How to restart your OKRs when they fail miserably?

Posted by Ivan Osmak
on January 26, 2018

Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) are a great management methodology, but implementing them is notoriously hard. Very sizeable percentage of companies that decide to implement OKRs will fail within first 6 months. At this point, organizations will face a fork in the road: abandon OKRs or try to restart the effort and avoid the problems encountered the first time around.

We have helped many organizations get their OKRs process right and in this post, we will outline our approach to restarting OKRs.

The single reason why OKRs fail

Even though you will find numerous articles with reasons why OKRs fail, fundamentally it always boils down to the fact that OKRs fail because people stop using them.

I have talked to hundreds of companies that use OKRs – and the one singular difference between those being successful and those that fail is – activity. Just like physical exercise – OKRs tend to have effect for those that do them, and no effect for those that don’t.

So, if you are to restart OKRs process within your organization – you need to focus only on one single problem – why have people stopped using OKRs?

Why do people stop using OKRs?

Over the time we have identified numerous reasons why people stop using OKRs. You are the only person which can determine the exact reason for your organization, but here is a list of the usual suspects.

  1. Management does not care about OKRs
    This is the mortal sin of all OKRs implementations. Everything else can be fixed midflight – but if management is not behind OKRs, they will be stillborn. To put it simply: “if management does not care, then it’s not important and if it’s not important I am not doing it”.
  2. People don’t understand OKRs
    Second most popular reason to stop using OKRs is “because it doesn’t make sense”. Not sure how or where to start leaves many people frustrated and ultimately they just stop doing it.
  3. Putting OKRs rules before business
    Another common problem is the tyranny of OKRs; when everything in the company is secondary to “OKRs best practices”. People will soon grow disillusioned and abandon OKRs in such cases as well.
  4. Magic bullet expectations
    OKRs will not solve problems on their own – they will only provide a framework for the company to focus its strategy and track its execution.
  5. Unpopular truths are uncovered
    An interesting side effect of OKRs is that many times they will put the spotlight on the darkest places of the organization.
  6. The process is cumbersome and complex
    Establishing a complex process, which is hard and cumbersome to follow will kill anything – let alone a management methodology. The more smooth the process, the largest the chances it’ll take roots.

Fixing what’s broken

Once you have identified what went wrong, you are in a good place. Now it’s time to devise a plan how to solve the problem. You probably already have some ideas on how to approach the problem, nonetheless, I’ll offer advice on what usually works.

Management does not care about OKRs

This is simultaneously the simplest and hardest problem to solve. If you can bring the management on board, you have solved the problem. If you cannot – you really should abandon OKRs. There is no point in prolonging the agony.

People don’t understand OKRs

This is a somewhat tedious problem to solve, but generally pretty straightforward. Typical solutions here include:

  • hiring a consultant to train the team on OKRs
  • appointing one or more OKR champions
  • preparing an internal presentation to train people on the basics

You can download out Playbook for implementing OKRs as a starting point.

Putting OKRs rules before business

This problem is generally very easy to solve. Namely, OKRs should never be an end in itself – they are just a structured way of reaching your goals. To solve this problem, you just need to accept that not everyone needs to own an OKR. Not every OKR needs to align perfectly or at all for that matter. Not every objective needs to have 5 key results.

Insisting on bureaucratic perfection is a pretty good way to turn off even the die-hard fans.

Magic bullet expectations

In an attempt to sell others on the idea of OKRs, people often oversell it. If your sales are stalling or your churn is running wild – no, just adopting OKRs will not fix that. Using OKRs will help you communicate to your team what are your priorities, focus your effort and track progress – but that’s about it. Buying a Fitbit will not put you in shape.

The simple solution to this problem is just to be very transparent and frank with everyone.

Unpopular truths are uncovered

Now, this is a really tough one – but also, cathartic, if you can push through it. OKRs require transparency, so the people that have problems with their contribution being public will object. Sometimes, even the company itself will have “public secrets” – things we don’t talk about.

Another twist on this problem is a realization that there is no strategy. Top level OKRs look like a random wish list. In a similar vein of thought, many people have problems saying no – or better yet – this is the things we will not work on.

Fixing this problem will require a lot of soul-searching, and executive management support is absolutely critical to fix this. Then, on the other hand, being able to look the scariest problems in the eyes and deal with them, is what separates great companies from dead ones.

The process is cumbersome and complex

There are two opposite causes of this problem: oversimplifying and overcomplicating.

Oversimplifying the process is often seen when a 1,000 people company decides to do OKRs with post-it notes or in Google Sheets. Opening a spreadsheet with 6,000 rows in a browser is always fun.

Overcomplicating is just the other side of the same problem. Often this will manifest itself in complicated sign-off procedures, policies, meetings and so on.

The best answer to this problem is to be open-minded about the process and listen to the feedback. Nothing should be set in stone and evolving your OKRs process should be the default state of the mind.

Revamping the OKRs

Once you have identified the problems and have an idea on how to fix them, you can start revamping your OKRs process. Though, do not expect an all-over enthusiasm this time around.

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First, make sure you communicate clearly that the current OKRs process is not working – sweeping this under the rug will backfire.

Next, present your findings – why do you think it didn’t work and what is it that you plan to do about it.

If your previous implementation of OKRs included a large group of people or even entire organization, reduce the number of people. Humility goes a long way. Prove that you have indeed diagnosed and fixed problems correctly before deploying the OKRs across the board again.

Finally, bear in mind that it’s completely okay to abandon OKRs – but before you do so, be very honest with yourself why are you doing it. There are valid reasons, but there are also excuses.

 

 

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