7 Deadly ☠️ Sins of OKRs 🎯

Are you implementing Objectives and Key Results across your company and don’t want your colleagues to feel frustrated after the first couple of few weeks?

Note for the reader: This article expects a basic knowledge of the OKR framework, originally introduced by Intel. I try to summarize the experience I gained throughout the almost two years since we’ve started with OKRs at Kentico. I discuss various problems that teams across our company have faced at some point in the time (on a smaller or larger scale). I call the problems deadly sins and I try to give honest advice on how not to become guilty of them. Why deadly? Because each one of them causes the framework to be dysfunctional and means you won’t achieve the desired results.

Sin #1 — Missing the WHY

In order for people to feel motivated to participate, they need to understand WHY you want to implement OKRs and why it’s crucial that they check-in every week.

For a lot of people, OKRs will feel like “yet another thing to report”, or worse “yet another thing to be stressed about”. If they miss the meaning, they won’t see WHY they should even try, or worse fear the OKRs altogether.

To prevent those situations, people need to understand what’s happening with the numbers they report, who’s monitoring the results, how often, for what reason, and how it is going to affect them. Often, they want to know if there’s going to be any pushback should they not meet an Objective or a Key Result.

A rule of thumb — OKRs should be decoupled from individuals’ performance reviews.

OKRs are about setting direction on a company and team level — not about evaluating individuals. So managers shouldn’t talk about OKR completion in performance reviews. Instead, they could give their team members qualitative feedback on OKR-related behavior. For example, they might want to say things like “I liked how you often referred to our team OKRs when prioritizing your tasks” or “When deciding what to work on next, you could pay more attention to the team OKRs that are currently at risk.”
https://www.small-improvements.com/blog/okrs-vs-employee-goals/

Another thing that can hinder the meaning of OKRs, is when top-level management fails to provide feedback on the status of OKRs — no matter if it’s positive or negative. Without feedback, people can’t see how the OKRs have been useful for the company at all and lose motivation quickly.

Be prepared to answer all those difficult questions and don’t forget to speak the language that people understand.

Sin #2 — Planning initiatives bottom-up

Never. Ever. Plan your OKRs by starting with initiatives.

Especially when the company’s new to OKRs, it’s tempting for people to try mapping their existing workloads to high-level objectives. The result is usually very very clumsy.

This doesn’t mean that those who will eventually be executing the initiatives shouldn’t be involved in the OKR creation process, au contraire. But try to do it this way:

First, let people understand where the company is headed and then let them forget about their current backlogs for a while and give them enough autonomy to come up with new solutions.

Giving teams autonomy is absolutely necessary. The top-level management shouldn’t dictate how the teams are supposed to achieve their goals. No, they should set the high-level direction (company objectives) and let the teams(with the help of their leaders) invent the means of achieving them. The leaders of your teams play a crucial role in finding the right balance between the company goals and teams’ tactics. This way you’ll achieve the desired strategy alignment plus, increase peoples’ motivation by giving them more say in the tactics.

If you perform the exercise properly, people will actually understand why they do what they do 🤔

Sin #3 — Business-as-usual OKRs

You tried so hard but there is still some work that needs to be done no matter what and it just doesn’t fit under any of your objectives. First of all, don’t feel bad about it.

OKRs should help keep your senses alert and make you always question your priorities. However, not all work can be captured as OKRs and that’s fine.

OKRs promote change. They are challenging you to change your way of working in order to perform your business-as-usual work smarter.

Some teams have more business-as-usual work than others. A great example is support teams and their infinite ticket queues. There is no benefit in planning to “Answer 100% support cases”…you’ll probably have to do that anyway. Instead, try to think about how you can spend less time on tickets and more time on improving some metrics that’ll help achieve the company-level goals (while keeping customer satisfaction at the same level).

Ask yourself a question: How much time my team can dedicate to OKRs?

Does it seem that there is just too much stuff to do and no time for OKRs? OK, that’s your first brain teaser! This is actually a good sign, OKRs are forcing you to think out of the box! Seriously, how can you allocate time for OKRs (aka changes, improvements) while keeping the quality of your daily work unchanged?

