As an OKRs Coach, I regularly emphasize the essential role of learning – about what the results tell us and how we can use that information to improve our performance in the future. Most people nod encouragingly, but there are inevitably a few eye rolls from the more alpha types in the room who I’m confident are saying to themselves, “Learning is great, sure, but I want to hit my numbers every time!”
There is nothing wrong with a desire to excel and achieve breakthrough performance, in fact promoting visionary thinking is one of the primary attributes and benefits of OKRs. But how we frame the language of that journey matters – a lot.
Or… Cooking the Books?
Let me share with you a research study that illustrates the point. In the experiment, 231 university students were given three rounds of anagrams to solve. An anagram is a word or phrase created by rearranging the letters of another word. For example, ‘listen’ can be reorganized as ‘silent’. In the final round of the challenge the participants were not required to show their solutions to researchers, but merely had to check a box next to each anagram they had unscrambled. One group of students was told that the task was intended to evaluate their performance, a so-called “outcome” goal. Another group was informed that the purpose of the task was to develop their skills, a “learning” goal. The results were illuminating: 61% of those with an outcome goal inflated their results, versus 44% of those with a learning goal. The researchers suggest this result stems from the fact that outcome goals stimulate a prevention focus – people are so concerned with preventing a negative consequence that they will go to extremes to avoid falling short.
In her practical and informative book, “Succeed,” author Heidi Grant Halvorson provides additional evidence to the power of framing. Her terminology differs slightly -rather than outcome versus learning goals she uses “get better” versus “be good” goals – but the findings are strikingly similar. People who pursue goals to get better, in other words learn rather than focus on an end outcome, consistently achieve more. What is most encouraging for those of us interested in OKRs, is that as goals become more difficult and complex, a ‘get better’ mindset seems to promote grit and perseverance which leads to a sustained effort. The opposite is true of ‘be good’ goals.
A Personal Learning Experience
I’ve seen this manifested in my own life. Recently I became interested in performance driving. I joined a local club and regularly participate in autocross events. An autocross is a timed competition in which drivers navigate a defined course, typically consisting of a number of tight turns and short straights. At first my goal was purely “be good” in nature. I wanted to be among the best drivers and set my sights on finishing within three seconds of the day’s top time. Unfortunately, my obsession with time did little to help me and left me frustrated after each event; I consistently ranked mid-pack or below, always more than three seconds behind the leaders. Finally, I was able to change my approach to a focus on ‘getting better.’ That led to a greater emphasis on learning from what the data was telling me and a realization that, despite setbacks, I could continue to get better over time. That’s when my times began to improve.
When launching an OKRs program be sure to follow this tested advice. Stress to everyone in your organization that OKRs are a proven tool to boost performance, but only if you use them as intended – to never stop learning.
Paul Niven is author of Objectives and Key Results, Driving Focus, Alignment and Engagement with OKR, and the president of OKRsTraining.com.
Reference: “How to Set Goals that Lessen the Temptation to Cheat,” Harvard Business Review, September-October 2019.