Moving from output to outcome focus with OKRs - Best practice tips
We are all so used to having task lists, and ticking off items as we go. In fact, it's not uncommon to dump all of your ideas into a list and by the time you are working through it, you forgot why it was on the list in the first place.
This is where an outcome focus fits into the OKR mix. With the influx and growth of project management platforms, have we lost sight of the 'why'?
As this small tweak seems to be a stumbling block for many companies starting out on their OKR journeys, we asked 20+ experts in the OKR space for their top tips.
Nikhil Maini, Global OKR Coach, OKR International
Here are 3 simple ways to do so!
𝗞𝗲𝘆 𝗥𝗲𝘀𝘂𝗹𝘁𝘀 𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝗮 𝗺𝗲𝗮𝘀𝘂𝗿𝗲 𝗼𝗳 𝘀𝘂𝗰𝗰𝗲𝘀𝘀 (outcome). 𝗜𝗻𝗶𝘁𝗶𝗮𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗲𝘀 𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝘄𝗶𝗹𝗹 𝗱𝗼 𝘁𝗼 𝗮𝗰𝗵𝗶𝗲𝘃𝗲 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝘀 𝘀𝘂𝗰𝗰𝗲𝘀𝘀 (output).
𝘞𝘩𝘪𝘭𝘦 𝘢 𝘒𝘙 𝘩𝘦𝘭𝘱𝘴 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘢𝘯𝘴𝘸𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘲𝘶𝘦𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯: '𝘏𝘰𝘸 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘐 𝘬𝘯𝘰𝘸 𝘐 𝘩𝘢𝘷𝘦 𝘢𝘳𝘳𝘪𝘷𝘦𝘥 𝘢𝘵 𝘮𝘺 𝘖𝘣𝘫𝘦𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘦? (outcome)', 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘐𝘯𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘸𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘢𝘯𝘴𝘸𝘦𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘲𝘶𝘦𝘴𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯: '𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘸𝘪𝘭𝘭 𝘐 𝘥𝘰 𝘵𝘰 𝘨𝘦𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦?' (output)
𝗞𝗲𝘆 𝗥𝗲𝘀𝘂𝗹𝘁𝘀 𝗰𝗼𝗻𝘁𝗮𝗶𝗻 𝗮 𝗺𝗲𝘁𝗿𝗶𝗰/𝗞𝗣𝗜 𝗮𝗹𝗼𝗻𝗴 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝗮 𝘁𝗮𝗿𝗴𝗲𝘁 (𝗮𝗺𝗼𝘂𝗻𝘁 & 𝘁𝗶𝗺𝗲𝗹𝗶𝗻𝗲). 𝗜𝗻𝗶𝘁𝗶𝗮𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗲𝘀 𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝗽𝗿𝗼𝗷𝗲𝗰𝘁𝘀, 𝘁𝗮𝘀𝗸𝘀 𝗼𝗿 𝗮𝗰𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗶𝘁𝗶𝗲𝘀 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝘄𝗶𝗹𝗹 𝘂𝗻𝗱𝗲𝗿𝘁𝗮𝗸𝗲 𝗶𝗻 𝗼𝗿𝗱𝗲𝗿 𝘁𝗼 𝗴𝗲𝘁 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗿𝗲𝘀𝘂𝗹𝘁.
𝘐𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘦𝘹𝘢𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦 “𝘐𝘯𝘤𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘴𝘦 𝘕𝘗𝘚 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 40 𝘵𝘰 55 𝘪𝘯 𝘘1”, 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘕𝘗𝘚 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘦𝘵𝘳𝘪𝘤 𝘢𝘯𝘥 40 𝘵𝘰 55 𝘪𝘯 𝘘1 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘵𝘢𝘳𝘨𝘦𝘵. This collectively is the outcome you desire. This outcome and a collection of it (3 to 5) will help you get to your Objective. Don’t get swayed with a number alone - just because you have a number doesn't always mean it’s a KR.
