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A Ritual for Better OKRs

How You Can Use Consistency to Prime Your Team for Success

OKRs experts often say “OKRs are simple, but not simplistic.” But what does it mean?

Here’s the simple part: The framework is lightweight, consisting of just two components. 

  • Component 1: The objective, which outlines your aspirational goal. 
  • Component 2: A set of key results, which measure the achievement of the objective. 

That is pretty simple. But where does the “not simplistic” part come in? 

Ask anyone who has attempted to create a technically sound and truly strategic OKR and they’ll quickly acknowledge it’s not a simplistic process at all. I, and many others, have written extensively on what it takes to write an effective OKR, so in this post I’m going to pivot from the technical aspects of OKR writing. Instead, I’m going to discuss another facet of the process that is definitely overlooked but has the potential to dramatically improve the efficacy of your OKRs. 

So where do we begin? On the shiny hardcourt floor of a professional basketball game of course. 

Rituals: More Than Superstition

Have you ever noticed that before basketball players attempt free throw shots they’ll almost always dribble the ball a specific number of times? Or they’ll gently run their hand across their forehead. Some even kiss the ball! While you may consider these routines nothing but silly superstitions with little real-world value, for our purposes we’ll re-label them as important rituals. Do they work? They sure do! One study of free throws found that players engaging in consistent rituals were 12.4% more accurate than when they deviated from their standard sequence of actions.

If you look closely you’ll find rituals everywhere, not just in sports. Beyonce prays and performs a fixed set of stretching exercises before she performs. Dr. Seuss wore a lucky hat whenever he felt a debilitating bout of writer’s block coming on. Beethoven, who relied heavily on caffeine to fuel his creativity, was said to count out exactly 60 beans for each precious cup of inspiration. It doesn’t matter how seemingly silly a ritual is, the mere act of following through with the behavior can drive a positive outcome, as one wonderfully bizarre experiment demonstrated. 

Researchers invited participants to perform a karaoke version of the Journey song, “Don’t Stop Believin.” To ensure their best efforts they were informed their pitch would be judged by karaoke software and they’d be given a bonus of up to $5 for a pitch-perfect version of the song. Before they performed, half the participants were provided with the following instructions:

Please do the following ritual: Draw a picture of how you are feeling right now. Sprinkle salt on your drawing. Count to five out loud. Crinkle up your paper. Throw your paper in the trash.

Obviously, following this ritual offered no direct benefit to the participants singing, but those that did it received scores that were on average 13 points out of a hundred higher than those who didn’t. Other experiments have come to the same conclusion: rituals work.  

As a quick aside, and very coincidentally, I had a “Don’t Stop Believin” ritual myself. Back in college, a good friend of mine had a state-of-the-art (for 1983) car stereo system. The unit featured a button labeled “Loudness” that, when pressed, would boost the bass and overall volume significantly. Whenever we drove to a dance or party that year it was our ritual to play “Don’t Stop Believin” as the last song before we arrived, and we always hit the loudness button at a certain point in the song to crank up the volume and bass. This ritual inevitably seemed to pump us up and put us in the mood to party. 

Rituals Can Drive Consistent Performance

Why are rituals so powerful? There are a couple of explanations. The first is an assumed belief you have additional control over a situation by following a standard routine, thereby lowering any anxiety you might feel. Rituals also lead us to have more faith in our mental reserves and our ability to maintain concentration and self-discipline. As a result, we can avoid distractions and persist longer. The very good news, as demonstrated by the variety of examples noted above, is that rituals can work in virtually any domain, including the creation of OKRs. 

For many organizations, and the teams and individuals that comprise the organization, setting OKRs is a new process, one that may benefit from the introduction of rituals. It doesn’t have to be wild and bizarre, like the drawing and salt sprinkling karaoke singers noted above. It just needs to be something that signals it’s time to think strategically, get creative, and generate OKRs that signal your contribution to success. It may be as simple as reviewing the company’s strategy to frame the discussion or reiterating your team’s mission and why your function in the organization is critical to success. Or maybe you do want to have some fun, sing a crazy song, draw a picture of what you envision happening in the next 90 days, or take a walk outside in the fresh air to generate inspiration. The point is, it’s not the specific action that matters, but the ritual itself, and the fact that it primes you for what comes next: creating OKRs.

Make OKRs Work for Your Team

Having worked with hundreds of organizations around the world, I can state unequivocally that establishing and effectively utilizing OKRs is not as easy as some would have you believe. Anything that can improve your chances of success, even if it seems “outside the lines,” deserves to be considered in your attempt to tilt the odds in your favor. So go ahead, adopt a ritual for the creation of OKRs, have some fun, and watch your results improve.