Do key results lead to objectives? My not-so love affair with OKRs

- Practices & Exercises

by Jennifer Riggins

The Happy Melly One team has tried OKRs three times now. I’m not a fan and this blogpost explains why. Maybe by the end you can explain to me better their value. Or offer me a more logical alternative in a never-ending search to find motivating and transparent goal-setting.

What is an OKR?

Standing for Objective and Key Results, an OKR is a Management 3.0 Practice and an alternative to the more traditional corporate goal-setting of KPIs (key performance indicators.) Basically it combines qualitative and quantitative goals. For example:

  • Objective = an unmeasurable goal phrase, like “Increase brand awareness.”
  • Key Results = multiple measurable goals tied to your objective, like “Find and hire best paid marketing person someone by 31 March 2018” and “Create paid marketing plan by end of 30 April”

Last month at our retreat, our team of around ten remote part-time employees set our quarterly team OKRs — four objectives and 14 key results. Then, each teammate sets her or his own objectives that somehow support the team ones, and then, whenever possible, multiple key results to support that objective, usually between two and five.

Also Read: Jurgen Appelo’s argument for OKRs

Objectives are important.

While, as the Spanish say “Soy de letras” — a more eloquent way of saying “I suck at math” — as a marketer and writer, I realize how incredibly powerful goals tied to measurements are. There is a vast misconception that the roles I play are easy and that my creativity (and time) is boundless. Setting and measuring against goals is a great way to quantify what seems overly qualified, to give my work more perceived worth.

I also agree that as a company and as a team, you should set measurable goals so you are moving forward in a common direction. This is as important to my flat team as to a traditional corporate hierarchy. What’s also important is that everyone on a team is part of setting these goals, as well as we set individual goals. Finally, it’s essential that pay and reward systems are absolutely not tied to goals, as that’s known to deplete creativity, innovation, and motivation, plus it’s just rude.

What I do like about our current OKR scheme — if we stick to it and everyone really participates in it (but that’s another remote freelancer team challenge for another day) — is that we revisit our own goals every week, and, ideally, we will revisit the company goals monthly. This means we are measuring our work. I think this is essential to not only stay focused on a shared set of goals and a shared vision, but also that we are just measuring our own work. During the almost one-year transition from Jurgen Appelo as our leader, we were left with a leadership vacuum. We didn’t set 2017 goals and I think it left us more running the engine rather than moving forward together.

And particular to our team, I think it’s also important that we test out all the Management 3.0 Practices that we can, but we can, but that doesn’t mean we have to commit to them all.

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I think what bothers me most about OKRs is their supposed un-achievability. As I understand them, you should aim too high. You have successfully met your Objective when your Key Results achieve on average 60 to 70 percent of the set goals. Call me Type A or Overachiever (terms usually negatively allotted only to ambitious women) but what’s the point of an unattainable goal? For me, it’s like checking off a list or the satisfaction of the superfluous Kanban column of Done — I find pleasure in task completion and goal achievement. And I think for a lot of people, meeting or exceeding goals set is an important motivator.

But as Jurgen writes: “Each objective should be ambitious and feel a bit uncomfortable. You must feel like, ‘Gosh, I don’t know if I’m able to do this.’ Because, if you don’t aim high, you won’t rise fast. That’s why some people refer to such objectives as stretch goals.”

Maybe I’m missing the point of this argument? Like “Dream big or go home”? Maybe I’m just a realist. I’m all for increasing our goals, but incrementally.

Burn me twice, shame on you?

As the saying goes, burn me once, shame on you, burn me twice, shame on me. Now we are just starting with OKRs this second third time, so I may be jumping ahead, so let’s review how the Happy Melly-Management 3.0 team has finagled our version of OKRs.

My ex-colleague, still-rockstar Louise already wrote about our floundering with our 2015 OKRs. Part of the problem was and still is that many — particularly those not from the more rigid world of Scrum — experience difficulties quantifying roles or tying own objectives to team ones. Of course, also with a flat team, roles may vary making individual goals vague and fluid. But who’s to say that OKRs can’t evolve?

As Louise writes: “Unless you have a clear vision of your role within a company, it’s pretty damn impossible to set OKRs. The first quarter was all about learning our role in the team. I put a lot of effort into producing 13 OKRs, which in the end, had very little to do with the role I ended up playing.”

Then by 2016, no longer a rookie agency, we had our roles and goals a bit clearer. This time, Jurgen had created our overall team goals. However, we didn’t come up with individual goals, but rather those based on Functions, which could be fulfilled by one or more team member, like Marketing and Social Media, of which I was lead so was to create those OKRs while getting feedback from other people who showed an interest in this function by tagging themselves on a Trello card.

As you can see below, referencing both team and function goals, our key results weren’t precise numbers, but rather ranges of Good to Bad. As you can also see, we reviewed those ORKs quarterly and not even completely. (However, I’m confident that our ever-improving event management tool Workshop Butler will help us do that better this time.)

