Simple, but Not Simplistic

Read the ever-expanding literature on OKRs and one of the first benefits you’ll find touted by everyone – practitioners and consultants alike – is the model’s simplicity. It appears the organizational world is beginning to turn its collective back on insomnia-curing, eyes glaze over management systems with their maze of steps and procedures. To that end OKRs represent a welcome change – a lightweight framework that helps ensure organizations adopt an agile strategic focus on what matters most. But, that ease of understanding comes with a huge caveat: Simple does not mean simplistic. OKRs, like any change program, must be nurtured constantly through a disciplined governance process to reap the promised benefits.

There are potential pitfalls all along the OKRs path, but some have the potential to derail your efforts before you’re even putting marker to flip chart brainstorming your first objective. Outlined below are three culprits I’ve seen several times.

Measure What Matters

My first question to prospective clients is: “Why are you implementing OKRs, and why now?” When he or she answers, “Well, I read Measure What Matters and it seemed to make sense,” I know we have a problem. For those of you who don’t know, “Measure What Matters” is a New York Times bestselling book by venture capitalist John Doerr. In the very captivating text Doerr uses a series of case studies to bring four “Superpowers” of OKRs to life. He doesn’t explain with any level of granularity how an organization is expected to harness these powers, and in fairness to him he wasn’t writing a how-to book. As a result, some readers may think the framework is simple to implement.

Reading a book and having the message resonate with you is not a valid reason for embarking on any organizational change effort. I don’t have to tell you how difficult it is to make change happen. Without a compelling reason as to why the change is necessary, already over-burdened employees will either tune it out or wait it out. Every change, including OKRs, must begin with a well-conceived and crisply-delivered answer to the questions why and why now, including the benefits of OKRs? CEOs who have witnessed the downsides of change know this well, which is why, in a recent McKinsey study of 2,724 change leaders, 62 percent said “Communicating a compelling vision to motivate and inspire” was the most important leadership behavior during a change program.

Your Change Story

Your first and greatest obligation when launching an OKRs program is to share a powerful and meaningful change story to your teams. To do so you must go above and beyond trite, tired, and oft-repeated lines such as: “We need to work together more effectively” (everyone knows that already) or “We need to bring more value to the market” (not exactly goosebump inducing). Instead, weave a broader narrative that outlines how excelling in OKRs allows you to get closer to customers, offering solutions to their problems. How OKRs, with its focus on transparency, will help bring teams closer together improving your working environment. How OKRs allow everyone the chance to demonstrate their contribution to overall success. Just as there are innumerable ways to plot a novel or film, choices abound when crafting your unique change story. Don’t waste this precious opportunity. And feel free to draw inspiration from Doerr’s excellent treatment of the topic.

“Over to you Paul…”

My second sign that your OKRs implementation is in trouble is less theoretical and more personal for me. “Over to you Paul” describes a situation that any consultants reading this can surely relate to, and probably dislike as much as I do. Here’s the scenario: I’m scheduled to run an OKRs training workshop, usually my first interaction with a broader audience at the client’s location. I arrive nice and early for a 9:00 meeting, set up and wait for the team to trickle in. By 9:05 everyone who is going to attend has arrived and, just as I’m expecting the CEO to provide a rousing change story and then introduce me to share the nitty-gritty of how OKRs can bring that narrative to life, he or she looks at me, and says, “OK.” As in “You can start now.” No introduction of the concept, why everyone is sacrificing their valuable time, no introduction to this stranger at the front of the room. Nothing. This of course relates to the broader change story theme outlined in my first sign. What kind of a message is this executive sending, when he can’t take five minutes to kick off what is supposedly a critical initiative for the organization?

No OKRs Champion

Even if you’re fortunate enough to have a CEO willing to take the time and effort to craft a persuasive change story, he or she cannot single handedly summon the will to make OKRs a success. Every executive needs a partner; someone who will run the OKRs program logistically and philosophically. The in-house subject matter expert for OKRs. We call this person the OKRs “Champion” and their role can make or break your implementation. As noted earlier, OKRs are easy to understand, but the framework is not simplistic. There are dozens of things to conquer: training to ensure everyone can write technically sound OKRs. Working with the executive team to determine the appropriate level at which OKRs will be created. Putting in the mechanisms to foster cross-team alignment. Determining how OKRs may inform performance reviews. And on and on the list goes. Someone needs to be steering the ship, and that person is the OKRs Champion. Sure, it will require an investment in that person’s time, but if you’re not willing to make that investment, you’re probably not ready for a successful OKRs implementation.

There you have it!  Keep an eye out for these three signs if you wan to succeed with OKR!

Paul Niven in a Global OKRs Coach with, and the author of Objectives and Key Results, Driving Focus, Alignment and Engagement with OKRs.