How NOT to define and implement OKRs

How NOT to define and implement OKRs

6 tips that you should NOT follow if you want to implement or define Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) successfully in your company.

Have you done any of these things when implementing or defining Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)?

When implemented well, Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) can improve transparency across your business, increase productivity and align teams to focus on your all-important company goals. There are many reasons why they are so effective and some of the leading companies in the world, like Facebook, Uber, and Google use OKRs. So they must be doing something right.

But what about those companies who aren’t doing OKRs right? This refers to those who like the principles of OKRs, but aren’t willing to engage in the company culture changes needed to deliver them successfully. These are the companies who will say, “OKRs don’t work” or “OKRs did nothing for our business”, without acknowledging that they never fully invested in them in the first place.

We’ve experienced this mindset first-hand, and it’s a tough nut to crack. OKRs won’t change your business overnight. And the truth is you’ll need to make some changes, invest time and fully commit to the process if you want it to work.

Here’s a guide on how NOT to define OKRs, with some tips on how to overcome these common pitfalls.

1. Get started without having buy-in from leadership

Employees watching presentation
It might be easier to chat to teams you know, but will it work?

We all know this, but influencing change doesn’t happen if you only talk to people that are already sold on the idea.

In order for OKRs to be a company-wide success, your senior leadership team should be invested in the concept. Not only that, they really need to ‘get it’ and understand why OKRs are such a revolutionary approach. Their input doesn’t stop there, they then need to advocate to other senior leaders and managers, spreading the good word to the rest of the organisation. 

If you’re a single Product Manager or small development team who’s keen to implement OKRs, that’s wonderful. But you’ll have a much better chance of success if you influence senior leaders and stakeholders to join and support your OKR journey. 

If you're struggling to get the leadership team on board, find one senior sponsor/advocate and work closely with them to set up OKRs in a small area of the business and use that as a ‘guinea pig’ test to show to other stakeholders. People will naturally become curious and interested when they see you are doing something different that seems to be working.

2. Define team OKRs in isolation from the company

Isolated wolf
Don't be the lone wolf

OKRs won’t really do much if they don’t link to the bigger picture goals of the company.

To work effectively, OKRs should be linked directly to your company’s overarching goals. The senior leadership team should be sharing these goals and reinforcing their priority order on a regular basis. Anyone in the company should be able to recall the current priorities without hesitation because they’re so ingrained in their minds. 

No team within the organisation should be working on tasks that aren’t linked to the company’s objectives. If they are, then there’s an even bigger need for OKRs to be implemented properly. It’s worth the effort - if everyone in the business understands OKRs and is aligned on how to use them, you’ll have a far greater chance of success.

3. Implement OKRs in any old team working methodology

Pretty, yes. A good place to define some OKRs, not so much.

Don’t go chasin’ waterfalls” as the band TLC wisely said back in the 90’s.

And by 'waterfalls', they were obviously talking about software development methodologies! While this isn’t really about Agile software development, the cultural differences between Agile and Waterfall approaches may have an effect on your chances of successfully defining your OKRs.

Defining and successfully implementing OKRs in a Waterfall environment isn't impossible but it could be a challenge, as many of the principles of a Waterfall culture simply don’t work for OKRs:

  • Hierarchy and dictatorial management styles
  • Single-function teams working in isolated silos
  • Heavy documentation that’s usually pre-defined a solution before work starts
  • Long-term process planning rather than a fast iterative approach

You don’t necessarily need to completely shift your organisation into an Agile wonderland, but you may need to make some changes before you can effectively get started with OKRs. 

4. Use OKR progress as a carrot for bonuses

A rabbit and some carrots
Rabbits should only have carrots in moderation. They're too sugary

Just a reminder that we’re talking about things not to do here! So really you shouldn’t use your team’s bonus as an incentive to do OKRs.

If you want to implement OKRs with long-term success, you’ll need your workforce to understand their value. You’ll need the process to grow organically and develop as your teams get more familiar and confident at using OKRs within their daily routine.

The issue with linking OKRs to a bonus or incentive is that employees may set low bars to improve their chances of achieving them. OKRs are designed to be stretch targets (though you can use them as realistic targets too). People need to be naturally motivated to set ambitious Objectives and Key Results, and shouldn’t fear losing their bonus or having negative repercussions if they don’t meet them. 

OKRs can deliver immense value to your organisation and every employee will benefit from better transparency, cohesion, alignment and project success, so you shouldn't need to incentivise employees to adopt the process. Once your teams begin seeing the impact of OKRs first-hand, the value and benefit to them will be obvious. 

If you choose to reward your staff after a particularly successful project or year, that’s a wonderful motivator! But it’s best not to use OKRs as an incentive before the work has even begun.

5. Try to be SMART when defining your OKRs

Equations on a chalk board
I'm not quite sure why you'd write equations on some rusty metal, but there you go

We’re talking about S-M-A-R-T goals here, and how this isn’t the way to think of OKRs. SMART goals for those unaware are defined as Specific Measurable Attainable Realistic and Timely. They're pretty common in the business world.

If you’ve been reading along so far it might be clear why this approach to goal setting doesn’t quite work with OKRs. It’s down to the A-R sections of the acronym: Attainable and Realistic. Now you might be thinking “surely you want a goal to be those things!” And you do, but at the same time you don’t, because it can limit your team's ability to reach beyond that target.

According to Harvard Business Review, the traditional SMART goal setting framework is less than ideal in a modern workplace. Similar to our point above about not linking OKRs to bonuses or incentives, HBR explains;

“The SMART technique encourages people to set low goals. No one is going to set goals that don’t seem attainable or realistic, but a manager’s weakest subordinates may glom on to the A and the R in the acronym as their justification for setting goals at the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel level of challenge. It’s the setting of high goals—tough, demanding, stretching—that generates the greatest levels of effort and performance.

Rather than using the acronym as a way to determine which goals are wise or worth pursuing, use it only as a test to check whether goals are well stated.”

Harvard Business Review)

When setting Objectives, Key Results and Initiatives, make sure that they are worded succinctly and clearly articulate what you’re going to achieve and when. Take a look at our guide to writing OKRs if you need some help with this.

6. Skip the retrospectives and plough on regardless

Bulls locking horns
"Must. Define. OKRs..."

For those of you not familiar, retrospectives are a great habit to get into as a team. It encourages teams to talk about what went well, and what didn’t go so well, from a recent batch of work. It’s meant to be a safe space to discuss things that otherwise might eat away at morale. Applying this approach to your rollout of OKRs makes it clear to everyone that it’s an iterative thing that isn’t set in stone.

What are your OKRs delivering? How are the team finding the process? Where are they struggling? Are they responding to any changes in current priorities? If you’re not able to answer these questions, you might need to schedule more frequent retrospective meetings to get more insight into the success of your OKRs.

Many businesses assume that, because they’re able to get so much visibility of progress and statuses through their OKRs software, this negates the need for face-to-face time (or remote over video calls!) with the team. This is not the case. In fact, it’s vitally important that your teams make time for regular retrospectives, especially in the early days of your OKRs journey.

The OKR software can do much of the hard work for you, but it will never replace the need for human interaction and face-to-face “how’s it going?” conversations.

Now for something that isn't a confusing negative!

If you like the idea of OKRs but would like to see them in action before you commit, we can help!

Just3Things is free to try with no obligation to commit to a contract or sign up after the trial. It’s as simple as flicking a switch to get started and we’ll support you through your trial to make sure you get insight into all the features and benefits OKRs can offer.

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