How to reframe failures & pivot OKRs
Failure is a word that strikes fear into most, nobody wants to fail at something, but is it always a problem? Becoming comfortable with OKRs, means becoming comfortable at setting stretch goals, potentially failing, and pivoting thereafter.
We asked our panel of OKR experts their viewpoint on the statement - 'Pivots are OK - how best to reframe failure with OKRs?'
Here's a quick Tl;dr:
- Not achieving Objectives and Key Results is an essential part of the OKR process
- OKR failure is actually a win, as we’ve learnt something new and can apply that learning to our next iteration
- OKRs help discover potential trends towards failure - key results should show us when is the right time to pivot
- When you fail, run a retrospective to inspect & adapt and define your next experiment
- Expectation management and positive framing by the leadership team right from the start is key
- A lot of OKR journeys take longer than a year to give full results, but progress and improvements should be visible along the way!
- Borrow from agile…. Fail fast, learn faster… and use common sense - Don't panic!
- Using OKRs is a new way of working. It is a culture change and continuous learning process. Don’t expect to have them working from the beginning
Natalija Hellesoe, Organsational Dev Coach & OKR Expert
Not achieving Objectives and Key Results is an essential part of the OKR process - and does not need reframing. One of the most important learning curves many teams starting with OKRs are going through is the change in mindset from "only" seeing 100% goal achievement as the ultimate goal to viewing the goal process as a learning opportunity as well - where you reach results, but also gain essential insights about your customers, your products or your collaboration. And you also gain insights about the way you work with goals - what serves you and what does not, and what needs to change in order to (even better) achieve your goals. The reflection of the "failures" is crucial to continuously improve your results.
However, it is important to focus on the learnings and action items for the next cycle rather than get stuck on the "failure" itself. To ensure that, open communication, psychological safety and a definition of success beyond the standard KPIs in a team are essential!
And don’t forget: Many times when something does not work out in your OKRs the reason "why“ lies beyond the OKR process - so make sure you reflect on the other organisational elements (like leadership, organisational structure or connections to compensation & benefits) and their interdependency to OKRs as well - it’s too easy to blame the messenger (in this case e.g. the OKR process that makes impediments transparent) and not act on the underlying issues.
Richard Russell, OKR & Leadership Coach
“Pivots” are not always OK. Sometimes a pivot is just a nice name for failure, and it’s worth facing up to that honestly.
But whether we failed or we pivoted, we need to learn from the experience and move forward towards success.
Perhaps we were searching for product-market fit, and discovered that some of our basic assumptions were wrong and need to pivot. While it doesn’t feel good, that’s actually a win, as we’ve learnt something new and can apply that learning to our next iteration. Possibly we should frame our OKRs around learning, to reflect the actual success.
But perhaps we failed to execute a plan and missed our OKRs, or perhaps we executed well and maybe even hit our OKRs, but didn’t deliver the expected results. In the first case, we have an execution failure, and in the second a strategy failure. The remedies are different, but in both cases, OKRs can help us diagnose and fix the problem so we can move forward. Great leaders can use well-written OKRs to turn these failures into future successes, and that’s what matters - there’s no point wallowing in the past failure, just learn from it, move on, and succeed.
Cansel Sörgens, OKR Coach & Trainer
In this VUCA / complex world we are living in I don’t think there is such a thing as failure. There are tries and errors. And the power of Key results are exactly to warn us as early as possible about errors. Phrases like “the marketing campaign we planned and invested for a year didn’t work” turns into “let’s try this marketing campaign concept for a smaller test group for short period of time to validate if it works as expected as measured by the Outcome KR.” The metrics in key results should show us when is the right time to pivot.
Framing the OKRs as a learning framework can be an eye-opener.
Bart Den Haak, OKR Consultant & OKR Author
There is no failure within OKRs, only learnings. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be held accountable or responsible. Use your management skills. OKRs are just a tool, they are not a silver bullet.
At the end of each OKR cycle (preferably also mid-cycle), you retrospect and adjust your OKR process. Repeat.
Allan Kelly, OKR Coach
Failure shows teams are taking risks: when there is only the sweet smell of success something is rotten. We need to celebrate risk taking and the progress which is made. It doesn’t matter how many objectives are hit or how many key result tests are passed, real success is delivering benefit, value, and making progress towards the organisations purpose. Only in textbooks does that happen in a straight line!
