OKRs, “Fat Pants” & the Plateau myth

Tim Whitmire is the founder of CXN Advisory, where he coaches executives on strategy, goal setting, alignment and execution. He is the co-founder of F3 Nation and co-author, with David Redding, of Freed to Lead: F3 and the Unshackling of the Modern-day Warrior. In this Voices of OKR feature Tim busts the myth of reaching a plateau when using OKRs.

When I work with organizational leaders on OKR projects, they often struggle over how to allot their precious Objectives — on efforts that are critical to run the business as it exists now or on initiatives aimed at transforming the business for an anticipated future state?

This distinction is similar to another familiar goal-setting rabbit hole, the eternal question of whether one should distinguish between “must-have” goals and “aspirational” goals. In the daily firefight of regular business, it’s easy to label transformational goals as “aspirational” — and never get around to them.

When I’m in these discussions, I often think about the “fat pants” that my friend Dave used to keep in the back of his closet. For years before we started working out together in 2009, Dave had yo-yoed in and out of fitness. He would get heavy, then go on an insane diet-and-workout binge and lose a bunch of weight in a very short period (of all the people I’ve known in my life, he’s in the top percentile for discipline and determination). As soon as he reached whatever weight target he set for himself, Dave would take his foot off the gas, backslide into complacency and regain the weight – and the fat pants would come out from the back of the closet.

Lacking Dave’s monomaniacal focus, I was more of a pack-on-another-five-pounds-every-six-months guy before he and I connected. But F3 Nation, the men’s workout movement we started together in 2011, solved Dave’s fitness problem as well as mine and those of a bunch of other guys. A network of free, peer-led workouts, F3 weaves participants into a tapestry of friends and workout partners who provide accountability, brotherhood and a “glue” that keeps guys posting to workouts day after day, week in and week out.

And F3 abolishes the Myth of the Plateau, the one that kept Dave climbing through all those workout-and-diet binges over the years – the belief that this time he was going to get to the top of the mountain, reach his goal weight and there would be a nice, easy place to rest and not worry about working out and eating right. F3 recognizes that there is no plateau – you simply have to put in hard work every day, and if you’re going to do that you might as well have some friends to keep you company.

The same rule holds true in business: There is no plateau.

There is no Zen state where you finally reach level ground and the business just runs like a perpetual motion machine. The leader’s challenge is not deciding whether to run the business or transform it — but doing both at the same time.

If you can’t do that, outside forces are liable to intrude – as we’ve seen vividly illustrated in 2020. In the blink of an eye “must-have” goals become aspirational and the goals you thought you could put on a back burner – those are suddenly must-haves.

Goal setting and execution frameworks like OKRs often are sold to leaders with a “Set it and forget it” sales pitch. Just put this system in place and all your problems will be solved. You won’t have to worry about this anymore.

My experience is the opposite. Goal setting and execution frameworks that truly work are ones that you set … and then reset … and reset again. They’re the business equivalent of regularly getting out of bed to go to an early morning workout — a weekly, monthly or quarterly discipline that keeps everyone climbing together and in cadence.

Always up the mountain, always making progress.

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