The cart before the horse… making OKRs work for your organization
Senior Director of Product :Rakutan / Senior Advisor EnRusk
I have a love-hate relationship with Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). Lately, I have been asked a lot about how to write OKRs. I kept sending people to various medium posts. My husband, the formidable Dr. Kynan Robinson, strongly suggested I should write my own. Here are a few thoughts and insights born from my 20 plus years of experience building products across many different organizations, startups, and corporations across the globe. I’ve also interspersed some quotes and views from my team members. I hope this post helps anyone who is on the OKR journey.
Let’s start with the love ❤.
When we understand the ‘why’ behind a tool, there is far more likelihood of achieving success. Given that lets ask why might we use OKRs, and what are they trying to achieve?
OKRs are key markers telling us when we are heading in the right direction. They signpost the path when we feel we are getting a little lost, and the windy road we are on is disappearing into the horizon. They exist within a greater whole, the organization’s North Stars and Goals.
I asked some of my team for their thoughts, and they responded with the following:
If done right, they can:
“Hold my team accountable and keep us on track.”
“Make it clear how my team is contributing to the company objectives.”
“Quantifiable and celebrate achievement.”
“Help with one of the hardest challenges, prioritization, and trade-offs. Focus on the most important things”.
“They foster transparency and collaboration.”
Now that we understand their use, let’s take a moment to dive into a simple explanation of those three letters:
O is for Objective
The Big What — a qualitative, tangible, big hairy goal
KR — Key Result
The Big How — how can you measure you are on the path to your Objective?
OKRs = Objective (what) + KRs (how)
That sounds easy and like a pretty smart thing to do.
So why the hate? 😣
Some common things I hear and feel when this process fails:
“We feel locked in unable to change the OKRs easily.”
“I don’t know how we are contributing to the company’s vision and Objective.”
“We often forget about them and don’t check-in on them.”
“Leadership chose our OKRs. I don’t know what they mean for my team.”
“There are too many numbers to focus on. I don’t know which ones are most important.”
With that in mind, here are a few common pitfalls to avoid that might help to set both you and your team up for success.
Common Pitfalls and Challenges Faced When Using OKR's
1. Avoid Cold-storming 🤔
People can waste a lot of time fixating on the writing of OKRs without having spent much time on discovery. By this, I mean problem finding through curating, creating, and analyzing data. As soon as someone mentions writing OKRs, I often see a flurry of activity in the direction of
How do I write them?
How do I craft the perfectly written one?
What words do I use?
And a variety of similar ‘not so important’ starting questions.
There is often the expectation that teams can simply sit and write them. I call this ‘coldstorming’, akin to the problem that cold-start recommendations systems have.
With limited inputs, direction, and no bright, clear north star, teams can spin their wheels and vere off the road entirely when writing OKRs. If you’re sitting down to write your OKRs without prep work — you are putting the cart before the horse. If someone else in your company did this prep work and fed it to you, you might also struggle. Without a sound discovery process, a grasp of where the company is heading, a strong understanding of the problems you need to solve for your customer, what metrics you need to move, this can be a frustrating, time consuming, and unfulfilling process. This is where employing a good design thinking discovery process can make a big difference in getting you off to the right start.
Try asking yourself:
How good was your discovery process?
Do you know where your company is heading and do you understand it?
Does your company have a north star?
Do you have company OKRs, and do you understand what they are trying to achieve?
How well do you know your customer pain points?
Have you immersed in your data, both quantitative and qualitative?
Do you know how the data signals map back to what the company is trying to achieve?
2. Less is More 🎣
I’ve been in situations where I’ve had so many OKRs that we could literally choose anything to focus on and often ended up spinning around all of them until we re-thought the whole plan. Having too many OKRs can be worse than having none! We can develop a crippling sense of analysis paralysis. If you’re feeling like you are not sure where to focus and have too many numbers that you are trying to move all presenting different places to focus on. Until you figure this all out, you might want to start with one big Objective and 1 KR. Despite what you may read elsewhere, you don’t need to have 3 KRs — you’re allowed to break the “rules.” If you find yourself in this position sometime running the Five Whys on your KRs can help roll them up to one.
3. Think Big 🐘
It may just be me, but I find it pretty hard to rally around moving small incremental changes even if that eventually adds up to something big. I was once tasked with moving a company OKR that mapped back to incremental improvements at a feature level of approx. 10c. Even though this contributed to a significant amount once added to the bigger picture, it was hard to get motivated around. It tended to produce a micro thinking mindset in itself. I encourage you to go BIG. Find the BIG numbers and adopt Big thinking. During my time at Envato, the world’s largest marketplace for digital assets, our KR was ‘1 billion in community earnings,’ that I could get behind!
4. Key Results As Tasks — Yes or no? 🏁
Many people preach loudly about this being a big no-no. This preachiness once annoyed me because sometimes it is just hard to avoid — right?But some things should be considered in the argument.
If we see tasks as KRs it can quickly become a cart before the horse approach, a ‘solution first’ rather than an ‘outcome first’ approach.
The quick solution provides instantaneous gratification but risks missing the primary Objective. It can also lead to a future ‘blindness’ of possibility when necessary. Our motivation to pivot when needed diminishes. As one of my colleagues stated, “you feel locked in.”
Tasks can also be hard to measure in an impactful way. Let me provide a real-world example from an organization we are working with. The Objective was to create a new approach to online learning for early years students. A KR was to ‘create a task force to think about it.’ Are you successful because you created the task force? Now what? A provocative question to possibly improve the KR shifting it from a task to a KR would be, How will we measure the effectiveness of that task force toward meeting that Objective?
Of course, this is much easier to say than to do, and none of this exists in isolation. There’s a lot of pieces to fit together, and it’s not neat, so don’t beat yourself up if you are finding the process hard, you’re not alone.
This is by no means a comprehensive view on how to write OKRs. There are many other medium posts and google articles that attempt that. I am keen to hear about your experiences and happy to be a sounding board for challenges you might be having. It’s more fun and usually easier to solve together, so hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org.