OKR Mistakes (and how to fix them)

I’ve been having a lot of great conversations lately about the nitty-gritty of implementing OKRs as people try and often fail.  There are the patterns that lead to challenges in using OKRs

You set too many OKRs per quarter
Try setting only one. Google needs multiple OKRs for the company because they are running a search engine and a supporting a browser and trying to crack social and making self-driving cars.  Imagine if they set a single objective of “Make all products supremely social” The self-driving cars folks might create Kitt (reference for the younguns). But most companies (and all Start-ups) benefit from a single bold OKR to unify and direct effort.

You set OKRs for a week or a month. 

I’m not totally convinced that a start-up should use OKRs before achieving product/market fit, unless that objective is “find product/market fit.” If you can’t keep on track longer than a week, you probably aren’t ready for OKRs.  If you do have product/market fit, then commit to the full three months. After all, what truly bold thing can you do in less than that?  If it can be done in a week, it’s probably just a task.

You set a metric-driven Objective

This is the downfall of many of MBA.  You love numbers., You love money. Doesn’t everyone? The OKR unifies multidisciplinary teams, and that means the dreamy designers, the idealist engineers and the caring customer service. The Objective needs to be inspirational, a call-to-action that gets folks to leap out of bed, ready for a new day and a new challenge.

Your Key Results are tasks, not results 

I was a bit disturbed when I read this article on OKRs from First Round, as the example Key Results were all over the place.  This key result “Review training materials from our online coaching resource.” is a task, and one that shouldn’t take a full quarter to complete.  This KR though “Increase my weekly connect-to-meeting rate from X% to Y%.” is right on.   A Key Result is NOT something you do, it IS something that happened because of what you did. Save the tasks for the weekly priority list.

You don’t set confidence levels

I’ve heard plenty of stories of companies where people who are expected to hit 70% of their key results, so they sandbag two and make one impossibly hard. Kinda not the point, folks.  OKRs are there to encourage you to shoot for the moon. To show you what you really are capable of.

Setting a confidence level of 5 out of 10 means you have a 50% chance of hitting the goal. That’s stretching yourself.

You don’t track changing confidence levels

Nothing sucks more than coming into the last month of the quarter and suddenly realizing you forgot to pay attention to the OKRs.  Mark changes as you get new information. remind teammates they’ve been at 5 for a long time. Offer help.

You use the four-square as a status, not as a conversation.

Discuss what needs discussing. Are the priorities really going to move the key results? Is the roadmap of upcoming projects going to require coordination? How is the team’s health, and why?

You talk tough on Friday. 

We’re tough on ourselves and each other all week. Let’s crack a beer and toast what we did accomplish. Especially if we aren’t going to hit all our Key Results, let’s be proud of what setting big goals did let us accomplish.

You Make OKRs part of the performance review

Everyone  from Google to Zynga to Swipely warns against this. If you want people to aim high, you can’t punish them for not hitting outrageous goals. Instead, employees can use their weekly status mails and OKRs to write up a self-review of what they did accomplish.  When you aim for the stars, you can hit the moon.

Quick Tips
  • Set only 1 OKR for the company, unless you have multiple business lines. It’s about focus.
  • Give yourself 3 months for an OKR. How bold is it if you can do it in a week?
  • Keep the metrics out of the objective. The objective is inspirational.
  • In the weekly check in, open with company OKR then do groups. Don’t do every individual, that’s better in private 1:1s. Which you DO have every week, right?
  • OKRs cascade; set company OKRs, then groups/roles, and then individual’s.
  • OKRs are not the only thing you do, they are the one thing you must do.  Expect people to keep the ship running.
  • The Monday OKR check-in is a conversation. Be sure to discuss change in confidence, health metrics and priorities
  • Encourage employees to suggest company OKRs. OKRs are great bottom up, not just top down.
  • Make OKRs available publicly. Google has them on their intranet.
  • Friday celebrations is an antidote to Monday’s grim business. Keep it upbeat!

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