For me, even quarterly, it was exhausting to measure the goals, but maybe that was because my goals were too precise (and certainly only tied to my individual work.) I also set myself goals that some of which I didn’t even know how to measure. Maybe some sort of automation would have helped? But these were faults not necessarily with OKRs as a practice, but with my own goal-setting. On the other hand, I enjoyed that, to me, “Good” or “Great” meant solid objectives you worked to achieve.

Now fast-forward to 2018, and we’re trying Quarterly OKRs again. This time in a simpler shared view Google spreadsheet. And we are (or should be) tracking our results weekly. I’m still a bit fuzzy on some of the math. And I definitely didn’t “do it right” because each of my quarterly key results are actually achievable — and I intend to achieve them, which basically means I’m doing more my own thing than dogfooding the practice. Below* you can see mine.

After two meetings, the spreadsheet is dotted with question marks and blanks, meaning not everyone has bought into the OKR process again or not everyone is clear on it. To add to this, we actually haven’t determined who is in charge of measuring our team key results (finger to nose, “Not it!”), so team key results have two blank weeks so far, and we are running the risk of working on individual goals, but not the team ones.

As I write this, maybe I’m frustrated that somehow — again — I’ve given myself more work since all of the Q12018 team objectives are directly or indirectly tied to my role, including two very arduous objectives around increasing brand recognition, something that could be a couple full-time roles unto itself.

Also — and while I admit we had scarce time in our two and a half days in Lisbon together — we kind of ignored our more administrative roles and goals. We admitted that some accounting and adhering to GDPR (European privacy requirements) before May are essential, we didn’t acknowledge them with objectives, frankly, because they aren’t as shiny. I would have liked us to have dogfooded Martie the Management Monster and created an “Improve everything” objective, which encompasses compliance and workflow automation and acknowledges the importance of our more administrative teammates. As I mentioned above, I think at least sometimes achieving goals is an important employee motivator.

So, there’s my less-than-rosy OKR experience. At the end of this piece, I’ll also include links to other people sharing their OKR experiences — the good, the bad, and the meh. But really it comes down to you…

What’s your experience with OKRs? Or what other team goal-setting techniques have you seen work? Do you think it’s important to aim ridiculously high or just realistically?

(*Sidenote: to help me achieve my first Key Result, you absolutely should sign up for the Management 3.0 Employee Engagement Newsletter!)

Further OKR experiences:

Important Editorial Note: (OK maybe just a pet peeve. The plural is always “OKRs”. “OKR’s” is possessive. The decade is also the 80s, and so on…)


7 thoughts on "Do key results lead to objectives? My not-so love affair with OKRs"

  • Sam says:

    I completely agree with Jen on this post and I’m super happy that you wrote this Jen, thank you! I’m happy partially because I don’t fully understand OKR’s myself. As a member of the Happy Melly/M30 team and as someone who also does less quantifiable work and more creative work, I’m so far finding it very hard to measure things. I went to fill in my OKR’s this morning and wasn’t sure what percentage to write down. Is it how much I’ve done this week? Where I’m at so far this month? I guess, I’ve also just always worked to ‘deadline’. So rather than x amount needs to be done in 3 months time, type of thing, I work more as in: Finish this article by Monday. Do that task by Friday. Right now I’m working on getting testimonials and case studies for our website. All of this takes time from finding people’s contacts to writing an email to following up, to following up again, to organizing my own systems etc… So if I don’t get three testimonials in one month, does it mean that I haven’t contacted 50 people to ask for them? I’m just kind of having a stream of consciousness here on this post (thanks Riggo:) so bear with me. I’m not against OKRs, it’s just not how I typically work and so it’s been challenging trying to monitor it and understand how to best utilize it. That said, I’m open to giving it a shot, love new challenges and if it can help move us forward as a team then I’m all for it!! Time will tell I say we review our OKRs in a few months and see where we’re at.

  • Tahira says:

    Loved your Post Jen, Well-articulated and as always you honestly speak your mind out in what you write.
    I can relate myself to a number of points that you wrote.
    Personally, I am doing OKR for the first time ever and I am struggling with placing my Finance/accounts priorities aligned with the Team Objectives for this Qtr. Only partially possible in my case as most of my daily time goes in the “must do” administrative tasks. The good thing is that as a team we understand that not everyone’s priorities would fit into the overall team objectives and we have the Flexibility to put our individual scope there. Quantifying the efforts and tracking them in % progress is another challenging task for me as a lot that I would do looks difficult to be quantified, but, i am still looking forward to trying that in %. It’s exciting to challenge myself and doing something which I am not sure about to start with as the best approach but definitely better than nothing that we had in an year.
    Though challenging to me, I love the idea of tracking our goal achievement visibly in % and I believe that brings in accountability to what we as individual and as a group are committed to, at least to me. I would be ashamed to have that “0%” complete status week on week and that would get me putting that extra efforts to work towards those goals. It’s a start of task for me and I am excited to see where I am heading in a Quarter’s time. Wishing myself Best Of Luck.
    ( Guys, you all know I can only handle numbers and I am not good at writing. So, excuse me with my writing style, I am sure you all know me and love me, hence, would understand what I actually wanted to say above  )

