How the OKR Methodology Can Boost Your Daily and Long-Term Productivity in Student Affairs

Student affairs professionals have an encyclopedia-sized list of acronyms at their disposal, but they should add another: OKR.

These three little letters can make a world of a difference to your focus, drive, and professional development.

OKR stands for objectives and key results. Think of it as an enhanced goal-setting method or the sophisticated cousin of SMART goals or KPIs.

OKRs are frequently set, tracked, and re-evaluated. Like SMART goals, they’re specific and measurable. But, uniquely, OKRs foster alignment within a team, guiding every member along the same direction toward clear goals.

As a student affairs professional, your office or department is such a team. Or, if your institution is supportive and ambitious enough, you can expand the OKR methodology for use across the entire institution.

Teams at The City College of New York, Ohio University, and The University of California, Irvine all use OKRs. So do Google, LinkedIn, Airbnb, Intel, and many other well-known companies (including Presence).

image showing the names and logos of over two dozen companies that use OKRs, including Gap, Facebook, Spotify, Slack, and Eventbrite.

image from Weekdone

Interested in exploring the OKR methodology for yourself and your team?

Allow me to be your guide. I’ll explain how to establish your objectives and key results, plus how to track your progress toward achieving them and glean valuable insights from the end results.

But first, you must start from the top.

Starting from the top

In order to guide a team along the same path, OKRs must be built out from the highest invested place at a regular interval. In other words, your institution, division, department, or office (whichever most overarching group decides to utilize OKRs) needs to set the tone for everyone else.

Additionally, these higher-ups will determine the interval that OKRs will apply to. For example, they might run on a semesterly or a quarterly basis. Each involved level will work within that same timeframe.

Here at Presence, that means at the beginning of each quarter, our CEO sets OKRs for the entire company, which he announces to every member of Team Presence. Next, each department leader sets OKRs for their department, before finally, each individual sets their own — with their supervisor’s stamp of approval.

Essentially, our CEO is the captain of the ship who announces our intended destination. Our department heads map out the route towards that idyllic place, and each team member figures out how they can best contribute towards the ship’s daily forward movements.

The key here is transparency. Our CEO unveils our company’s OKRs at the start of each quarter, then continually updates everyone on our shared progress. There’s no need for us to ask, “How are we doing?” on x, y, or z; we should always know the answer.

Each department head and individual is transparent about their OKRs, too — revealing their plans and progress not just to their department teammates, but to everyone in the company. (We make these updates through project management software, which makes weekly meetings unnecessary. But I’ll get back to this point later.)

Are you just interested in exploring OKRs for yourself? No worries. OKRs can also be valuable as a solo undertaking. Though you won’t get the wonderful alignment benefits, they can still shake up your usual goal-setting practice in a way that’s inspirational, actionable, and even fun.

Plus, by showcasing the success you found through an individual round of OKRs or two, you might be able to convince your direct supervisor (or another higher-up) to implement this methodology team-wide.

Let’s back up though. How do you outline the objectives part of the OKR acronym?

Crafting Objectives

Objectives should be short, memorable, and ambitious. Setting objectives is not a time to be meek or bogged down with worries about feasibility; you’ll get more specific through setting key results later.

Objectives are meant to be optimistic. They should use bold, aspirational language.

Here are some real examples:

Each level (such as institution, department, and personal) should have three to five objectives.

Once you’re ready to set out your personal objectives, consider what responsibilities are unique to you and you only. In other words, why does your position exist? What can you uniquely achieve?

And if your direct supervisor has set OKRs for your larger team, how is your role positioned to meet those?

(If you’re OKR’ing solo, your office or institution’s mission statement, strategic plan, or time-bound vision may be useful as a team guide. Consider how those ideals speak to your role.)

Objectives can — and should — be broad. Ohio University’s objective to “engage all students”, for example, must involve an enormous number of initiatives and tasks.

Or, here’s a personal example: As Presence’s lead storyteller, I aim to write and edit compelling blog posts and to be a valuable member of the Presence team. Hence, my objectives became:

  • Contribute amazing blog content
  • Be a stellar editor
  • Be an exemplary Presence team member

They’re rather basic, right? Good! I meant for them to be.

