The Most Common OKR Mistake

Having now reviewed literally thousands of OKRs from organizations around the world, I’ve seen pretty much every mistake that can be made when it comes to writing Objectives and Key Results.  A “Top Ten” list of missteps to avoid may be the subject of another blog, but for now, I’ll focus on an issue that arises with virtually every set of OKR that I’ve had the opportunity to review – listing ‘business as usual’ (BAU) activities as Objectives.

The Art of Crafting OKR

If you’re new to OKR, and especially if you haven’t received formal training in the art of crafting OKR – and yes it is an art – it’s very easy when tasked to create OKR to simply write down what it is you do every day; in other words, your BAU activities. Take a Human Resources executive for example… When charged with creating OKRs for the first time he’s likely to create a set that includes hiring, providing benefits, and measuring engagement (all OKRs I’ve seen by the way). That’s his job after all – the summation of his roles and responsibilities, the function he’s fulfilling.  So, shouldn’t these day to day responsibilities form the basis of his Objectives and Key Results?

The answer to this question is an unequivocal ‘No!’  OKR are, by definition, designed to propel an organization forward by measuring its’ true priorities – the actions that will drive organizational learning and change. Pick your cliché here; the vital few in place of the trivial many, separating the signal from the noise, etc. The point is, with OKRs we’re moving above and beyond the day-to-day, isolating the new, bigger, different courses of action we feel will drive the execution of our strategy.

There are several problems with listing day-to-day activities as your OKRs:

  1. They’ll never change: One of the primary benefits of the OKR methodology is the 90- day cadence. Updating every quarter allows for agility and swift reaction to changes in your environment, which is critical in an era of rapid disruption. Your job roles and expectations, however, are for the most part fixed.  Despite some variations from time to time the metrics you use to gauge success in your position are unlikely to alter over time. Therefore, by selecting BAU activities to serve as OKR you’re robbing yourself of one of the system’s greatest attributes – flexibility and prioritization.
  2. They don’t promote innovation: Building on the point above, if you choose to measure BAU chores as OKRs there is little hope of introducing profound or meaningful innovation in your work, as you continue to monitor the same activities. The targets may change (emphasis on may), but without the experimentation inherent in stretch OKR you’re likely to remain in a static and fixed relationship with your work.
  3. They rob you of autonomy and intrinsic motivation: One of the most important characteristics of an effective OKR is that it must be meaningful to you. Research consistently demonstrates that we’re much more likely to achieve goals that are self-selected, enjoyable, and imbued with personal meaning.[i] I’m not suggesting that BAU activities aren’t meaningful to those engaging with them, simply noting that the metrics associated with such activities are rarely chosen by the individual performing the duties. OKR, conversely, should result from a robust dialog between an individual (or team) and their supervisor. The team, those performing the work, know better than anyone what is necessary for improvement, and therefore are best equipped to provide meaningful OKRs.

Finding a Balance

I could go on, but rather than belaboring the point, let me propose an easy and practical approach for balancing day-to-day work with OKRs. It is simply this: Before you draft an OKR for the first time, create a dashboard of metrics that you can use to assess performance on your BAU activities. This serves two purposes:

1) It provides a mechanism for tracking your success in those activities that make up the “blocking and tackling” of your day job. And that is certainly important; both you and your boss need to know that “the trains are running on time” and that you’re on top of the responsibilities that have been assigned to you.

2) You can use the BAU activities as a starting point for creating meaningful OKRs. Examine what it is you do and ask, “How could I make a 10X improvement in that process?” or, “What is the roadblock holding me back from world class performance?” Your OKRs don’t necessarily have to be derived from BAU activities but starting there can provide ample food for thought.

Practicing What We Preach

Let’s make this practical with a personal example. As the owner of I have a number of BAU activities that are vital to running the company: Writing blogs like this, promoting our work on social media, creating client presentations, researching new trends in performance management, developing new business to grow revenue, etc. I have a dashboard of metrics that dutifully tracks these, which I monitor regularly. That dashboard includes measures such as: Revenue, website hits, social media impressions, number of new clients, blogs written, and several more.

But are any of those my OKRs? No. Instead, each quarter I challenge myself to isolate the one or two most important things I can do to drive success on the business. Those things don’t necessarily derive from my BAU activities, but often they do. For example, in an effort to develop new business (a classic BAU item) we’re hoping to expand our operations internationally, serving clients around the globe. I developed a specific OKR to help with that. The objective is: “Find potential international affiliates to grow our business internationally.” Of course there are a number of key results that accompany this objective as well. This OKR is new, different, quarterly in nature, and important enough to drive strategic change in the company, precisely what an OKR should do.

Business as usual activities are an important part of your world, but they’re not OKRs. Use the advice offered above to ensure you’re getting the maximum impact from your OKRs investment.

Paul Niven is the author of Objectives & Key Results, Driving Focus, Alignment and Engagement with OKR, and the President of

[i] See for example, the work of Heidi Grant Halvorson, Carol Dweck, Teresa Amabile et al.