Ludwig Wittgenstein and OKR implementation

Jerzy Stawicki is the Managing Partner at JS Project – a consulting company specializing in project management, portfolio and program management and business consulting. In this Voices of OKR post Jerzy explains why language is key to the success of OKR implementation.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

You might be intrigued by the title of the post and even wonder – what is the connection between famous Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and Objectives and Key Results?

Let’s start with a very quick introduction of Wittgenstein, described by Bertrand Russel as “perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating”. He was a philosopher interested not only in logic, but also in the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. The last element, philosophy of language, is exactly what connects him to OKRs and OKR implementation.

Philosophy of language

There is quite a lot of terminology in the realm of OKRs and goal management, such as goal, objective, purpose, result, outcome, output, task, activity, project, BAU, KPI, CSF, NC, etc. As it so happens, most of these terms are really similar or even mean the same.

So, what exactly is the link between Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and OKR methodology and its implementation? Let’s quote the philosopher:

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.

What does it really mean? That the language we know, understand, and speak really defines how we think, act, and behave. All those elements define our world. But let’s dig deeper into the connection between the language and the OKR methodology.

OKR Terminology

What does ‘objectives’ mean when it comes to OKRs? It’s a question I’ve always been asked by people starting with OKRs. Let’s make it clear: in an OKR, the Objective helps you achieve your goals – it provides a context for what we want to accomplish. Then you have a few Key Results for each Objective plus a few Actions for each KR. Difficult to understand? Only up to the moment when you use the right words and describe everything with precision. If you don’t understand the main OKR terminology, you will be completely lost within the world of goal management.

Another question I recently got from a customer in the process of implementing OKRs was: “What happened with SMART goals, where ‘A’ stands for achievable/attainable?” Part of my answer was: “SMART gone with the wind. Instead of SMART, companies are now using the OKR methodology, better aligned with VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) environment”. But with that question, we again see the problems arising due to the big number of language terms and the similarities between them – misunderstandings, time spent on explanations, etc.

One more question and related issues stemming from goal management language ambiguity – what about BAU (Business as Usual)? Can we and should we use OKRs for BAU management? How?

One practical solution is the development of a glossary of the terms in the field of goal management, including their detailed explanation and clarification for what and how they will be used during and after the adoption of OKRs.

The dictionary is just the first step. The next, more important one is to encourage the people in the organization, from senior management to interns, to speak that language. Clear and consistent OKR language will lead to clarity, common understanding, efficient communication, successful OKR implementation and goal achievement.

The practical tips based on my experience with OKRs deployment in various companies is:  

  • Don’t forget the language, as it is the forgotten success factor for OKR implementation
  • Create the dictionary of terms in the realm of goal management and terms and phrases used in the OKR methodology
  • Help people grasp the meaning and use that language on a daily basis

To paraphrase Wittgenstein’s quote – “The limits of my language are the limits of my OKR world … and OKR implementation”.

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