Now, you might be asking how in the world I can possibly measure and assess these objectives. How can I know that I’m a strong editor, writer, and team member — beyond just feeling great about myself?

Well, that brings me to the next part of the acronym: Key results.

Setting Key Results

Here’s where you’ll get more specific, outlining the desired results that, if reached, will mean you’ve achieved your objectives.

In order for your key results to be useful in assessing your incremental progress, they must be measurable. Shoot for two to five key results per objective.

And remember, key results must be results. Yes, I realize that you may react to that statement with a “duh”— as if I said, “student affairs professionals must be professionals.”

But it’s all too tempting to veer toward setting tasks, rather than the results that well, result, from said tasks.

That’s how most people typically conceive of goals: As tasks. For example, a student activities coordinator may set goals to interview 15 student employee applicants, oversee 50 student-run programs, and create an office Instagram account.

But those aren’t useful for the OKR model. Because if you set a task that proves to be ineffective at achieving your results, too bad; you’ve locked yourself into that task.

Instead, focusing on results allows you flexibility and creativity. You can continually reevaluate the effectiveness of your tasks, and, if necessary, change them up and stay motivated to reach your result in a new (and, perhaps, surprising) way.

Table listing

See the difference? Tasks are what you do; results are what you achieve.

And, critically, key results involve multiple tasks. To onboard and retain five new student employees, for example, our imaginary student activities coordinator will need to do far more than merely interview applicants. The key result will hold them accountable for all of the work that goes into successfully recruiting, training, and supervising a set of new student employees.

Similarly, the social media key result allows our coordinator some flexibility. If Instagram turns out not to be so popular with students, our coordinator can try upping their social media game on other platforms, like Facebook or Snapchat, in order to reach the same key result.

Tracking Your Progress

Once you have your OKRs all laid out and looking pretty, don’t abandon them only to be revisited again during a performance evaluation.

Think of OKRs as the water cups a marathoner will reach for to stay hydrated throughout a race, rather than waiting till the finish line to guzzle a bottle. In order for your OKRS to usefully guide your weekly progress, you’ll need to drink from them frequently.

To stay organized and in tune with your OKRs, I recommend utilizing a project management software system. My Presence coworkers and I use Lattice. Free tools like AirTable can help you track these, too.

Such software allows users to keep track of their progress. For example, our imaginary student activities coordinator could input the number of new social media followers – and voilà! They’ll see exactly how close they are to meeting their ambitious key result.

New Girl lead character reading laptop and doing a celebratory dance

Now, I’m going to reveal something about key results that may shock you: You shouldn’t expect to reach 100%.

In fact, if you do your OKRs well, you’ll likely land much lower than 100%. Your key results should feel just out of reach, encouraging you to boldly stretch for them.

Or, as Google’s Ten Things We Know to Be True puts it:

“We set ourselves goals we know we can’t reach yet, because we know that by stretching to meet them we can get further than we expected.”

Rick Klau, a former Google product manager, suggests 60% or 70% achievement as the “sweet spot” of an OKR grade.

That’s not to say that you should immediately quit working on a key result after reaching 70%. Rather, if you end up scoring much higher at the end of your time frame, that’s a clear indicator that your initial goal wasn’t ambitious enough. It tells you that you should change up your key results the next time around.

But first, you have to make that initial leap. Whether you set your OKRs to align with a team effort (the ideal) or go for it solo (still useful), they can increase your weekly focus, sharpen your vision for the months directly ahead, and empower individual autonomy.

You can even use the methodology with student employees, leaders, or organizations.

Have you and your team utilized OKRs for success-planning? Tweet us @themoderncampus. We’ll check your responses between working on our own key results.

Jodi Tandet

About the author: Jodi Tandet (she/her) is Modern Campus's Content Marketing Strategist. She's a proud graduate of Emory University, where she majored in Creative Writing, and of Nova Southeastern University, where she earned her master's degree in College Student Affairs. She previously worked for Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, where she engaged students in co-curricular programming at Cornell University and The University of Pittsburgh. Learn how we can help get your students involved.