Mission Impossible? OKRs to the Rescue

by Bart den Haak | March 5, 2020

Trickle Down?

Many organizations that make the decision to start with OKRs make the same mistake: too many OKRs at the executive level. There is a well-known management consulting firm (I won’t name names), that is still sending out junior consultants that advise that you should execute your complete strategy by only using OKRs. This development worries me a lot. As a consequence, people will continue to complain about a lack of focus and direction. Even worse, if you try to capture all your “business as usual” activities using OKRs, then what is the point of using OKRs in the first place? OKR is not a tool to replace operational management tools and techniques, therefore it is easy to predict that if this is your approach, you probably won’t achieve any of your goals and, before you know it, OKRs will be the next management fad in your organization. No kidding!

KISS

If you have 5 Objectives at the executive or management level and each has five Key Results, then basic math tells you that you end up with 25 goals. No wonder your employees are complaining that “OKRs don’t work” and are struggling to focus. No wonder you need to buy expensive OKR software that tries to manage all this OKR complexity, making you (in turn) a micromanager, constantly tracking what your teams are up to. This isn’t a great foot to start off on when building trust with your teams. If you don’t trust your teams to do their best work, then you have a bigger problem to solve. Great OKR implementation doesn’t require a complex tool. Do you really want to see all the dependencies and interconnectedness amongst the layers of staff below you, so you can busy yourself with managing their every move?

I’m sure you can tell, my stance of transparency and alignment is a core value of mine. If your teams don’t align with each other now, OKRs won’t magically solve that problem, even less so by inputting their activities into a software system. In some instances, such as working with remote teams, software is a useful tool, but it is not the recipe for success. Try to keep your OKR implementation simple and stupid, just as the old adage goes: KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

Radial Focus

If you don’t focus, if you don’t make tough decisions, OKRs won’t make that much of a difference to your organization. Multiple OKRs at the executive or management level might help to improve alignment and transparency, but it won’t help with focus. Achieving Objectives such as reaching 10x growth and making a significant impact on the bottom line will be a very long and arduous journey for those teams responsible for carrying the load.

In my opinion, OKRs are about extreme or radical focus. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t track other things in your business. If your goal is to run a marathon within a certain time, you’re still going to need to track and monitor your heartbeat, hydration, and speed. If you run too fast at the beginning, you will be exhausted midway and may not be able to even finish. Put poetically, and quoting author Jim Stuart: “To achieve a goal you have never achieved before, you must start doing things you have never done before”.

With an unhealthy company, you can’t make a difference in the world, it’s that simple. While you stretch and try to reach your ambitious targets, you still need to monitor your “business as usual”, day-to-day operations (or whirlwind, as we discussed in the blogpost “Getting the Grade: Tracking OKR & Confidence Levels”. In fact, the perfect tool for monitoring performance of your “business as usual” (BaU) are Key Performance Indicators or KPIs. There are many different indicators that are appropriate for the various levels of staff, ranging from department-specific to company wide.

The world of KPIs and OKRs are intertwined; In fact, you will likely use KPIs to monitor the impact of your OKRs, keeping an eye on them as you’re trying to reach your challenging goal. Note that KPIs and OKRs are not created equal: OKRs are a framework defining (often) quarterly goals; KPIs are figures for measuring the success of your strategy. By maintaining some targets on KPIs, it will overcome the problem of “Goals gone wild”, but this is not the realm of OKRs. OKRs are about focus, about changing human behavior (internal or external). The idea of KPIs is that they are used to monitor company or team performance. OKRs (when used correctly) can have a significant impact on KPIs.

The Land of OKR Masters

Once you master OKRs, you will understand that a minimalistic approach will actually provide you with more focus and better results. If you have made it this far, you can start experimenting with a single OKR at the top level. Sometimes called a “mission OKR”. We dove into this topic in the blogpost “Clarity with a Single OKR”. Recently, Christina Wodtke also wrote a post for Medium on this very topic: Cascading OKRs at Scale. In her article, she discusses the difference between having Company OKRs “trickle down” from the executive level in comparison with the ideal implementation of OKRs being interwoven between departments and levels of staff, where all teams involved are equally focused and working hand-in-hand.

A brilliant and relatable example of “extreme focus” is YouTube and their “key objective” which is technically a Key Result, of having “1 billion hours of watch time per day”. It took them four years to realize this OKR. Did they have any other OKRs at the company level? Not at all. Just one OKR. The result is a worldwide phenomenon: they are the market leader in online video streaming.

What If Teams Cannot Contribute?

If you are able to provide this extreme focus to your departments and teams, you could run the risk that not all teams can contribute to the company’s OKR. That’s okay! It is totally fine if not all teams or departments can contribute. I don’t understand the idea of mandatory participation. I’m really glad to read that Christina Wodtke has a similar take on this.

Of course, other teams might contribute to various degrees, perhaps only marginally. Your role as a leader is to guide them on where they can contribute, even if it is only a little bit. Even 1% could help to propel the company forward. Sometimes teams can contribute 10% of their time to OKRs, sometimes 90% of their time. It really depends on the nature of the current company OKR.

But what if you have an OKR that has a focus only on your product? How can your Finance department, for example, contribute? Should they even be expected to contribute?

Business As Usual vs OKRs Business As Usual vs OKRs

An Alternative Approach: Team Mission OKRs

As mentioned only briefly in the book of Paul Niven and Ben Lamorte, they talk about Mission OKRs for teams. The idea is the same as having a company mission OKR. Each team or department in your organization will create a mission OKRs. Not only will that help with finding the team’s purpose, but it is also an opportunity for leadership to have healthy conversations with the teams about why they exist. If every team could maybe “pitch” their mission OKR to the executives, management could provide constructive feedback to help the team refine its purpose and mission OKR, specifically in aligning with the mission, vision and values of the company.

Mission OKRs Mission OKRs

If in one OKR cycle (let’s assume here that it is quarterly) the team cannot contribute to the company OKR, then they can continue with their own mission OKR (which is aligned with the company mission). How powerful is that?! You give more autonomy and trust to the teams and department because you know they will work on the most important thing, even if they cannot always contribute to the company’s OKR as other teams can, they are still contributing to the company’s overall longevity.

Drop me an email or give me a call if you want to explore how OKRs can work to help you with your growth strategy.

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