𝗞𝗲𝘆 𝗥𝗲𝘀𝘂𝗹𝘁𝘀 𝘂𝘀𝘂𝗮𝗹𝗹𝘆 𝗳𝗼𝗰𝘂𝘀 𝗼𝗻 𝗮𝗻 𝗼𝘂𝘁𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗲 𝗼𝗿 𝘃𝗮𝗹𝘂𝗲 𝗱𝗲𝘀𝗶𝗿𝗲𝗱 𝗮𝘁 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗲𝗻𝗱. 𝗜𝗻𝗶𝘁𝗶𝗮𝘁𝗶𝘃𝗲𝘀 𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝗮 𝗺𝗲𝗮𝗻𝘀 𝘁𝗼 𝘁𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝗲𝗻𝗱.
𝘈𝘯 𝘐𝘯𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘴𝘶𝘤𝘩 𝘢𝘴 “𝘞𝘢𝘭𝘬 𝘧𝘰𝘳 30 𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘶𝘵𝘦𝘴 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘺 𝘥𝘢𝘺 ” 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 output 𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘥𝘦𝘴𝘪𝘳𝘦𝘴. 𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘴 output 𝘤𝘰𝘶𝘭𝘥 𝘣𝘦 𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘦𝘢𝘯𝘴 𝘵𝘰 𝘢𝘤𝘩𝘪𝘦𝘷𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘒𝘦𝘺 𝘙𝘦𝘴𝘶𝘭𝘵 (outcome) ‘𝘓𝘰𝘴𝘦 2 𝘪𝘯𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘴 𝘪𝘯 3 𝘮𝘰𝘯𝘵𝘩𝘴”.
Sandra Pretzer, OKR Trainer & Coach
It’s very common for teams to create more of a to-do list when planning their OKRs. We’re used to having to -dos, tasks, activities etc. and it feels SO GOOD to cross them off our list, doesn’t it? Oh, beloved dopamine!
There’s nothing wrong with having to-dos, activities etc. it’s just not the right level when defining Objectives and Key Results. It doesn’t tell you whether what you’re creating is actually offering any value. You could e.g. build a dozen (in your point of view) amazing product features (= output) yet nobody ever uses them (= outcome). Have you reached your goal in that case or not?
What we want to focus on is the change in behaviour that we want to see from customers / partners / colleagues. Questions that might help here:
- What change in behaviour do we need to see to validate the experiment we want to run?
- If you e.g. create this feature / concept / etc. what do you want people to do with it?
- What do you really want to achieve with this?
- What could be the earliest feedback that you can measure?
- How do we know that we’ve actually changed something?
Every time you catch yourself or the team you’re coaching stopping at the output stage, try one of those questions to get to the outcome level.
Madeleine Silva, OKR Coach & Trainer
As an OKR Coach, first, we should help the team to understand why we should work with outcome focus and make them understand the value of being oriented by outcome key results.
After that, during the process, the following questions might help:
- After finishing this task what indicator has changed. Which goes up or which goes down?
- How do you know that you are going to have success?
- Which indicator is the best to help you understand that you have achieved your goal?
If you are an OKR coach I recommend that you set this criteria at the beginning of the deployment.
Furthermore, you can ask the company if during the implementation you can challenge the team and put them to the test, to be oriented towards the outcome or if they accept to set milestone key results.
Sienam Lulla, OKR Coach, OKR Edge
Simply put, it takes time but we all eventually get it. Our collective subconscious has been shaped by the 'work hard' philosophy and top-down management reinforces that the longer you grind at work, the more it's appreciated. So we have defaulted to measuring how much work we produced as proof of our hustle instead of what was the measurable outcome and what was the impact of it.
The key change required for an organisation to be outcome-focused is in the behaviour of leadership and people managers. When the messaging is "we don't care how when you clocked in and out or where you worked out of - office or home, how much you moved the needle on the achievement of your team goals and company goals is what matters". So stop micromanaging.
