Notes about OKRs, goals and pitfalls

At work, I’ve been asked to know our team OKRs and set some of my own. I’m new to this, and so I decide to google for information about them. OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results, and the idea is to:

  • make aspirational, easy-to-remember goals (objectives) that stretch the company, the team, and optionally, the individual, then write them down.
    • I.e. we’re trying to answer the question, “what strategic (big) things should we do next?”
  • determine key results — notice the plural — a set of actions and measurements that will indicate how close we came to meeting the big goal
    • indicated in numeric form. This is said to be the “secret sauce” that makes OKRs better than other forms of strategic goal setting. We aren’t aiming for a perfect score. In fact, a perfect score is indicative of problems.
  • share the goals and key results widely within a company and team because it helps get people aligned (unified) and makes them accountable.

OKRs are a tool meant to help us, and as with any process, we aren’t meant to become a slave of the tool. Adapt it to make it work, or find a better tool when it doesn’t work.

Setting objectives and defining key results takes time and thought. Otherwise, it may not yield value.

OKRs remind me of S.M.A.R.T. goal setting. So why do we need OKRs? Again, I googled for an answer, and it’s approximately this: With SMART goal setting, organizations and teams tend to forget to…

  • stretch — make aspirational, strategic goals
  • act and pursue their goal — accountability is important
  • align teams and individuals with the aspirational goals

Among the many helpful things I read, I found this from

Why should I split my goals into Objectives and Key Results?

…it helps to increase company-wide transparency as everyone should be able to understand the Objective. Key Results are often more technical and don’t appeal to, or aren’t understood by, everyone.

Objectives also represent key focus points for an organization or team. They should, therefore, be inspiring and easy to remember.

The same article linked to a Harvard Business School article titled “Goals Gone Wild”, which warn of the dangers of goal setting. OKRs are supposed to have safeguards against these pitfalls. Standard pitfalls of goals include:

  • focusing too narrowly or specifically — lose sight of other valuable things such as emergent opportunities and ethical behavior
  • not enough time given to achieve the goal, or a reporting period that is too long
    • yearly measuring is too long, that’s why the key results in OKRs are measured quarterly or more frequently.
  • overly challenging goals may encourage
    • lying about performance
    • cheating to attain the goal
    • taking unacceptable risks
  • creating a culture of competition rather than cooperation
  • the goals themselves killing motivation
    • I.e. a goal (a key result) for a CEO doesn’t necessarily make sense for an engineer

Ten years ago, my wife and I bought a Hyundai Sonata. Upon completing the purchase, the salesman asked us to give him a perfect score on Hyundai’s evaluation of the sales experience. He said anything besides a perfect score was unacceptable. My wife and I raised our eyebrows, knowing that he was gaming the system. I went along with it, knowing that Hyundai wasn’t getting an accurate measurement. I regret my decision, and I hope that Hyundai realized that perfect scores were indicative of problems in their measuring.