A Contrarian Approach to OKRs

Posted by Bo Pedersen
on August 12, 2019

In times past, I spent many an hour worrying about goal setting and OKRs in particular. For me, concerns usually fell into one of 5 big buckets:

  • Defining inspirational OKRs . . . Not sure about you, but I find that creating inspiration is hard work!
  • Stretch goals. . . Can’t I just focus on developing and delivering on goals we all care about?
  • Enabling alignment . . . I want to be relevant and grow the enterprise (I’m sure you do also), but (no offense here) please don’t tell me what to do.
  • Creating transparency . . . I’d like to know what’s going on, and why, and I’m happy that you know what I’m up to; however, I don’t need really need your advice regarding my daily activities or personal difficulties.
  • Setting OKRs for everyone . . . We can all agree that OKRs affect everyone, but do we really need to mandate that everyone absolutely must have 2-3 OKRs?

Here’s how I learned to stop worrying and love OKRs!

Don’t worry about being inspirational? I hear all the time that ‘OKRs should be inspirational.’ The thing is, we’re all looking to use OKRs to advance the organization’s goals. So, while inspiration is great when you can get it, in practice it often becomes a stumbling block. Which is better: rejecting perfectly sound OKRs because they don’t ‘sound’ inspirational enough or using mundane Objectives that end up getting the job done? Which is better: refining the the perfectly inspirational Objective and missing the start of the OKR period or using solidly grounded OKRs to hit the ground running? End result in my experience: managers and team members take a long time to define the perfect inspirational OKR, or reject perfectly good OKRs because they’re not inspirational enough, or not profound enough.

Stretch if it works. As a CRO, I’ve worked with (and in) organizations ranging from startups to Global 100s. The reality is some enterprises (many tech startups for example) respond well to stretch goals. Others (often more mature, established companies) find that stretch goals are counter-productive. I’ve come to realize that the massive performance boost that comes from setting and communicating clear goals and establishing meaningful alignment is what’s so powerful. The leverage you get here outweighs any benefit from stretch Objectives many times over. Don’t waste your time worrying about whether your OKRs are ‘stretchy’ enough – if it turns out you can do more that will become clear over time.

Accept imperfect alignment. The perfectly aligned organization exists only on paper (or in some academic textbook). Instead, try aiming for meaningful alignment by communicating clear Company level OKRs, and allowing each department, function or team to use the power of the OKR framework to independently align themselves against the desired outcomes. The immediate impact of stopping what’s not important and spending more time focused on those actions that drive growth far outweighs any academically interesting but in practice irrelevant vision of perfect alignment.

Transparency has degrees. Transparency should be encouraged and enabled throughout the organization. However, similar to Alignment, ‘complete’ Transparency is likely to prove excessive or even counter- productive. The reality is that Transparency must be balanced against regulatory requirements, such as data privacy and labour laws, and should be sensible, sensitive, and flexible to accommodate cultural differences and personal preferences. Once again, the advantages of improved Transparency are worth the effort regardless of whether that Transparency is ‘perfect.’

Stop the mandated OKRs I’ve seen amazing payoffs across all types of organizations as a result of implementing OKRs. Nonetheless, requiring that each and every employee must deploy a set number of OKRs from day one increases the administrative burden, and ups the risk of failure. If this is a concern there’s an easy solution: start small, and ease into the process. A clear set of company OKRs communicated to everyone for a couple of quarters will do wonders getting everyone on the same page.