sure everyone understands how you’re going to measure success and strategy.”
-Former CEO of Twitter Dick Costolo, on what he learned during his time at Google and how he applied it at Twitter.
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The OKR method for setting product goals
OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results where the objectives are the outcomes you’d like to see, and the key results are the things you’ll do to get there. The method was first introduced by John Doerr during his time at Google.
Today, the method is still used by Google, and it’s been adopted by companies like Linkedin, Twitter and Intel. Most of the PMs we’ve spoken to have either used it in the past or are currently deploying OKRs at some level within the company (business goals, team goals or operational goals).
In John Doerr's own words, OKRs are for high-functioning software teams and companies that “need timely, relevant data. To track their progress. To measure what matters.” And what matters, in this case, is the product strategy.
The OKR method works well as a tool for defining, tracking and measuring the success of product goals. It’s not a silver bullet, however. You need to have a healthy company culture in place—where OKRs fit as a tool to funnel everyone’s efforts seamlessly towards the right product goals—before you can rely on OKRs.
When properly designed and deployed, they’re a vaccine against fuzzy thinking—and fuzzy execution
Objectives should be:
- Owned by each member of the team. This means that objectives can’t be dependent on other people or teams in order to be delivered. Unless everyone’s agreed previously on what the shared priorities and objectives are, objectives shouldn’t be defined without taking this into consideration
- Deadline-bound. Whether your team prefers to work on a month-by-month basis, or a quarterly basis, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the deadlines remain realistic and fair to everyone’s scope of efforts
- Aspirational and inspirational. Objectives should inspire and motivate the product team. They should be a bit challenging and push everyone to come up with the right key results that will bring success
On the other end of the equation, your key results should be:
- Quantifiable. What will mark the moment you’ve achieved an objective? How will you mark those efforts that bring you closer to those objectives? There’s no limit to the number of key results you can have for an objective, but each and every KR should contribute to the objective in some measurable way
- Explicit. It should get into the fine-grain details of the metrics to be monitored and the targets and benchmarks to be achieved
- Housed in a monitoring dashboard. There are OKR monitoring tools for both startups and enterprise-level products like Zenkit, Weekdone and Betterworks that include easy on-boarding and tactical support for implementing it across an organization with multiple teams and stakeholders.
Here’s an example of a good OKR:
Objective: Triple average weekly sessions on mobile by the end of February
QA all mobile functions
Improve loading time by 40%
Add one new integration to the mobile version
The OKR method does a few good things for product teams:
- It inspires everyone to constantly revise their goals and how they fit within the overall product strategy
- It breaks down the goals into achievable objectives, tasks and efforts. That way, there’s no room for working on the wrong initiatives that set your product on the wrong path (fuzzy thinking)
- It facilitates team collaboration and discussion when it’s time to set those achievable objectives tasks and efforts. This promotes accountability, and it helps your team feel like their goals are moving them closer towards fulfilling the product strategy.
A key result is not a task or a to-do item on a long list of things that work towards achieving your objectives. They’re tangible outcomes and outputs with hard figures and measurements that speak for themselves. When a result delivers a real, observable impact, you can feel confident that the tactics you and your team put in your roadmap will result in the outcomes that will propel the product towards success.
And not just any success, but the success that aligns with your product vision and mission statement.
Common OKR pitfalls to avoid
It’s easy to define what OKRs should be. The real challenge comes when it’s time to implement this methodology across a large product team or company. Some of the difficulties faced by product managers who use the OKR method are summed up below.
Too many OKRs
What’s the difference between OKRs and a basic laundry list? OKRs should be your top priorities for the quarter. When you deviate from that, you’re left with a pile of stuff that isn’t necessarily the most important set of deliverables for a quarter.
Mixing up results with a list of tasks
By definition, your OKRs are meant to measure whether or not your initiatives are adding value towards achieving the product strategy. If your objectives are nothing but tasks to be completed that don’t really add towards that idealized, ambitious outcome, then they have to be redefined.
Another useful way to think about tasks is that they’re the efforts the team will carry out to achieve the objectives. Tasks are the granular means towards achieving the objectives, not the objectives themselves.
Keeping OKRs in a silo
There are a few issues with keeping OKRs isolated. The first is that there’s no alignment or agreement around the definition of what makes a good objective. There’s also a chance that some KRs could be redundant because multiple people are setting the same objectives.
Keeping OKRs in a silo also results in a lack of alignment and accountability among everyone.
Low effort Key Results
One common pitfall that PMs face when it’s time to define OKR is that not too much of an effort is put in the KR part. In some cases, they’re set for the sake of complimenting the objective, rather than being actionable and complete measures on their own.
Key results need to be as valuable as the objectives. They need to define initiatives that will describe exactly what needs to be done to achieve the objectives. On top of that, key results can’t be qualitative because there’s no way to track and measure whether the goal is being met or not.
Why OKRs can’t replace a roadmap
A product roadmap is an organizational tool that communicates a statement of intent rather than a list of outputs.
Within your product roadmap, the items act as the tasks that contribute towards achieving a few things, namely the objectives in your OKRs and the overall product goals. A product roadmap can act as a tool to define those tactical requirements and features that will contribute towards the overall product strategy.
In terms of being a communication tool, a roadmap is a great way to foster visibility on the status of where these efforts stand. That way, no one feels left out or clueless about where the efforts of each team are being placed.
Overall, you don’t have to choose one over the other. OKRs and roadmaps serve specific purposes towards achieving those product-specific goals your team is striving towards. For example, in a company that’s at its growth stage, where there’s a ton of feature development and addressing customer and client demands, product teams need a tool (the roadmap) to align all of the different OKRs that come up during that process.
Ready to start building your own product roadmap? Try our ready-to-use product roadmap template.