Who should own OKRs: person, team or both?

One of the first questions you may face when you decide to implement OKRs in your organization is who exactly should own OKRs: employee, team (under team, we also understand divisions and departments), or some mix of both.

In practice, companies do all three. In this post we are going to explore how to approach this decision.

How are OKRs set in an organization?

 

Let us start by examining ways in which organization may set OKRs.

Fundamentally, there are three ways in which OKRs can be set in an organization:

  • Top-down
  • Bottom-up
  • and Negotiation
Three ways of setting OKRs in an organization
Three ways of setting OKRs in an organization

From the infographic above, we can see that regardless of the way in which OKRs are set, it makes sense for every employee to own OKRs. The caveat here is that, given the approach, we may not reap same benefits in all of the setups.

If we believe that three key promises of OKRs are:

  • Transparency
  • Alignment
  • and Engagement

it stands to reason that in the top-down setup, employees may not be as engaged, as they are in negotiation and bottom-up approaches. In the same way, in the bottom-up approach, one could imagine situations of slight misalignment.

Companies whose culture and DNA allows for it, therefore, generally go with the negotiation method.

Ability to make decisions

 

In companies where every employee has a degree of autonomy in making decisions, every employee should own an OKR. Without such autonomy, OKRs will very soon turn into a to-do list, which is something to be avoided.

Let us examine an example of Javier, a junior software developer.

Javier is part of a five people team led by Sara, the team lead. Every week Sara plans a sprint and assigns tasks to all team members, including Javier. In this case, Javier does not own a plan which links goals with effort and hence, having Javier own OKRs is setting him up for a failure. Therefore, OKRs should be owned by the team and/or Sara.

A different example, is Marie. Marie is an account manager in a sales team led by Peter. Peter has committed to increase existing accounts by 20% for the quarter and communicated this to his team, however, he is not assigning tasks directly. Marie has targets, but her tasks are not specifically assigned. So, Marie has a degree of autonomy in which she is able to decide how will she go about hitting her target. For example, she could decide that she will Expand her key accounts by talking to them at least twice a month, or she could decide to try to expand smallest accounts thinking this is where there is most room for improvement. In that case, Marie should own OKRs even though she is an individual contributor. The reason for this is that Marie has an autonomy to define a plan which links goals with effort.

The case of individual, non-aligned OKRs

 

OKRs are generally thought of as a management tool, however, there are people that use them as an individual goal setting method. It is possible to envision a setup in which even employees with very little or no decision making autonomy, can set OKRs. Those OKRs are not directly aligned with the company OKRs (such as “Double the revenue”), but there could be an indirect link.

Let us go back to the example of Javier. Javier does not have the authority to craft the plan of achieving company goals (this is Sara’s responsibility), however, Javier indeed has an authority over the way in which he will deliver on the given tasks. For example, Javier could set an individual goal of “Shipping better code”, where the key results could be number of unit tests written, code coverage of his code, number of failed builds and so on. While it would be hard to directly link that objective with company’s goals, it stands to reason that if Javier ships better code, company would do better overall.

If not all, which employees should own OKRs?

 

The best way to illustrate the points made above is by taking a look at the following matrix.

When should employee own OKRs?
When should employee own OKRs?

 

There are three dimensions that should guide our decision about OKRs and which employees own them:

  • The method in which OKRs are set throughout the organization
  • The degree of decision making autonomy employee has
  • Type of an OKR: company aligned OKR vs individual, non-aligned OKR

We can summarize few basic rules:

  • Employees without decision making authority should not own company aligned OKRs
    • Exception is individual, non-aligned OKRs
  • Employees with full decision making authority should always own OKRs.
    • Objectives are usually vague
    • Manager usually comes up only with an objective, employee with KRs
  • Employees with some decision making authority should always own OKRs
    • Objectives are usually specific
    • Manager has input on KRs

When to use team OKRs?

There are several reasons to assign OKRs to a team, be it division, department or just a small team.

First and foremost, it drastically helps everyone in the team derive their own OKRs. It sets priorities, focus, mission – if you will – so everyone know what needs to be done.

Second, depending on the organization structure, it may be only feasible way. Many organizations operate in setups where work or goals are being assigned to the team and/or team manager. If team members don’t have authority to make decisions, than assigning OKRs to the team is the only sensible thing to do.

Finally, when first implementing OKRs process, many companies will want to reduce the complexity. Having first one or two iterations be for teams only, usually facilitates that desire.

Summary

 

So, the answer to whom to assign OKRs is customary “it depends”.

There are, however, certain factors on which the decision depends:

  • the way company is structured
  • the way it chooses to set OKRs
  • the decision making autonomy of a given employee
  • the type of OKR
  • and the stage at which company is, in regards to the implementation of the OKR process