Adopting OKRs helps tremendously but I see many organisations and teams fail when the objective itself is the delivery of a process or project or a vague statement.
O: CRM tool integration completed. Mmm. No. That's an output. Ask yourselves - what is the value created by using it? That's the outcome you want your objective to communicate.
It is equally possible to go wrong in key results
New objective- Significantly Improve customer experience with the use of a new CRM tool
KR- 100% of deal flows are on the CRM tool
Same problem. The output may be that every customer now receives all communication through the CRM but what measurable change tells you customer experience is better? Reduction in churn? There you go- that's your outcome
Allan Kelly, Agile OKR Coach & Author
Keep the end customer in sight. Even if you can’t get to an external paying customer, think about how the outcome adds to the organisation proposition.
Ask who will benefit from this, who wants this? What will happen if this is not achieved? And how will it make a difference if it is?
What you are looking for is something other than “more stuff” - you want to see the purpose of the organisation advanced.
Natalija Hellesoe, Organisational Dev Coach & OKR Expert
The shift from output to outcome needs to be something the team (organisation) actually wants to achieve, because it is RELEVANT for THEM. So first, the people involved need to understand the difference between output and outcome, why it matters, and find a way to translate the difference to their daily business to make it tangible.
One key question to ask is: How do we measure success? Once they make a decision that they WANT to shift more towards outcome based OKR Sets, it takes time and practice and will not happen overnight. Here OKR Coaches can play an important role to support the journey and give guidance, by challenging Output Key Results and facilitating discussions around how to measure a change in behaviour instead of listing to-dos.
Tomek Dabrowski, OKR & Agile Coach
Challenge yourself with powerful questions to find values behind output:
- What changes do I expect after being successful with this output?
- What would be the result of this output?
- Why is it important to focus on this output?
- What would happen if I didn’t create this output?
Felix Handler, OKR & Sustainability Coach
Think about changed customer behaviour and how to measure it. The customer can also be colleagues (if you have internal OKR) and focus on learning what they want, not manipulation or marketing. This way it cannot be an output. You want to have quality results instead of short-term ones. Ask what success really means for you and how you can see it.
Monica Batsleer, Senior Partner of OKR Matrix
We usually use some questions to help groups to find a good outcome.
For example: "If we are successful with output X, what results will we get?"
Another provocative question for each output is "So what? What value will it bring?"
The insights and answers shared by the group will contribute to the outcomes and strong KRs
Mukom Tamon, Chief Excellence Officer
Start with “Why”
It’s not natural for frontline teams to start with why.
It’s more natural to start with the things they do ie tasks.
If they graduate from tasks, the logical step up is outputs.
To help the team get to outcomes and impact from outputs and tasks, simply ask "So what" or Why".
- Activity → ["so what?" or “why?”]→ Output
- Output → ["so what?" or “why?”]→ Outcome
- Outcome → ["so what?" or “why?”]→ Impact
Give them a Key Results Quality Matrix like this one for guidance.
- Don’t tolerate the red zone,
- Avoid the yellow zone,
- Aim for the green zone
Christina Lange, OKR Coach & Speaker
- Find an example that fits your context and communicate it again, and again.
- Don’t be dogmatic and leave the “I know it all” attitude at home. Instead ask why e.g., Why do you want to count the calls made? And it will help people think in a more outcome-oriented way.
Richard Russell, OKR & Leadership Coach
Ask what you’re really trying to achieve - why are you creating that output.
Ask how you’d know if the output was good or not, or how your customers or stakeholders will assess the output.
If you’re still struggling, brainstorm what alternative outputs you could choose to do instead of this one, and this should help you understand what the real outcome is intended to be.
However, don’t obsess over perfecting your OKRs according to some rules in a book or on the internet. OKRs are about communicating with people, influencing their behaviour, and decision-making to help meet a shared goal. Write your OKRs with people in mind.
