Why I Don’t Love OKRs
The question is not which framework to choose. The question is how do we succeed as a company? On Objectives, OKRs, NCTs — lessons from reinventing the company goal setting.
Let me tell you something about me, I have limited tolerance for bullshit. So when someone approaches me with a new framework to use for the company goal setting I am not an early adopter, I am a laggard, or at best, a skeptical late majority.
- But what for? — that’s my usual response. Another fad? No, thank you.
Fads and fairy tales
OKRs seemed reasonable. Definitely better than having no objectives at all. But are OKRs a fad or are they a long-lived trend adopted by many, although understood by few?
Sometimes I get consulted about all things Agile from people working in very traditional command and control environments wanting to implement OKRs. “The management will feel so good about themselves if we did OKRs!” — is what they are thinking. “I can sell this so easily because it is so trendy!” — is what they are really doing. How does one explain that for anything to work, you need a solid foundation and not a catchy trend?
In the end, it all boils down to one thing — are we just selling fads or actually wanting to improve the way the organizations work by making the business thrive and the employees happier and more engaged?
What are the OKRs?
Let’s get back to the OKRs. What are those?
OKRs are the 21st-century MBOs
They are the 21st-century MBOs (Management by Objectives popularized by Peter Drucker in 1954) since they have been used in Google and other Big Tech companies.
My favorite conspiracy theory is that OKRs were invented as a psyop from Google to slow down other companies:
As explained by John Doerr, the greatest evangelist of OKRs, the abbreviation stands for Objectives and Key Results:
An Objective is simply what is to be achieved. By definition, Objectives are significant, concrete, action-oriented, and (ideally) inspirational. When properly designed and deployed, they’re a vaccine against fuzzy thinking and ineffective execution.
OKRs, What Matters
Key Results are there to help us achieve the Objectives. The helping question here is “how will you accomplish it?” And they help to determine if the goal has been accomplished:
Key Results benchmark and monitor how we get to the Objective. Effective KRs are specific and time-bound and aggressive yet realistic. Most of all, they are measurable and verifiable. You either meet a key result’s requirements or you don’t.
OKRs, What Matters
And it looks terrific on paper. If I’m employed by a company that has been working with OKRs for some time, I would do my best to help them make the most of them. Create inspiring goals, and have everyone listen to Bono talking about them — after all, inspiration is the key to employee engagement and motivation. Then find data to be able to back them up and create meaningful KRs. And so on.
As Agile As A Steam Train
Maybe it is not the OKRs I am not a big fan of, it’s more how they are adapted by the companies. A company would usually find an Agile guru and ask them to implement the OKRs for them. Someone from outside who has no clue about the company culture, company business, etc.
And off they go. It becomes a marathon of the creation and iteration over and over again with the OKRs for the exec team. Then it’s the turn of the higher and middle management to create their OKRs off the exec ones. Afterwards each and every team has to create theirs and so on. The spreadsheet is slowing down, it seems like a steam train that can barely move unless you add loads of coal to it. You arrive at a point where you need to change all the laptops of people managing the OKRs, so they can even open the spreadsheet, lol.
A practical problem
It is not only the implementation and the hassle of having everyone with their own set of OKRs. On top of that, it is very hard to create inspirational goals with meaningful KRs. Imagine you need to deprecate a tool. The first instinct of people is to create a goal like:
O: Deprecate the steam train.
And the KRs will be something along the lines of:
KR1: Complete the necessary railway traction enhancement.
KR2: Train the conductors to run an electric train.
KR3: Complete the electrification of the tracks.
(I am using a real example just adjusted to railway reality, and yes it is an antipattern.)
Are you excited to work on your goal yet?
You might ask —Do you want it all and do you want it now? What does it mean to complete? Do we want 100% of all tracks electrified? During what time? Do we have 100 years to accomplish it?
The answer probably is somewhere to be found in an epic or a PRD, if you are lucky to have one, or a PM has it in their head. However, if you are new and look at the OKRs you will have no clue about the “why”. And by stating the Key Results so vaguely instead of providing direction to the teams, we are increasing their confusion.
The lack of context or an intent
Another confusion could be about the goal itself. Why spent huge amounts of money on electrification if the steam trains are up and running? What’s the value of doing so? Are we sure the overhead wires won’t bring more problems? What about other alternatives like diesel-fueled trains?