Remember too that failure is a great motivator: when you succeed at something you will do it the same way next time, when you fail you don’t want to do it again! Failure motivates change so rather than have a conversation were you try to convince yourselves that you didn’t fail, or that you learned something, instead have a conversation about how you will do it differently next time. Coming up with something better is the real value in failure.
Christina Lange, OKR Coach
Failure is an opportunity to learn. Whatever makes you think of pivoting, the OKR frame is helping you to learn: Run a retrospective to inspect & adapt and define your next experiment.
Sandra Pretzer, OKR Trainer & Coach
Expectation management and positive framing by the leadership team right from the start is key. When operating in a dynamic and complex environment, there are endless possibilities to reach a certain goal. We cannot know for sure which way will lead to success. Failure is inevitable. That’s why we experiment with different initiatives within an OKR cycle - ready to pivot if necessary. Not meeting Key Results is valuable information that we can learn from. If something works, double down on it. If something doesn’t work, try something else.
Plus, leadership and managers have to act accordingly - which might be a change in itself for them.
Sienam Lulla, OKR Coach, OKR Edge
Pivoting in strategy and/or OKRs gets two thumbs up from me as long as it is data driven. OKRs are a valuable tool for continuous improvement. Every failure i.e. a low score deserves a reflection. Was it due to lack of focus (too many priorities, too many distractions, too few resources...), poor execution, poor quality of OKRs or the strategy did not work? Iterate the OKRs or strategy based on the learnings.
Felix Handler, OKR & Sustainability Coach
OKR are essentially a learning framework. So when Thomas Edison famously stated “I did not fail, I just found 1000 ways which do not work” this is the mindset. You try to maximise the work not done because you learned faster. At some point you need to commit to something before finding the perfect way though, so keep that in mind. The OKR overhead should stay reasonable and lead to results that matter - not get the company stuck until they find the perfect way. Improve incrementally and celebrate your successes. A lot of OKR journeys take longer than a year to give full results, but progress and improvements should be visible along the way!
Here the same again is important as with any framework: try it out first to see if it in general is a good fit for you. Once you know what does not work - question it and possibly change it. But know first, why you want to change it (because something did not work, not because of a gut feeling). Practical experience matters. Like learning to walk. :)
Nora Pfützenreuter, OKR Coach
In my opinion, if you did the following things, there is no “failure” with your OKRs:
1. Embrace uncertainty: You cannot ultimately know if your Key Results will really lead you towards your goal or if your initiatives will really affect your key results. Therefore:
2. Be flexible with your initiatives leading to your Key Result: do not “tie” one initiative to a Key Result or even to an Objective! (This is truly agile by the way ;-) If this initiative does not work out, the whole Key Result/ Objective will fail.
3. Do regularly check if the initiatives you do are leafing to the key results you set up and keep up your curiosity and learn: put effort in continuous discovery activities around your product and customer to find new initiatives to reach your goals.
Of course it’s crucial to reflect in your OKR Retro, to see what about your work with OKRs can still be improved.
Brett Knowles, Global OKR Coach & Consultant
There is no such thing as a failure with OKRs. Think of your OKRs as a hypothesis about success: they are you and your team's best guess about what you need to focus on and what reasonable targets are to achieve. The probability of you getting those 100% correct is 0%!
OKRs are learning instrument for your business where you capture your current hypothesis (make sure monitor … and learn.) Those quarterly retrospectives are critical - at any point in time you and your team only have clarity around the near-term and the farther out in time you look, the funnel of inaccuracy gets larger and larger.
In fact we strongly recommend that you establish “trigger points” - these are performance levels within OKRs that, if seen, automatically trigger a retrospective end refresh. So, for example, if your sales exceed 120% of Target, you'd better get back and rethink your OKRs because that high sales devil will put stress on multiple parts of your organisation and make your current OKRs obsolete.
Walter G Ferrer, Transformation Expert
Get comfortable with Yellow and Red (RAG status colours) considering you have traceability, connectivity, and clarity on your side. Borrow from agile…. Fail fast, learn faster… and use common sense.
Tomek Dabrowski, OKR & Agile Coach
Using OKRs is a new way of working. It is a culture change and continuous learning process. Don’t expect to have them working from the beginning. Instead of “failure”, let's think about what you have learnt so far. Ask yourself - how OKRs have limited us? Why didn’t OKRs work in our setup? What should we try in the next OKR cycle? Gather insights and shape your process based on them.