Please, stop wasting your OKRs (AKA: dispelling some of the myths)

by Roger Longden | Mar 02, 2020

time icon 5 mins

So, here’s the thing; OKRs are supposed to help improve focus, clarify priorities and build alignment, right?  I’ve seen them do just that. However, misuse them and they won’t in fact, they could do the exact opposite.

I often hear “we’re not doing them right” and “they’re not quite working as planned.” Well, as there’s no model of OKRs, it’s not a black or white call to confirm you’re on track.  My response to this is to think of OKRs as a collection of principles and practices and all we (or you) can do is interpret them in a way which works best for your business.  However, this doesn’t mean a completely blank canvas; there are some genuine traps you can fall into here if you are setting up or are in the early stages of OKRs. Allow me to share a few in the hope that you can avoid them and not waste your OKRs:

1. OKRs need not be for everyone in the business, right now

OKRs are about bringing focus and clarity to priorities, right? So why “force” everyone to have one if they can’t all contribute to the priorities?  It’s not a question of leaving someone out, it’s a question of who, over the next three months, has the most valuable contribution to make?  The focus may change by the time the next quarter comes around so someone out of scope could well be in it by then.  

I’ve seen the drive for everyone to have one to have OKRs come from HR when they want to use OKRs in performance management conversations.  They fear that if not everyone has one, then managers will have nothing to evaluate performance against. Be warned, this is a disaster waiting to happen, and I’ve had to help a number of clients reverse-engineer themselves away from it.  You end up with a huge quantity of OKRs which need realignment every quarter and OKRs soon get a rep for taking up too much time and delivering next to no value. Keep your use of OKRs lean, less is definitely more.

2. Don’t waste on run-rate activity

Following on from 1, you will see a greater return if you’re careful to just focus OKRs on the activity which will drive the greatest value for the business; this usually being growth, change or innovation. I’m not belittling run-rate activity – it’s what puts fuel in the tank to let you invest in growth and innovation, but if it’s steady then track it via your business health metrics. Sure, if it dips out of green then focus an OKR on it, but then move it back out once it’s stable.

3. They are not a (direct) replacement for performance management conversations

As I said in 1, HR can often try to drive OKRs because of a desire to replace appraisals and “traditional” objective setting, and who can blame them?  Management-by-objective used for decades are no longer fit for purpose as the velocity and volatility of business increases.  

It’s tempting to see OKRs as the “new thing” but they are not a direct replacement and in my experience, when HR try to use them for performance management, they end up just being a re-brand on what’s gone before and the experience nor the outcomes see any improvement.

There is also a risk in directly coupling OKRs to reward.  This instantly brings a degree of threat around failure and if you genuinely want to encourage innovation, you have to take a long hard look at how you can redefine high performance (clue: it needs to include a healthy approach to failure which drives learning and adaptation).  I believe there is scope to “loosely couple” OKRs to performance evaluation, but more in that in my next blog.

4. They don’t need to map on to your organisational hierarchy (if you have one)

I hate the idea that OKRs should “cascade.” This just reinforces hierarchical thinking and the temptation is to just let your OKR structure reflect your org chart.  Doing this will mean you’ll very likely find yourself facing the same issues as mentioned in 1.

Try visualising your OKR “network” with your strategic OKRs in the middle (perhaps your “hub” OKRs?) and the supporting OKRs connected to it and all around it.  Building it up in this way removes any sense of status and opens the way for the belief that anyone at any level can align to an OKR if they have a direct contribution to make.

5. You’re missing a huge slice of benefit if you don’t discuss them at team level

This again can be influenced by HR if it’s where the drive for OKRs has originated. Just discussing OKRs between the manager and team mate means you miss out on the chance to draw upon many of their benefits.  You also run a high risk that OKRs end up feeling like how’s things worked before, just under a different name.  

Having regular (weekly or bi-weekly) team check-ins means that you bring about the chance for greater communication and collaboration across the team as the OKRs are being discussed out in the open. Doing this also strengthens accountability which comes from transparency as team members are being challenged to be open on OKR progress and confidence with their peers.

6. The very worst thing you can do is “dive straight in there”

I’ll admit, I’m the first to love a bit of “ballsy” behaviour now and then – act, then figure it out. While that might be right in some situations, I urge you not to do it with OKRs (unless it’s a very small confined pilot). OKRs should become your framework for growth, change and innovation and surely there’s not much more important than that? So why take the risk of screwing it up?  Yes, iterate and refine is the way to do it, but try and start from an informed position before you take the leap – more wisdom, less faith!

OKRs represent a big change for many businesses, and people & teams can kill OKRs dead if the change isn’t managed right.  It’s true, I’ve seen it happen. Any business has a finite capacity for change at any given time so use it wisely to consciously design your OKR framework.

The way to work with these challenges is to take pause before you leap. If you genuinely want OKRs to feel (and work) differently to any other goal/objective setting you’ve done before then ask these key questions to help build your framework in which they will drive your growth:

  1. How will you use your OKRs once you have them?
  2. What will you use your OKRs for?
  3. What do you think good practice will look like?
  4. What do we need to change/do differently to make them work?
  5. What could get in their way and how can we preempt/prepare for that?
  6. How will they need to interface with our other business rituals/routines?

By working through these, you’ll begin to build yourself v.1 of your OKR framework which you can then iterate and refine as you start to get more OKR miles under your belt.  OKR miles? Sounds like a frequent flyer programme! Now there’s a thought…… ????