  • Patrick Verdonk says:

    I think it is important to be a bit patient with (our) OKRs. Repetitive attention to them in order to ‘master the concept’ seems a clear need, as a team, and as an individual. I feel it doesn’t come naturally to me to focus on them. But then again, I grew up in a corporate world of objectives set by others. Objectives to which you ‘automatically’ comply because to reach your targets you just simply executed your job.
    What I try to force myself to do (because I see the introduction as a change, and believe that if I want a change to work I have to start with myself), is ask if I have a question about them, try to build in my own discipline to actually think about what I did the past week in function of the goals I set myself.
    I’m not there yet, but then again, we’re only a few weeks in… habits don’t change overnight.

  • Andre Fuchs says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    Thank you for your article. It gave me the opportunity to better structure my thoughts on OKRs, which I use for my next training.
    Perception and interpretation of OKRs greatly affect the benefit (or harm) of those. There are many interpretations. My view on it:
    1. “DO KEY RESULTS LEAD TO OBJECTIVES” (your headline). Definitely not. Key Result is ONE way to know if the movement is going in the right direction and not a “cause” for an Objective. Key Results answer ONLY the question “how do I know that?”.
    It’s like a car, speedometer shows how fast you are going somewhere (Objective, Vision, Meaning, Purpose). But it’s not a problem to slow down in the 30km/h zone.
    2. Again, Key result is not a goal itself. In the dynamic, complex world we could realize one day that some Key Result should not be achieved at all, because it is counterproductive to our Objective. Then we do without it, but without giving up the Objective.
    3. Agree with you: Objectives should be strongly linked to Vision and Mission, Meaning and Purpose. Its’s only way to know if they make sense.
    4. Agree with you, pay and reward systems are not tied to objectives & key results. (But you can reward the effort, as well as the way one worked)
    5. You write, “I think what bothers me about OKRs is their supposed un-achievability.” Yes: on Objective should have 50:50 chance to be completely achieved. A Key Result can be 30% if you do business as usual. 70% is hard work; 100% is hard work + stroke of luck. We remember: Key Result is not a goal itself, therefore XX% <100% is not a problem at all.
    6. But what is with the objective? Is it annoying if we do not reach an objective? It depends. If we use something like lean startup method, if we document assumptions, learn from failure (validated learning), etc., then it is also a win. M30 has the "Celebration Greed" as a simplified model for the case.
    In addition, the psychological view that Marc wrote in Slack (quote):
    "It's enough to have a big goal (objective), which is not too close, so you can not fall under the optimistic impression why you aim high? It gives you the rough direction, in which you want to change your position."

  • Marc Duerr says:

    Hi Jennifer and Happy Melly team,
    Thanks for this interesting and enlightening article. It will help us to learn too, while we are experimenting (lean startup method) with OKRs.
    As promised, I will share our experience with the community. 
    What came into my mind is another explanation how to view and explain the reason for big goals :
    The objective is the to have a “visible target”. 
    Now as we work in he direction to this target, we will encounter challenges, unexpected tasks, road blocks.
    These road blocks are causing the road to our goals being not a straight line, but a wind road. If your goals are too small now, you won’t be able to see your goal anymore, as they will be hidden by the obstacle in your way.
    Maybe this picture helps felling not so small anymore in the shadow of a big, seemingly unreachable goal. It’s your compass. 

  • Luke Thomas says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    I’m building software in the “engagement” space and I refuse to build an OKR system in the platform (most competitors have them). I’ve seen how tough OKRs are to instrument correctly – at a previous company I worked for we tried to do this and it failed miserably.
    What many people don’t realize is that OKRs were the brainchild of Andy Grove, an incredibly process oriented person. For non-technical people especially, I’ve seen how ambiguous this entire process is. I’d argue that it frequently accomplishes the exact opposite of what was intended.
    Great article – OKRs are a bit of a fad, so it’s good to share stories about the not-so-great as well. Thanks!

  • Tadas Vilkeliskis says:

    Great article Jennifer,
    OKRs can be really good once you put the time to implement them and educate your entire company. It’s a very useful tool for management to understand how things are going and propagate this information to the rest of the company.
    I see you’re starting with sheets, which is amazing. There’s no need to complicate things until you figure out the process. However, spreadsheets can get messy once they get more interactive and your team grows. I’m the creator of Simple OKR (https://simpleokr.com) and would love for you to try it out when you’re ready.
    I’m also always looking for people to better understand what problems they are having with OKRs at their companies. Would love to exchange emails if you have a moment.
    Best of luck.

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