Cansel Sörgens, OKR Coach & Trainer
Moving from output to outcome is probably one of the biggest challenges for teams when they start with OKRs. In my experience, most of the time it is caused because teams haven’t visualised the (possible) actions of their target group (customers, clients, users, colleagues, etc.) yet. In such cases I facilitate Customer/User Journey workshops to increase their awareness about the actions and emotions of their target groups and the interactions they (plan to) have with them. Once they identified the touch points they can start measuring them. When a critical touchpoint performs badly, the team can think of initiatives, experiments (output), to improve it and start measuring how their output actually resonate with their target group (outcome) by measuring the respective touchpoint.
Elie Casamitjana, Founder & CEO, OKRmentors
Moving from output to outcome is essential to empower teams to connect with the value they create and prioritise what they do in the most result-oriented way. That is where Key Results are foundational. They will help teams to define what value they want to deliver, where and how to measure it. For example, to become a leader in Spain, an organisation has to do a lot of things. But how will they measure they are successful? By bringing a certain number of customers? Or reaching a certain turnover? The Key Result(s) will help become more outcome-driven. Yet it is a journey as many teams and individuals have been thinking about activities and tasks for many years. So, when defining Key Results, it is good to always ask oneself if this is (or can be more) customer-centric and addresses clearly enough the value delivered. If that is not the case, various exercises can help move from output to outcomes. One of them that is very simple to implement is The 5 Why’s.
Thomaz Ribas, OKR Trainer
When I introduce the concept of outcomes to leaders, I usually ask them to evaluate the last 10 initiatives that the company delivered in the last 6 to 12 months and try to identify what results those initiatives generated. Most leaders can’t tell. Being more aware that delivering all projects (outputs) does not guarantee success is a good start.
Moreover, we can inspire ourselves with Toyota’s “Five Why’s” tool. Instead of using it to look for root causes of problems, we can ask “Why” to a project or initiative until discovering its outcomes. The answers to these “Why’s” must be a benefit to the business or clients (outcomes). If you can’t reach any outcomes, you should consider aborting the initiative in the first place.
Omid Akhavan, OKR Coach
Simply ask these questions enough times:
- What is the intended outcome of doing this and how can we measure that?
- We are doing this in order to achieve what measurable results?
Carsten Ley, OKR Coach
Work outputs can be the first KR if necessary for the team in a 2-5 KR per Objective setting. However, it is necessary to ask the Why & Benefit question? E.g. Why are rolling out this training? What is the benefit for the company or for customers by implementing this new IT tool or feature? Why do we need to reach 10 M USD profit? The answer will guide you to the real outcome or impact key result of this objective
Bart Den Haak, OKR Consultant & OKR Author
OKRs won’t help you move from output to outcomes overnight. It’s a cultural problem that needs to be addressed first.
Start by asking questions about the value delivery of the project or features you released recently. What result did they provide to the business? What human behaviours changed by finishing them?
Without jumping on the OKR bandwagon too soon, start first by filling out the hypothesis template for every project or feature you’re about to start. I like to use the one described Barry O'Reilly:
We believe <this capability/project/feature>
Will result in <this outcome>
We will have the confidence to proceed when <we see a measurable signal>
In my book Moving the Needle with Lean OKRs I explain more about using hypotheses to move the needle of your OKRs.
Jean-Luc Koning, OKR & Systemic Coach
Have you already dealt with people who mistake action for results? What a plague.
You ask them to give a call to client X in order to get some particular information and you come back three days later only to realize that they have indeed called the client even several times but since the client was unreachable they could not get the piece of information you were looking for in the first place…
Instead of being action-oriented, you would have them be result-oriented. Actually you don’t care whether they have called the client or not. The aim was to get the info by any means necessary.
This is exactly the same when dealing with strategy. You don’t want to focus on the output (means, actions) but on the outcome (aim, objective, result).
One way for doing this is to shift the logic and think in terms of impact. Where do you want to have the most impact?
