Many of us are familiar with the history of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). When I first came across the methodology in 2013, I was wowed by stories of organisational alignment and focus from the likes of Google, Twitter and LinkedIn. I rushed out to buy John Doerr’s back catalogue.
After 7 years of implementing OKRs both from within and outside organisations, I have learned that they are not the silver bullet that I once thought they were. However, like most methodologies, there are some underlying principles which if implemented well can fundamentally shift organisational mindset and conversation.
What’s the fuss about?
Using OKRs promises some tantalising benefits for the organisation:
1) Aligning teams and providing clarity
Cascading OKRs from company strategy to the team level means everyone’s efforts become linked together. Rather than teams working in independent silos, all efforts are focused and coordinated, giving a sense of clarity that can otherwise be missing.
2) Focusing on value driven outcomes
Key Results should be quantifiable measures of business success rather than undefined projects or milestones. This focuses everyone on what really matters—rather than a list of the exec teams pet projects or the risk of becoming a feature factory—and everyone is striving to deliver business value.
3) Encouraging an experimental mindset
Linking Initiatives (which are experiments or projects) to quantifiable Key Results (business outcomes) means the impact they’re having can be monitored. This allows the whole organisation to take a more entrepreneurial approach and helps to embed the Agile principles that so many of us strive for. Furthermore, the cadence of OKRs is typically annually at the organisational level but quarterly at the team level, leading to a more dynamic and adaptable approach.
4) Transparency and purpose
Where previously a company’s wider strategic goals were perhaps only known to senior management, OKRs should be visible to everyone at all levels of an organisation. This helps foster collaboration and a sense of purpose by giving teams an understanding of what everyone else is working on and opportunities to collaborate on shared goals together. In a recent MTP survey on OKRs, 48% of respondents said that the main benefit of using OKRs is increased transparency across the organisation.
Sounds great – but beware some common pitfalls
So far, so simple – alas, as always, the devil is in the detail. When I first implemented OKRs with OVO Energy we were a fast scaling soon-to-be Unicorn business and I thought that many of the traps we fell into could be attributed to this. However since launching Just3Things two years ago, working with clients from 200–20,000 people strong, I’ve found that there are some common pitfalls across organisations large and small:
1) OKRs sound simple but are deceptively hard to get right!
Most teams sensibly start by thinking about which Objectives support the long term strategic outcomes, and which metric criteria would constitute success – so far so good. However, more often than not, the Key Results are unmeasurable, the data is not available, or the measure is a lagging one which would not be expected to change for months no matter how many Initiatives were delivered.Furthermore, it’s too easy to try to shoehorn too many KPIs into OKRs. To try to describe the difference: Imagine you’ve gone to the doctor for a health check and your blood pressure is fine, you might keep an eye on it but you will not be taking any action to change it. However if your blood pressure is high, you will take action to change it (e.g. start exercising, change diet etc) at which point blood pressure flips from a KPI to a Key Result. Given how hard it is to find KRs which are measurable, not hugely lagging, aren’t KPIs, and that actually relate to the Objective it is no wonder that…
2) By the time OKRs are ready to cascade it’s the end of the quarter!
I’ve seen this many times, going hand in hand with the trap of having so many OKRs per team that they barely get to start moving the dial for the next quarter before it is time to start planning again. In fact, the need to limit teams to just a small number of priorities – to keep their plans feasible – is exactly the principle built into ‘Just3Things’ from the start.
3) It’s difficult to get alignment right
Much has been written about whether teams should own one KR of another teams’ Objective; Whether teams should share OKRs; whether alignment should be horizontal or vertical. Having been through this with many organisations, the only conclusion that I can draw is that there is no ‘one size fits all’. However, it’s essential to have a combination of top-down alignment (where senior leadership set out the strategic aims and annual OKRs) and bottom-up alignment (where teams set out the OKRs that they know they are working on).
4) The realisation that everything has to change!
When I first started working with OKRs I thought that they would be a neat addition to the existing organisational governance and practices. Reality started to creep in at the first Leadership Team meeting when the CEO asked each department for their monthly update (the usual round robin of KPIs and BAU). It occurred to me that nothing that had been said for the last hour related to the OKRs which just weeks before we had all signed up to as being the most important things that the business needed to achieve. We were not alone – many of my clients don’t recognise the need to change how progress is tracked; how updates are presented; how the teams relay their progress; how meetings are chaired and run. And that’s before we start to think about how OKRs fit in with performance reviews (spoiler alert: they don’t). However, get this right and you can really start to focus on what matters, until…
5) The Exec team ask “what about my pet project?”
I’ve seen many OKR rollouts derailed by the jaw dropping moment when a senior leader realises: If we encourage an empowered culture of teams experimenting with Initiatives and give them access to the underlying customer data to see if their deliverables are actually working… then backlogs can no longer contain features that I and the rest of the Leadership Team ‘have seen X company do and so must be great’!
6) Not making OKRs transparent, with easily trackable progress, and learnable outcomes
I am the worst salesperson and not here to flog software (honest) but having some way of sharing the alignment of OKRs, tracking progress regularly and reviewing what is working is essential to their success. This doesn’t have to be a software platform – a shared drive, a pre-COVID physical office wall or any other way of sharing that works is great – but progress must be tracked or OKRs go the way of the annual goal Powerpoint deck only to be dusted off when it’s time to review the year.
So why bother? Some key takeaways
There’s no denying that OKRs are difficult to get right and that too many of us can get caught up in the ‘rules’. However, like so many methodologies there are some fantastic underlying principles. The things that I would take away if I wanted to create an empowered aligned organisation would be:
- Set clear direction
By setting out the strategic aims and organisational goals, teams can align their goals and the work they do to achieve them.
- Focus on what really matters
Distinguishing between business outcomes and projects / initiatives / features is a huge win. Focusing on fewer priorities and working across teams to achieve these is also a real value add for the organisation and employees.
- Track progress, learn and adapt
Ensure that all goals and initiatives are transparent. Encourage teams to check in on progress regularly and record why an initiative has or hasn’t worked for future reference to share learnings across the organisation.