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Research as Craft #4 – Objective Research

Research as Craft
Research as Craft
Hi Researchers! Jenny and Aidan here 👋 We’ve been working on our own objectives for research recently, and we wanted to share some ideas and tools we’ve been using. This issue is all about setting goals for research projects - large or small - and includes a focus on our preferred method: Objectives and Key Results.

Objective subjective
You’re reading a paper, chatting with a colleague, sitting on the train lost in your own thoughts and *wham* research inspiration strikes!
A thought crops up and, all of a sudden, there’s a project idea crystallising. Maybe even a research question or two. You’ve got a hunch of what data you could gather and analyse. You’re running through methods in your head to work out which is best.
But wait! Before you get carried away, you need some objectives. Questions and data are only part of the story. You need to figure out what your new research project is going to do. What impact will it have? What goals will it achieve?
This is where research objectives come in handy. 
Research objectives are powerful tools. They give you the structure needed to keep research on track and make sure it’s impactful. Without them, you risk at best answering questions that don’t make a difference in the world, or at worst not answering your questions at all. In fact, guidance on commissioning social research by the Social Research Association considers research objectives more important than research questions. 
But what makes a good objective?
OKRs: Objectives and Key Results
In our travels, we’ve both come across Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) as a way to set good research objectives and make sure everyone in a research team can see what we are aiming towards. 
OKRs offer a simple – but effective – framework for developing objectives. Originally devised by John Doerr and largely adopted in the tech industry, OKRs aren’t commonly or widely used in research. But we’re experimenting with them in our own research, and think they might be useful.
Simply, OKRs have two components.
  1. the Objectives: a broad and high-level target or goal. A thing you want to do. 
  2. the Key Results: specific tasks, outcomes or outputs that’ll let you know you’re hitting your objective and doing the thing you want to do.
Let’s say you want to do some research to understand what effect of a new local library policy.
One objective might be: 
  • Obj 1: Understand how the new policy has affected local people’s access to courses, training and resources. 
Your key results that correspond to that objective might be: 
  • KR1.1: Gather quantitative data about how often resources were used before and after the policy change and identify any changes.
  • KR1.2: Conduct 20 interviews with local people about their use of resources and how the policy will affect that. 
Note two things about our hypothetical example. Firstly, the objective sounds an awful lot like a research question. That’s intentional as, largely, your objective should be to answer your research questions. 
But setting your questions out as objectives is a useful mental exercise that a) forces you to frame the question as a task you’ll carry out and b) helps you think through your questions in a new light to ensure they’re the right things to ask. If your question can’t easily be turned into an objective, or looks a little pointless or directionless when turned into an objective, you might want to rethink it. 
Secondly, this example doesn’t get to the impact of the research, and you should reserve one or two objectives to focus on that. Why does the research matter? Who do you want to read the research? What will they do with it? 
This might translate into an objective about getting the library managers to read the research and change their policy to improve access for local people. The key results might be publishing a report, hosting a workshop and sharing your data with library staff. 
Ok, that’s what OKRs are. Next, putting them into practice. 
Things we've learned about OKRs for research
  • The magic number. Set 2 or 3 Objectives per project, and 2 or 3 Key Results per Objective. (1 is probably too few, and 5 too many). 
  • Keep OKRs discrete. Each one should correspond to a single goal, research question, task or activity. If you find your Os or KRs have an ‘and’ in them, check that it’s not two separate points. 
  • Verbs verbs verbs. Start each O and KR with a verb, and keep them concise and in active voice. This makes it much clearer for you (and your collaborators) to know exactly what you’re doing.
  • Specificity. Os can be fairly broad, but KRs should be specific. They should describe one task or output that you can very clearly point to as something you’ve completed. Quantities are useful here, e.g. host two workshops, or analyse 12 case studies.
  • Timelines. The OKR purists will tell you that, when used in a business or professional setting, OKRs should be tied to quarters of the year. In the world of research, OKRs can generally be applied to a single research project or programme. If it’s a big project, or part of a programme of projects, you might want to have KRs for specific phases or components, but your Os can often cut across the whole programme.
Bonus links
Your thoughts?
Thanks for reading! We’d love to know what you think. What tips and tools do you have for setting research goals? What’s the best example of research objectives you’ve come across?
Hit reply or Tweet @ResearchAsCraft
P.s. We know we haven’t published as often as we’d intended - thanks for your patience with us and watch this space for more content! 
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Research as Craft is a newsletter and community about how we can grow and improve as researchers. Each month, we share ideas, resources, tools and more to support people who do research - whether in industry, policy, academia, activism or elsewhere. It’s inspired by the idea of traditional crafts as tangible practices that can be honed, shared and developed.

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