The fury of OKRs

Added to Process

Objectives and key results, OKRs for short, are in vogue all over the world. And while they can certainly be valuable, unfortunately, bad, decontextualized, and inappropriate practices have run wild in the world of OKRs.

The two biggest errors with OKRs

These are two of the most common anti-patterns today when it comes to adopting and using OKRs.

1. We want OKRs for everything

OKRs for the company. OKRs for teams. OKRs for products. OKRs for customers. OKRs for the home. OKRs for everything!

2. We want OKRs first and foremost 

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with OKRs if we can do them right: generating them organically, validating them step-by-step, creating them collaboratively, and separating them from the management practices of the last century. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen this way.

Common and harmful OKR practices

The following is what I see as some of the more common and/or harmful OKR practices.

  • Confusing topics with objectives
  • Wanting to define all the team’s work as OKRs
  • Not distinguishing between key results and team activities
  • Achieving key results by perception, appreciation, or clairvoyance
  • Valuing these key results on unusual or simply incorrect scales
  • Confusing OKRs with KPIs or defining them interchangeably and trying to manage them under the same management and execution umbrella
  • Always reaching 100% in all or almost all KRs
  • Persistently pursuing an unattainable OKR
  • Adjusting or accommodating the product backlog or an initiative in general to the OKRs (i.e. having the tail wag the dog)
  • OKRs as a vessel containing all the present and future goals of the company

And the list goes on.

We have idealized OKRs without knowing why

But beyond these common errors, I have found the implementation of OKR programs without clear support. Many teams and companies today are applying them without knowing why.

When asked why, they say things such as the following:

“Others are doing it.”

“They were recommended to me by a friend.”

And the classic, “Google, Amazon, and Intel are using them, and they’re doing pretty well.”

In short, we have idealized OKRs to a point that doesn’t always make sense. We have fallen in love with an entelechy. And, as with many other initiatives, teams and organizations are failing big.

OKRs are actually a good practice

Don’t get me wrong. OKRs are a particularly good practice … when we know how to use them! Of course, we must start by understanding what they are.

But let us remember here the most relevant aspects:

“OKRs are a collaborative goal-setting protocol for companies, teams, and individuals.”  – John Doerr, Measure What Matters

There are a few important concepts in this quotation that I’ll go over below.

Protocol

This is about the rules of the game. There are guidelines that have worked for others, and, by and large, they should be followed.

Collaborative

Specifically, this is about the rules or norms of collaboration, to increase trust, to strengthen and improve communication between people on a team and between teams. It is a way of internalizing, practicing, and fostering a culture of service, a way of gradually moving from working in silos to working through value streams.

Collaboration is one of the most beautiful ways I know to foster the leadership that organizations need today. It inspires and guides the search for a higher purpose.

Goals

This is the most important point. This is the purpose for which each one of the people of a team and in a company gets up every morning and “attends” to work. It makes this world a better place than it was when we began to walk through it.

The ideal vs. reality

All of the above is what OKRs should be about ideally. But it is terrifying what happens in practice. Here are a few examples.

  • OKRs defined by a few people, by those who “decide” the fate of the team and the company, by people who do not ask themselves if there are conditions to achieve them.
  • Badly deployed OKRs, after which each person isolates themselves in their corporate world to work for their own interests without anything or anyone disturbing them.
  • Bad follow-up and control of the execution of the OKRs. I’m reminded of the times when they measured the number of lines of code written per day, the number of errors found in the product, or the number of added hours you worked to demonstrate your commitment to the project and to the company.
  • “Pseudo-delegated” OKRs, i.e. the bosses assigning responsibility for the results to their team, but at the same time, not giving them the authority to do what they must do to achieve the settled goals.
  • The “only I can do it” syndrome: People who do not work collaboratively or who do not empower their team to execute the OKRs because they believe that they are essential to achieve the proposed goals. Without them, it is impossible to get to the finish line.
  • When OKR promoters do not provide the team with the resources and do not foster the right environment for the team to realize the set goals.

So, when you are going to engage in an initiative that involves OKRs, you must practice the opposite of all the mistakes I have mentioned here. Only by being mindful of these common errors will you find a way to the success your team and your organization want. This is the approach I have used to face the infamous fury of OKRs.

Please let me know in the comments what other things you can think of to combat the damaging misuse of objectives and key results.


This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.

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