Why I Don't Use OKRs 🥵

Feb 10, 2023 3:11 pm

Happy Friday!

Ever had those times when things just keep going wrong? Maybe not catastrophically, but just enough where you can't get back into a rhythm? That's been the past few weeks for me.

The thing that kept me from writing the past few weeks was a broken keyboard.

I wanted to write a bit today about OKRs. If you're not super familiar, they stand for Objective and Key Results. It's a management technique Google developed that companies and consultancies everywhere have messed up since. What they are intended for is to create highly-aligned business objectives at the forefront of what is going on. Those are the objectives. The key results are how you know you achieved that objective. Again, impact-oriented and measurable.

While I love the concept of OKRs, I advise all of my clients to not use them.

The reason is that OKRs, in the majority of environments, turn into a task list without any alignment, support, and misaligned incentives.

OKRs came about with a culture that already was data-driven and focused on business impact. In other words, OKRs were an evolution of what they already did instead of a tool to create what they didn't have.

When I work with clients who want to use something like an OKR it always turns very quickly into, "How do I measure my employee's performance?" This is a massive red flag as OKRs are not supposed to be achievable the majority of the time. If they were, the OKR would be equivalent to saying do your job like you always do. OKRs are an instrument to spur growth and change.

After they leak that their intent was measuring performance, I ask them what their business objectives are. This is where things continue to deteriorate. Overwhelmingly, most levels of leadership cannot articulate a business goal. I will try to work with them to develop them, and then I give the real bad news. I ask them to tell their group that this is the goal they're working towards during that quarter or year or whatnot.

Suddenly there is a conflict of all the things their people have been asked to do doesn't align to the goal, or the leader is sure people already know it.

I then tell them that two weeks after they tell their group what their business goals are, they need to take a walk and talk to folks at least 3 levels below them and see what they heard their business goals to be.

100% of the time those people never know what the goals are because nobody told them.

After all of this hits home I ask how we'd actually measure that goal's progress outside of deliverables. Then we find out that there isn't much of a capability at all to track business performance.

All of these things that I walk clients through that are a struggle are foundations for OKRs to work.

If a tool like OKRs is compelling to you, and I think it should be, you've got to first be able to do a few things:

  1. Develop measurable business goals
  2. Communicate them to your entire org faithfully
  3. Instrument their measurements

Starting OKRs in advance of those capabilities almost always creates stress, burnout, and attrition.

So there's my take on OKRs and how I typically try to get clients to a point where they could benefit from them, but I'd love to hear your experience with OKRs and what you've seen work or fail with them.



PS: My other start-up reko.day successfully validated its problem hypothesis and the mobile app is underway.

avatar Brian Landers
Great article. One correction: OKRs originally came from Andy Grove at Intel. They were brought to Google by John Doerr early in the company's life.
avatar Ryan
Brian that is awesome! I love new bits of info like that. Thanks for letting me know!