The Times are a Changing

Many writers, myself included, will often start a blog post or article with a quotation that frames the central argument of the piece, or serves as a fitting introduction. This post focuses on the use of OKRs in times of change and, as we all know, literally thousands of quotes on the topic of change have been curated over the years. Here are a few I believe are fitting for the changes we’re currently experiencing:

“To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.” Winston Churchill

“The survivors of any species are not necessarily the strongest. And they are not necessarily the most intelligent. They are those who are most responsive to change.” Charles Darwin

“I put a dollar into one of those change machines. Nothing changed.”

OK, so maybe that last one is a bit of an outliner – but who doesn’t love the unique perspective of the late, and yes, great, George Carlin?

Understanding Change

Change is an interesting phenomenon. It “happens” to us in different ways. There are changes that are imposed upon us, often to our surprise, and with potentially negative impacts. It’s safe to say nobody likes this flavor. It can be disorienting, disturbing, and downright scary. Then there are changes we champion in the spirit of inventing our envisioned future. In those cases we may not control the ultimate outcome, but we’ve proactively grabbed the reins of change in an attempt to define our own destiny. Either way, OKRs can serve as a safe harbor as we navigate the choppy waters that often accompany both types of disruption.

Let’s consider an additional quote, one I believe relates to both imposed and self-directed change. The Hindu Guru Nisargadatta Maharaj once said: “The search for reality is the most dangerous of all undertakings, for it will destroy the world in which you live.” Sounds ominous, but there is a pearl of positive wisdom contained in those words. When we experience change and disruption – whether foisted upon us, or of our own making – the first and most important task is to search for, and understand the reality requiring you to change.

If the change is one we’re experiencing from “outside,” we must determine: What happened? Why did it happen? What is happening this very minute? Are the assumptions we’ve run our business upon still valid? When the change is of our own making we must also examine reality. For example: What are the assumptions upon which we’re altering our course? Have we tested those assumptions in an attempt to gauge the external reality of our situation?

Maharaj warns that the search for reality will destroy the world in which we live, but that’s exactly what we should be aiming for – creative destruction of the old world, the former reality, and acceptance of the new order of things. With either type of change, OKRs can be a steadying guide during the journey. When what seem like unwelcome changes come our way, the OKR process forces us to yield to the new reality, and ask the above questions in our quest to understand what is happening and why. We use the answers to those queries to create and frequently monitor objectives and key results that acknowledge the new world and allow us to gauge progress towards strategy execution in what may be – at least temporarily – unfamiliar terrain.

Conversely, when we make the proactive decision to birth a change, the future will be necessarily uncertain. Once again, OKRs can shepherd us through this murky terrain. In this case they will serve as a beacon – our highest aims and goals, signifying the successful implementation of our change. Only by regularly assessing progress can we tabulate our progress and make any necessary course corrections. OKRs provide the means to do just that.

The New Normal

We live in what has been termed a ‘VUCA’ world: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. Whether self-determined or imposed upon us, change is the one constant we will be able to reliably count on in the days ahead. As with most things in life it is not the change itself, but our perception that will make the difference. Using OKRs we can successfully manage whatever the world brings our way.

Paul Niven is President of, and author of Objectives & Key Results.