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18 Things Your OKRs Shouldn’t Do…

Published: December 06, 2017

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Tunnel VisionThere are dozens of ways to facilitate goal setting. What I wanted to do here it to describe what we’re trying to AVOID. These are the things — regardless of your process — that you want to keep on the lookout for. You’ve come up with a good approach when you’ve figured out how to prevent these things from happening.

I try to avoid giving people a prescriptive “way” to do OKRs as all organizations are a bit different. The format is easy (Google is your friend). Stick to that. But consider the impact. How have prior quarters turned out?

Note: Below I use Goals and OKRs somewhat interchangeably.

The first obvious gotcha is that your results (the “R” in OKR) are deliverable focused and don’t really map to benefits or outcomes. You want to be able to hand out an OKR to someone and have them come up with a creative solution. Even if your plan is centered around a prescriptive known solution, try to indicate results not deliverables (e.g. how many people will be using this new soluttion).

With that out of the way:

Tweak your approach if it…

1. Obscures better ways to achieve the same objective or result

*Example: *Team indicates a deliverable as a result, and feels tied to that particular solution. Midpoint through the quarter, given the decision to pivot, they choose to deliver on their commitment instead.

2. Discourages the team from generating benefits earlier

Example: In the haste of planning, a team feels that it will take a long time to realize benefits. They set a more prescriptive goal. The more prescriptive goal feels safer (exposing work to customers early feels risky) but it delays benefits realization. The end of the quarter feels like the “natural stopping point”, so they opt to release then.

3. Encourages more work than is necessary

Example: Team takes the idea of “stretch” goals to heart, and comes up with goals that incentivize working harder, not smarter. We often come up with goals where more is better. Beware.

4. Encourages overcommitment, over-utilization, context switching

Example: The infrequent nature of generating quarterly OKRs clouds the team’s judgement. They plan in a large batch instead of limiting committed work in queue.

Example: The only way a team can “get on the calendar” of other dependent teams is to specify a goal. They end up overwhelming themselves and the other team.

5. Creates a dichotomy between business as usual and goals

Example: Team has many ongoing commitments. The OKR process encourages “new” goals, so they agree to layer this work on top of their “business as usual” work. This, in turn, devalues their everyday work (and does not give it visibility).

6. Links goals to an artificial timeframe

Example: Suddenly all goals take a single quarter. The transactional cost of the quarterly planning process inhibits “thinking small” and/or “thinking big” (when big takes >90 days).

7. Encourages long feedback cycles and infrequent reflection

Example: Team only “comes up for air” at the end of the quarter. The goals feel like commitments, so there are infrequent opportunities to “kill” initiatives that don’t make sense. Teams are too head’s down.

8. Obscures priorities

Example: Team treats all of its OKRs as equal. In reality, there should be only one “top priority”. This is further complicated by cross-team / cross-department efforts. At any given point, the front-line should feel confident that their work is contributing to the org’s top priority.

9. Splits a single goal into multiple dependent team/department goals. Discourages close collaboration and encourages local optimization.

Example: A large cross-department project turns into many small (theoretically) independent projects. Instead of treating this as a large group effort, the individual teams focus only on their little part of the whole. Project managers act as go-between. The project fails when the pieces don’t fit together as expected.

10. Obscures connection to a longer term goal

Example: Team is focused on a more prescriptive near-term goal related to a longer term goal. They get so head’s down that they forget the long term goal and make decisions that don’t align with that long term goal. Or, the long term goal changes.

11. Obscures connection to the higher level goals, and discourages creative solution to these higher level goals

Example: Team knows its work is meant to impact a goal that sits immediately above their goal. What they don’t see is the higher level goal. They miss an opportunity to solve that problem in a more creative way.

12. Devalues work with longer term benefits

Example: An organization puts a strong focus on immediate OKRs. Some work doesn’t fit this mold, and teams begin to steer away from work without less tangible immediate benefits.

13. Encourages harmful local optimization on the individual/team level

Example: Two teams are working in opposition. Sales pursues a sales goal that directly contradicts a product goal, for example. Though the goals may align on paper, the chosen solutions do not align. Or, an individual’s OKRs are used to advance their own career at the expense of their coworkers.

14. Inadvertently impacts general health metrics. Obscures the impact on general health metrics.

Example: In the quest to hit growth objectives, a company inadvertently impacts churn, employee retention, and psychological safety.

15. Discourages divergent exploration and learning

Example: Team is considering an extended learning initiative, or developing multiple solutions to the same problem. Other than vague results, they can’t make it as concrete as the process recommends. This does not translate as easily to the OKR format, and they opt for more convergent solutioning.

16. Fails to connect learning efforts with key decisions

Example: A team has a learning-based goal, but fails to explain the important decision they hope to make based on that data.

17. Obscures a single goal’s impact on multiple goals

Example: In the quest for “all goals to roll up”, a team fails to see that they can impact multiple higher-level goals across the organization.

18. Obscuring the assumptions underlying a goal, such that those assumptions change yet we continue the effort.

Example: An OKR is based on the assumption that customers will respond a certain way to new functionality in the product. This is unclear to the team, and they fail to 1) validate that assumption, and 2) guide their work to account for that assumption.