Socrates on OKRs
Should your company adopt Objectives & Key Results (OKRs)? Is a purpose-led workforce with the latitude for real decision-making really important? Or do you suspect it’s an attractive sounding path to much chaos without effect? Or perhaps, could it really be the key to moving the needle? To answer these questions let us first explore two schools of thought, so foundational you’ll know them instinctively, if not in stark terms. Yet these frameworks, often referred to in shorthand as ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’, are so influential, like magic, they shape our work places, our societies, even how we see the world.
Bottom Line: We are not here to settle the debate about which school is more legitimate; rather our intention is to highlight the implications for boardroom strategy.
To espouse the first school of thought would place you on the side of ‘nature’. It is steeped in Biological, Cultural & Environmental Determinism with roots in Classical Antiquity and philosophical Materialism. In this paradigm decisive explanations for behaviour and society can be found by turning the microscope onto our DNA and the mechanics of our reactions. The demoralizing logical conclusion posits humans are simply more complex versions of spawning salmon instinctively responding to the dictates of biology and environment.
‘the theory that human or animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings’
Ivan Pavlov, a 19th century Russian physiologist discovered that dogs have two types of responses; unconditioned response and conditioned behavior. A dog will salivate at the sight of food regardless of external conditioning. However, with conditioning, dogs will salivate at the sound of a bell (in the experiment, a bell is rung every time food is served, and after a number of repetitions, the dog associated the ringing of the bell with the serving of food and subconsciously triggers the salivating response even when no food is served).
With philosophical materialism as the bedrock, management practices over the course of 19th century onwards have tended to identify workers as a resource, the most costly of resources, which should be managed closely, and where possible reduced, even removed. Despite meaningful improvements in terms of diversity and inclusion, a preoccupation with environment, culture, and carrot and stick, continue to betray the dominant school of thought. Whereas most companies will profess to believe in people as a highly valuable asset, the reduction of the workforce to an asset class itself tells it’s own story; and let’s be honest, the real ‘crown jewels’ are just as likely to be displayed elsewhere under headings of ‘Brand’, ‘Intellectual Property’, ‘Market Capitalization’, or ‘World Class Management Team’.
It is difficult to see how a company informed by this school of thought could be a natural home for the methodology of OKRs without rethinking first principles. In part two we will explore the alternative and answer the philosophical question of whether OKRs are relevant for your company.