Don’t worry, you’re not doing it wrong. It’s supposed to be difficult. 😉

Sin #4— Failing to understand the difference between leading and lagging indicators

I know, the theory is boring but there are a couple of things you and your people want to understand and learn by heart before you start. One of them is what Objectives, Key Results, and Initiatives represent.

Here is how I typically explain it to the people around me:

O — a goal. Something you aspire to, something you want to change/achieve. Avoid project-oriented as well as business-as-usual objectives! It’s not the purpose of OKRs to have every project logged as an Objective.

KR — a lagging indicator — something that may or may not improve based on how well you chose your mix of initiatives. Typically, it reflects the impact (not volume) of your actions/tactics. Key Results should be independent of initiatives. In other words, KR must stay relevant no matter what initiatives you chose to add or remove.

I — a leading indicator — something I can directly influence and measure. Initiatives are supposed to be easily added and removed from a Key Result.

Example of a bad O+KR:

  • O — “Create documentation for the new JavaScript SDK” (project-oriented, BAU, doesn’t promote change)
  • KR — “Spend XY man-days writing the docs” (a leading indicator, doesn’t say anything about the actual impact)

Sin #5 — Failing to report progress every week

People can be discouraged if they have no progress to report. This situation should never occur. If it does, you have a problem with immeasurement — one of the three signs of a miserable job.

The problem can be broken down into two:

#5.1 Unrealistic evaluation period

When planning OKRs people tend to think about the initiatives and the volume they will manage fit into a quarter. When setting up a Key Result, you need to ask yourself a question — is it realistic to not only make but also MEASURE a difference within a single quarter?

Key results typically have certain inertia in them, that’s why they are a lagging indicator. If you’re not able to measure the difference within the evaluation period, make it longer or drop the KR entirely.

#5.2 Forgetting about the leading indicators

This also has to do with the KRs being lagging indicators and the aforementioned inertia. Often times, it doesn’t occur to people that they should also be reporting the progress of the leading indicators — the initiatives. This way, people will (almost) always have something to report, see the progress and the direct link between their Initiatives and KRs which will keep their spirit higher.

If there is notable progress on the initiatives and the KR is still not improving (counting in KR’s inertia), it’s time to think of different initiatives.

There is a brilliant article about it: https://www.perdoo.com/blog/okr-leading-and-lagging-indicators/

Sin #6 — Inability to change the course of action

OK, the quarter is over, you graded your OKRs, some of them scored <0.5. What’s next? Should you do something about the Objective, or shall you close it and move to another topic?

A simple answer — an Objective stays open as long as it’s relevant. The same goes for Key Results. Yes, sometimes you may find out that a KR is unrealistic or hard to measure, and then it’s time to readjust. But in general, KRs should also remain the same. What changes are the initiatives — the actual tactics that support your strategy.

It’s the grading that helps you move forward and learn. Use it to your advantage but don’t feel obliged to reevaluate the relevance of OKRs exclusively during the grading session. You can do it at any time!

Sin #7 — Not trying long and hard enough

It’s been almost two years since we’ve introduced OKRs in our company and I still can’t say that we mastered the methodology to the last bit. We are getting closer every quarter but it takes time, a hell lot of time. Don’t give up!

You still got your those Chinese worry balls, sir?

Final words

I personally like working with OKRs and advocate for their correct usage across several teams in Kentico. I like the framework’s simplicity — it definitely helps promote high-level strategy changes throughout the whole company faster. The people who would usually be reluctant to listen to the “boring” strategy update meetings now have an easy way to get the context they need for making the right decisions. And that’s what matters.

I have to say that having the right tooling also helps. We use mainly Perdoo (which has its quirks but it works for the most part) and I also like to use Atlassian’s OKR templates and guides.

Let me know about your experience in the comments! :)

The open-source guy @Kentico. All posts at https://petrsvihlik.com/

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