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Why OKRs Don’t Work – The True Problems With OKR’s

You have likely been told about the way of measuring company success, you have likely been recommended the book “measure what matters” or heard about how Google and numerous startups love the OKR model.

You might have even been sent this John Doer video on OKRs and thought it seems smart.

Here’s the BUT: If you are thinking about rolling out OKRs company wide or you are considering OKRs within your department there are a number of potential issues you have to consider.

Why should I be talking about OKRs?

  • I been part of a number of different businesses rolling out OKRs
  • I was a lead consultant on helping to drive change within an organisation (which struggled with any goals and connecting the company together)
  • I have rolled out and supported OKR as the department lead (on Marketing & Growth) on the OKR process
  • I also acted as the executive sponsor on company-wide OKRs roll out

Below are the main elements to be aware of and balance when considering OKRs, especially when looking to implement just in your department.

Company-wide POV

  • OKRs only work if the whole org is connected and fully brought in. Otherwise, it’s department vs department by default and cross-functional OKRs will quickly fail and cause friction. 
  • Department goals are different, OKRs only often highlight these issues and when key results are being missed collectively many will default to completing on their (KR’s) key results and it then becomes someone else issues
  • I had training from a leading firm that uses and openly promotes OKRs (globally known as the experts in OKRs) and the first rule of OKRs is: 
    Get everyone aligned and brought in from day zero or it breaks and quickly”. – this is rule one of the OKR fight club.
  • If you are concerned over the impact a new system can have OKRs will be a nightmare and takes six to nine months and three quarters of trial and error to land in a place where teams understand them (and this will still cause friction every end of quarter review)
  • OKRs are often confusing especially if you endorse Stretch OKRs/Stretch KRs, where 70% is great and 100%+ of the result is a stretch goal and are rewarded by stretch goals. Even when developing scoring around stretch goals it can drive confusion and frustration across the organisation. Remember we are taught 100% is the best result, 70% will confuse and disoriente many
  • It is important to call out, that I’ve worked in a company where OKRs were (majority) responsible for spiralling the company culture, it caused too many conversations, too many “they haven’t done x”, “we have completed y”, it can be so disruptive that it needs a strong leader across them and across department leads to really land well. Even the strongest and most influential C Suite execs will find this a challenge
  • Importantly: OKRs are rolled out differently everywhere, so it becomes such a trainwreck when it breaks.

Department POV

  • OKRs have to reshape how people collaborate, how they group think, how they score their work and how they connect with their colleagues. It is a massive task to centralise and gain the same thought process. Team heads and department leads have to be on top of this and it has to be front and centre in reshaping how their teams think and work together
  • You have to find the path to success and connect so frequently there aren’t any surprises. Async work tends to help here as real time in person discussions can spiral out of control, real-time meetings can be dominated by loud voices and in the OKR system time has to be dedicated on work completion not mass debate.
  • OKRs can work if it is managed and so specific that the team results are rewarded, not driving individual first goals first, you win by having owners and 100% agreed to alignment, especially when there will be disagreements and misalignments with the company-wide strategy. 
  • I’ve worked in many orgs in different capacities and OKRs at department levels only worked once and that’s because it was so overly incentivised that everyone knew they would be rewarded by delivering on the OKRs and only what was in the KR’s. Anything that was not clearly defined as an OKR/KR was almost ignored.  

Here are the five most common OKR questions I am asked and the honest answers:

  • Are OKRs useful?
    A. Yes, but it has to have all of the business involved, taught how to be success and brought in from day zero.
  • Are OKRs worth it?
    A. Yes, only if you can teach your teams to be resilient and buy into six months of pain
  • How to set successful OKRs?
    A. I highly recommend SMART written OKRs, this means building out Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time based goals. This is how so many non American companies are taught goals that you should apply SMART to OKRs (and yes this is different to what you are taught)
  • Can OKRs work in smaller organisations?
    A. If you can prioritise outputs and effort over outcomes, then OKRs can work, if this is not something you can commit to and the executives do not sponsor, OKRs will fail across all sized businesses.
  • Who should set OKRs?
    A. This is going to very dependant on how your company-wide strategy is set and how your department plans are created. So top-level OKRs should be set based on your company-wide strategy and the team who creates the actual strategy. This is a lot of responsibility on communication for the business leaders and then supported by the Department leads and team members underneath them.

Lastly, take Google’s CEO word for it…Even the Alphabet (Google) CEO is the famous advocate of OKRs tweeted:

Best of luck rolling out OKRs into your business or department.

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