Answering these questions will drive you to move from output to outcome focus.
Brett Knowles, Global OKR Coach & Consultant
Although initially challenging, once teams have learned the magic of stating objectives with a note come Focus, they realize the value of this approach and are prickly able to self-police and maintain that standard. here are some guidelines we use to help our clients learn how to develop outcome-oriented objectives:
- Answer the question “What is the benefit of what I do for my customers?” (Remember, for support functions such as human resources, finance, and IT, your customers are internal to the organisation.)
- Consider what you do from your customer's perspective - they do not understand the tasks and activities your team does, all they understand is the benefit they get from your hard work.
- Sometimes if you think about it in terms of “What with my customer pay for?” you will end up discovering the root benefit you offer
- The bottom-up approach is to look at the work you do and ask yourself the question “Why do I do this task?”. Keep on asking “Why” against each of you answers until you reach the right level for your organisation. For example, let’s think about a software salesperson. In this example let's say, we've set a key result of completing five calls a day. Why #1: “Why do I need to make 5 calls a day?” Answer #1: To maintain a health sales pipeline. Why #2: “Why do I need a healthy sales pipeline?” Answer: To ensure we have enough opportunities. Why #3 “Why do I need enough opportunities?” Answer: To hit my sales target. Why#4: “Why do I need to hit my sales target?” Answer: To makes sure we meet our prospects needs for our functionality. From this you could create the outcome focused objective “Meet the needs for our product in my territory”
Walter G Ferrer, Transformation Expert
- Make sure you have a refreshed taxonomy that limits acronyms and responds to the current org journey and be that quick reference point - this is important in larger organisations where “interpretations” (i.e. objective, goal, strategic vs operational) can vary, and helps sustain effective communications and by extension engagement.
- I call it the O2 inventory – it’s a running list of awakening moments that guide stakeholders with examples (ideally by functions). Focus on the problem yet call it an opportunity, Ultimately, this serves as the foundation of an ‘OKR knowledge base’.
- Talk about it frequently. Check-ins are important, yet not time-consuming, no more than 15-mins
Nora Pfützenreuter, Agile Coach
1. When creating the objectives, I give the teams a structure, consisting of 3 “building blocks”: WHO (customer/ who benefits?), FUTURE STATE (how does the situation look like after the OKR cycle?), and VALUE (why will the customer love you for reaching your goal?).
2. For the Key Results I ask the teams: which change of behaviour or in a system will you be able to perceive, that shows you, you are on the right way? Another way is to ask “WHY?” when teams are supposing activities as Key Results. For example: “Conducting 10 OKR-trainings” is output. WHY are we doing it? “People are more knowledgeable about OKRs” is the outcome. There we are.
Andreea Havrișciuc, OKR Coach
At least once, everyone in the OKR world had what could be considered „the most important talk”: output or outcome?.
In my opinion, the value is in both and I paraphrase the Agile Manifesto to express it:
While there is value in outputs, we value outcomes more.
Why? Because it has the customer at the center, not only us.
Output is good, it means results. Outcome is better, it means results with higher purpose. You produce results, having the customer’s best interests at the center.
- Fall in love: Fall in love with your customer’s problem, break up with the solutions you might love too much
- Get to know the significant other: Ask your customer for feedback early on and integrate it in your work
- Pop the question: Ask yourself WHY am I doing this? What is the value I am creating? Who benefits from it?
Ronaldo Menezes, OKR Coach
- When you describe your objectives, keep in mind to answer the following question: “Where do I want to go with this objective?”
- For your key results always start them with a one action (increase, maintain, achieve or reduce) looking to better a metric(a know kpi, for example) starting for a baseline, looking for achieve a target. Start with the basics!
- When you look for your key-results, answer yourself: “The success of this key results will help to achieve my objective?”
- When you look your key-results, ask yourself: “The success of this key results will help to achieve my objective?”