Why are OKRs not helping you?

John Doerr popularized the concept of OKR, and with the success of his book “Measure What Matters,” more organizations and teams are using OKR as a tool for goal achievement and alignment across various functions.

The definition of “OKRs” is “Objectives and Key Results.” It is a collaborative goal-setting tool used by teams and individuals to set challenging, ambitious goals with measurable results. OKRs are how you track progress, create alignment, and encourage engagement around measurable goals.

The Objective is what you want to achieve. It is generally some significant outcome, which is inspiration and action-oriented.

Key Results are various metrics you will measure, which will help you keep focused on the Objective and help you determine how you are getting to your objective.

Even though there are many Goal setting frameworks, the popularity of OKR as a tool for achieving goals is getting bigger by each day with more and more teams moving to the OKR framework, with the expectation that OKR will suddenly make their high-performing teams, organizations. These uses of OKR are rarely met with success, and teams end up doing the same thing in the name of OKR without getting any real benefits, which they were expecting from the use of OKRs.

OKR is not the Goal

While using OKR, we should remember that OKR is not the Goal. Our goal is to achieve some significant outcomes. OKR is one of the tools for defining, aligning, communicating outcomes and ways to measure, so you know when you have achieved those outcomes.

If you forget about why you started with OKR and following OKR becomes your goal, you may also end up in the same room with many teams who struggled to get value from the OKR tool.

What is causing OKR failure, and what to do about it?

1) Missing Outcome in Objective

Many teams do group activities to define what their objective should be to achieve; however key thing they miss is what outcome they are expecting. They come up with the output they want to produce rather than focusing on the right value, the outcome they should be achieving. Having the right aspirational objective is a key ingredient for successful goal achievement. Starting with the wrong objective, set them for failure or not see a significant change in value or impact from implementing OKRs.

What to do about it?

While defining your objectives tries to focus on what outcome and impacts you want to achieve. This is easier said than done, as many times, finding the right outcome/impact and expressing this in clear words is not easy. Below are few ways you can achieve this.

  • Use Whiteboard, sticky notes for Objective exercise
  • Categories inputs from the team in Output/Outcome/Impact grid
  • Visualize what each output is helping you achieve in terms of value for customers, organization, employees, etc
  • Based on value, define your objective, which makes the most sense for your context

Same output could mean different outcome, impact depending on context. You need to determine what makes most sense for your context

2) You are catching industry trend

Another reason for unsuccessful OKR implementation is that you are not really invested in it. Some teams start doing OKR because it is a buzzword and became an industry trend, especially after Google achieved significant results with the OKR framework.

Following a trend rather than understanding your organization’s context, you will label existing goals and artifacts as OKR. Instead of changing your way of working, mindset shift to focus on achieving Objectives and measuring those with Key results; you may end up Framing Objectives and Key results in a way that matches what you are doing currently and label them as OKR.

If you are not invested enough in implementing the right changes to focus on key objectives and results, OKR will fail to help you bring any significant value from its implementation.

What to do about it?

Following are few things that could help you with the right investment in OKR.

  • Figure out “Why” you want to follow OKR. Is it because it is a buzzword, or do you really believe it could help you bring positive change?
  • Remove existing biases and metrics while defining OKRs to avoid unnecessary influence.

3) Key Results are not aligned to Objective

Many times team comes up with aspirational Objectives, which are motivating for all team members. However, they failed to identify the right results, which could help them measure how they are meeting their objective. Without the right metrics, they follow the wrong direction in meeting Key results, which doesn’t help achieve the intended objective.

If you cannot identify the right way to measure your progress against Identified objective, you will follow those vanity metrics and may actually achieve those metrics; however, you will not see any significant difference in outcome and can hardly meet the intended objective.

What to do about it?
  • Brainstorm how the particular key result is important to the Objective in the discussion
  • Ask the beneficiary of the Objective, your team ( or customer), what difference they will feel if this objective is achieved, and measure such impact.
  • Do not confuse Key Results with Activities/Initiatives. Key results are the way to measure progress, whereas initiatives are things you will do to achieve those Objectives.

4) It is one-time activity at the start of Year/Quarter

Teams do once-in-a-year offsite, goal-setting exercises with all energy for few days to a week with all happy faces that they did a great job in identifying OKRs for next year; however, once they are back to the office, things become routine, and nothing feels changed. Based on defined Key results, they fail to review OKR at regular intervals to determine how they progress towards the intended objective. When it comes time for review next year to see how OKR achievement was there, the team ends up with surprises, missed Objectives.

What to do about it?
  • OKR is our goal-setting and tracking framework. OKR should be constantly reviewed in 1–1 and team meetings at regular intervals.
  • It should also be reviewed and updated to see if the OKRs you defined at the start of the year are still making sense or something has changed internally or externally, which has made some objectives irrelevant.
  • If you find that particular Key result is not easy to measure during the year or is not making sense, it is always the right time to make adjustments and set the right expectations.

Wrapping it Up

OKR is one of the many available Goal setting frameworks, which help you define and keep track of your progress. However, a framework is only a way to achieve your objectives; following a framework is not an objective. OKR is definitely one of the more popular frameworks for the right reasons, as it forces you to define the objective and find the right way to measure progress. However, remember that your main purpose is to get value, which helps you create significant outcomes or impact. Remember, OKR IS NOT THE GOAL!

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Product Developer | Agilist | Coach | Learner | I write about Product development, leadership and innovation

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Prakash Inani

Prakash Inani

Product Developer | Agilist | Coach | Learner | I write about Product development, leadership and innovation

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