Have all the Good Words Been Written About OKRs?

With much respect to all the OKRs Coaches who write articles offering “6 tips for this” or “7 Mistakes to avoid on that,” (and I include myself in that group) the world doesn’t need another trove of tips or an artistically rendered OKRs cheat sheet. Frankly, we’re drowning in them. So what do we write about?

Owing to the system’s proven effectiveness in driving focus, alignment, and engagement across countless global implementations, OKRs have ascended the popularity chart faster than any management tool I’ve witnessed in my three decades in the professional ranks. Commensurate with that popularity is a degree of maturity most frameworks are not endowed with for many years, or even decades. Thanks to the legions of practitioners, OKRs consultants, and academics who have turned their disciplined and discerning eye to OKRs, the methodology has been analyzed, scrutinized, and dissected to the Nth degree, with that considerable effort resulting in a number of near universally accepted principles related to the system. For example: OKRs should be few in number. OKRs should be derived from an organization’s strategy. OKRs should be updated frequently, lest you “set and forget” them. I could go on, but anyone versed in this field is equally well-versed in the oft-repeated commandments of OKRs.

Let’s Stimulate Some OKRs Controversy!

At this point, what interests me most about OKRs are the controversial elements; areas where general agreement still (thankfully for the waning discipline of real thinking) eludes us. Given that, I decided to create a list of topics related to OKRs where I believe there is, or could be, disagreement among those dedicated to the tool’s use and study. For each of the chosen topics I’ll provide my take, and of course I welcome your thoughts as well. Do you agree with my position, or do you think I’m off base? Let’s get a dialog going – one that can further expand the boundaries of what we know about, and how we can apply OKRs. Sound like fun? Here is the list of “Courting OKRs Controversy” topics I’ll be writing about in the coming weeks. C’mon OKRs Experts, let’s hear from you!

Over-emphasis on quantitative key results: The definition I use for a key result is: “A quantitative statement that measures the achievement of a given objective.” But a date is quantitative, and that opens the door to the possibility of milestone-based key results. Is there a place for them in the framework, or should every key result be comprised of a number, dollar amount, or percentage?

The fallacy of universal alignment: Here I’ll challenge the notion that all teams and departments should have OKRs that align directly with company-wide objectives. Could universal alignment stifle innovation and creativity in certain areas?

The myth of universal applicability: Is it factual to suggest that every type of organization or team, regardless of industry, culture, location, etc., will be a good fit for OKRs? Let’s discuss.

Short-termism in OKRs: There is little doubt that an agile approach to goal setting ensures organizations are paying attention to what’s happening in their environments. But, how short is too short? Could a typical OKR cycle hinder long-term execution and innovation?

Employee burnout from OKR fatigue: One of the core tenets of OKRs is employing aggressive stretch targets intended to drive breakthrough results. But what toll does this take on employees? Given workload and resource constraints is it possible to sustain aggressive targets each and every quarter without inviting fatigue and burnout?

The illusion of control: OKRs can create an illusion of control and predictability in inherently unpredictable and dynamic business environments. Does that represent a potential flaw in the system?

Executive support: Everyone recognizes the imperative of executive (especially CEO) commitment when implementing OKRs. Is it possible to successfully implement OKRs if this support is absent? Just how critical is executive support to OKRs?

Over-reliance on software: Could an over-reliance on tools and software detract from the core principles of OKRs, turning it into a bureaucratic, box-ticking exercise rather than a powerful strategy execution framework?

Transparency of OKRs: Good or Bad? Does allowing everyone to see all OKRs have the potential to breed unhealthy competition or pressure that could lead to unethical outcomes?

OKRs and risk aversion: Is it possible that a focus on achieving ambitious key results can lead to risk-averse behavior where teams are more likely to set easily achievable goals, rather than face the wrath of leadership over missed targets?

The complexity of setting effective OKRs: In an effort to drive buy-in and support for OKRs many pundits will oversimplify the process of actually setting an effective OKR, ignoring the nuanced understanding and skill required. What is the right balance to strike when introducing OKRs to newcomers?

I’ll be posting my thoughts on the first topic, the potential over-reliance on quantitative key results, in the next few days and look forward to your comments on the topic.

Paul Niven is a Global OKRs Coach with OKRsTraining.com, and author of 7 books on strategy, including OKRs For Dummies.