What are OKRs, and how can they help you save the planet?

What happens when a proven goal-setting method is used to help solve the climate crisis?

Profile Picture of Laure Legros
Laure Legros
February 8, 2022
A group of people sitting around a table in an office

OKR stands for ‘Objectives and Key Results’. It’s a management framework invented by Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, but it can be harnessed by individuals, companies and governments, too. 

It’s one of the founding organisational principles of Google, among other big brands, and it helps individuals and organisations take more effective action on climate.   

What are OKRs?

OKRs are, in the words of author John Doerr, who worked with Grove at Intel and came up with the acronym, a “proven framework for achieving audacious goals”. In other words, they help you get stuff done – big, ambitious, complicated stuff – and they help you do it quickly and efficiently, with outcomes that can be measured.  

Every OKR consists of two core parts: the ‘objective’ (O) and the ‘key results’ (KR). The structure goes like this: “I will [OBJECTIVE] as measured by [KEY RESULTS]”. 

The objective is the thing you’d like to achieve in the future. The direction you want to go. In the context of climate change, that objective could be ‘Net Zero by 2050’, making your office more sustainable, or decarbonising your supply chain. The key results are your milestones. They’re the measurable outcomes you need to hit that objective. 

Most organisations fail to reach audacious goals because they only focus on the first half of this equation. They have something they want to achieve, but it’s often a vague or unrealistic goal, and there are no metrics in place to measure progress. They have the audacity, but not the tenacity. “We will improve our website” is not an OKR, but “We will improve our online customer experience over the next 12 months as measured by 15% decreased page load times” could be. See the difference? 

Think of OKRs as your north star; the orientation point for the entire company, or yourself as an individual. They’re a way of taking what looks like an unscalable mountain, and breaking it down into achievable stages, carefully plotted on a map. 

What does this mean for climate action? 

Why are OKRs important for climate change? In one word: time. We’re running out of it. According to the United Nations, at our current rate of global emissions, we’re going to cross the line into irreversible climate damage within seven or eight years. 

The problem is, climate change is a unique existential threat: it exists on a global scale, requires unparalleled cooperation and international compromise, and is very, very tricky to unravel. If we want to change the world, we need to change our methodology, and OKRs could be a tool to help us get there before the clock strikes midnight. 

As Doerr puts it in Speed & Scale, his new book about OKRs and the climate crisis: “To reach carbon net zero, which is the only way to control global warming, we can’t just decarbonize the grid or electrify transportation or improve our food systems or any of the many other emissions cuts that are in our book. We’re also going to literally have to remove carbon from the atmosphere and pump—the estimates are—five billion tons of CO2 underground every year. Five billion tons. That’s the equivalent of running the entire global oil industry in reverse.”

OK, so how should we apply OKRs to climate?

First things first, what’s our objective?  Starting at the top, we need to keep the increase in global average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Without that specific OKR, nothing much else matters; we’re heading for inevitable climate catastrophe. 

This objective can’t be seen as a stretch goal, or a nice-to-have, or something for the marketing brochure, either. It needs to be the north star around which we orientate our entire world economy. 

How does it apply to companies? Well, imagine if every company, when setting their OKRs, anchored them to this overall target as an answer to the question: “What are the most pressing issues that we are uniquely positioned to address?”. Hardly anyone does this right now (Patagonia is one of the few) but it makes good business sense: no-one will be making much money in a world that’s passed the 2-degree threshold. 

If every company on the planet had climate focused OKRs, tied to this specific objective, we could change the world remarkably quickly. Every business, every department, every team, every individual, would be directly and (most importantly) measurably contributing to climate action.  

“We can’t wait until 2060 to solve this problem,” Doerr says. “If we enact the right policies, turn movements into action, we innovate like crazy, and invest like our lives depended on it—because they do—those distinguishing elements of this plan, based on Objectives and Key Results, give me hope.”

How about some examples?

Setting OKRs is simple. Here are a few examples to get you started. Remember, anyone and any organisation can do this. It isn’t rocket science. It just requires cooperation, planning and execution. 

WorkforClimate 2022 OKRs 

At WorkforClimate, we built our OKRs around our impact framework of: 

Reach > Inspire > Educate > Activate

O1 (Reach) = Grow awareness of WorkforClimate to reach employees from key organisations

  • KR 1 = LinkedIn is our primary awareness and growth engine - reach 10k followers
  • KR 2 = Build on-going events/webinar program to generate public interest and get leads

O2 (Inspire) = Inspire professionals to learn about leading change within their organisation

  • KR 1 = 5 new articles published on WFC site each month
  • KR 2 = Grow email subscribers by 200%

O3 (Educate) = Provide roadmaps, plans and tools to teach employees how to drive climate initiatives at work 

  • KR 1 = Release 2 more playbooks from our impact areas - Emissions + Influence 
  • KR 2 = Co-create and distribute specific educational materials (how-to guides, primer videos, toolkits) in collaboration with technical experts

O4 (Activate) = Organise our members to push for change inside their corporations, through unique climate coaching programs and community building. 

  • KR 1 = Coach 200 changemakers through our new flagship program 
  • KR 2 = Co-create and launch a short course on the drawdown-aligned business framework
  • KR 3 = Scale our offering with masterclasses on specific areas of climate action
  • KR 4 = Grow Slack community to 1,000 active members  

More examples!

O = 100% Renewable Energy by 2030

  • KR 1 = Reduce energy consumption by 20% via efficiency measures
  • KR 2 = 20% renewable energy produced onsite 
  • KR 2 = Business case approved with 2-3 pathways for offsite generation

And here’s a real life OKR from sustainable clothing brand, AllBirds

O = Create the lowest carbon footprint in our industry. 

  • KR 1 = Supply chain and shipping infrastructure 100% zero waste.
  • KR 2 = Pay 100% carbon offset for calculated carbon dioxide emissions.
  • KR 3 = 25% of material is compostable.
  • KR 4 = 75% of material is biodegradable.

Here are my personal Climate OKRs for 2022: 

  • O1 = Reduce my individual impact 
  • O2 = Advocate for change and be a stronger climate communicator 
  • O3 = Grow Climate Fresk (my climate side-hustle) in Australia
  • O4 = Learn about climate justice and incorporating perspectives from First Nations 

For detailed key results, see here.

WorkForClimate is building a bank of organisational climate OKRs, which we’ll be releasing soon (for free, naturally!) 

We’d love to know what objectives and key results your organisation is using, or your own personal OKRs. If you’d like to share them, just email info@workforclimate.org 

Feature photo by Jason Goodman via Unsplash.

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