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The Power of Leading Key Results

Without a doubt, the most frequent comment I hear from organizations that have attempted to create OKRs on their own is this: “This isn’t as easy as it seems!” OKRs are a deceptively simple framework, but, of course, simple does not mean simplistic.

Crafting effective and technically-sound OKRs requires strategic insight, creativity, and good old-fashioned hard work. One issue that frequently surfaces early on in OKRs implementations is the challenge of measuring things that feature a long lead time between actions and intended outcomes.

Think, for example, of pharmaceutical companies. In most cases, they’re striving toward a business impact key result of breakthrough sales from a new blockbuster drug. However, the drug will likely be in the development pipeline for years, only to be followed by more time navigating the byzantine government approval process. In this case, measuring business impact in the cadence often associated with OKRs (typically 90 days) is virtually impossible.

A real-life example

Take this example that was recently shared by a client of ours. One of the departments creating OKRs in this company was Government Relations. Their top priority is simple: lobbying the U.S. Congress to pass legislation favorable to their industry and company. The client wants to influence the decision-making process in that legislative body to ultimately see success in the form of an enacted bill. But we all know how government works: Bills aren’t passed overnight or even in the convenient space of a quarterly cycle. Let’s play this situation out in the form of an OKR. (I’ve kept the objective generic to protect the client’s identity.)

Objective: Lobby Congress in order to have new legislation passed that is favorable to our company

Key Results:

  • Lobby each member for 5 hours
  • Bill is passed by x date

The problem with the second key result is the “x date” as it will most likely be many months, well beyond a quarter, into the future. If the company insists on using quarterly OKRs, how can the Government Relations department come up with a suitable key result? This is where the power of leading key results enters the picture. A leading key result is one that you feel holds predictive power, and will in fact “lead to” the desired business impact key result. In the example above, having the bill passed is the business impact. The question to ask now is this: What could lead to, or drive, that key result? 

Leading key results

In virtually all cases, the key results you craft are in pursuit of influencing behavior, whether that of a customer, stakeholder, or, in this case, the members of Congress you’re actively lobbying. In other words, your quest is to somehow have people do something that’s ultimately beneficial to you. Again, for this Government Relations department, it’s seeing Congress pass favorable legislation. Since that will take significant time, you must challenge yourself to determine what will lead to, or drive that behavior, and this is where you’ll exercise visioning and creativity to determine an appropriate leading key result. 

There is a space between the action of lobbying and the bill being passed. It’s in that space that the leading key result resides. Once the lobbying has been completed the question that must be asked is this: What would be indicative of those members at least leaning in your direction? Perhaps it could be “The number of follow up calls they place for clarification on your position.” Any observable behavior you can count that you believe is “driving” or “leading” to the outcome you desire can serve as an effective leading key result. Follow up calls from legislators isn’t a perfect or overly sophisticated key result, but that’s not the aim here. What you want is something that is indicative of success; something easily trackable that you can discuss as a team and take action upon if you’re not seeing the behaviors you want or need.

In this situation if you’ve lobbied your targeted members of Congress and haven’t heard a peep from those you knew going in were skeptical of your position, you have a problem, one that you must intervene. The leading key result serves as a forcing function — forcing assessment (have any Congressional members placed follow up calls?) and action (if they haven’t, we’ll follow up; if they have we’ll provide the necessary information). 

It’s a cliché seemingly as old as time itself, but it’s apt here: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In the absence of a timely business impact key result, lean on the power of leading key results to fill the execution gap.