The objective alone without a context is not enough. Even if the context is explained when OKRs are presented, it can be easily forgotten, missed, and ultimately misunderstood. Few people will bother to look for the slides from the all-hands to remind themselves about what has been said. That is if it has been said at all.
The pros and cons of OKRs
I think OKRs can be a helpful tool for mature companies with an implicit understanding of the product. If the stakeholders share enough context or if the product is easy to understand, say a Spotify or a Netflix, even an Uber, a Free Now, a Tinder, or a Bumble — something everyone can use and understand (if they are not embarrassed to do so).
It is a great framework provided that its implementation is simplified to avoid monster spreadsheets. For example, having annual company goals and quarterly team or product line goals. I prefer the OKRs at the product level due to potential dependencies between the teams that could lead to siloed goals. I can really see this light way of implementing OKRs being helpful for everyone involved.
For that though, we need to learn to set quality goals, as opposed to “complete a task” goals. To use our steam train example, a more understandable goal would be:
O: Increase the coverage of faster and more efficient electric trains by switching from the remaining steam trains to electrical ones.
And the KRs will be something along the lines of
KR1: Railway traction of Tier 1 (most used tracks) enhancement increased from 40% to 80% by the end of Q1
KR2: 100% of conductors of Tier 1 and 2 to be provided with electrical train training by the end of Q1
KR3: Tier 2 tracks to increase electrification from 60% to 90% by the end of Q1
However, if we are facing a new and complex product that not everyone understands and which vision lies in the head of a few leaders, who are not even aligned on it yet, things can easily go astray. And this is the case for many companies and even more startups. In this case, having only OKRs might not be enough. People need to be provided with the context, the why, and the understanding of a customer problem that needs to be solved.
How to make sure we provide enough context?
I preach sharing the context with the people. Sharing just a goal with no context or explanation can lead to misunderstandings and prevent people from greater engagement.
There are a lot of stories out there about people motivated by their personal bonuses to work blindly towards their personal goals and meanwhile collapsing the company. We don’t want just a shallow activity of moving the metrics, we want an understanding of value creation for the company.
I don’t have answers to all my doubts and questions for greater context delivery to teams. And I would like to invite all of you to share your ideas and the practices you use for ensuring a better understanding of the company strategy and leaders’ intent behind the goals.
A narrative for success
In my search for answers, I recently stumbled upon a simple framework that takes into account a narrative for the employees to understand the “why” of the goals. It’s called NCTs — Narrative, Commitment, Tasks. Yeah, yet another three-letter abbreviation. I think I’m not such a laggard with this one because they got me sold on the “narrative” part I am missing from the OKRs. Or perhaps it is because I found it on my own…
I also identify with the problems they share in the Reforge article e.g.:
“Teams set lofty goals, often to impress leadership, without also establishing actionable commitments that will enable the team to actually achieve the goal. When inevitable failure comes, teams lose credibility and maybe even start doubting their own skills.”
This is a side-effect of the leadership's failure to provide a strategy:
“Product teams are often given a lofty goal like “Improve retention by 5%” without any clear path for how to get there. Leaders who assume teams will figure it out are delegating strategy, not enabling execution. This leaves teams rudderless.”
“There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve retention by 5%. But teams also need to align around a pragmatic plan for how to get there, rather than throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.”
“For example, before goal-setting around improving retention, teams should know what retention is composed of, which levers are likely to move it, and which solutions effectively pull those levers.”
A different goal-setting system
Here is what the framework looks like:
I will not get into explaining how it works in detail — you can read the Reforge article for that. I will though share an example of the goals set by TripAdvisor I found on Twitter and find appealing:
Avoiding the certainty illusion
Maybe all we try to do here is actually to prevent the over-commitment and the certainty illusion of a Gantt Chart. We try to focus on objectives rather than features, move away from precise deadlines and towards providing value within a foreseeable timeframe.
In the end, what we are aiming for is setting a new kind of roadmap where we understand the problems we are trying to solve, get the why behind them and collectively try to find the best solutions for them. Something like what I found in an article by Claudia Delgado “A Modern Roadmap”:
I wonder what you think about it? How do you set goals and set up roadmaps? I am very curious as I am working on the annual and quarterly planning for my company and would love to hear more about the practices that work for you!