Before typing the words you’re currently reading I’d been staring at a blinking cursor for a solid twenty minutes. You might think I was suffering from a case of writer’s block, just couldn’t find the perfect sentence to kickstart this article into gear, or like most writers was excelling at the fine art of procrastination. But you’d be wrong.

My problem was that I couldn’t concentrate because of the racket coming from an adjacent room where two family members were going at it tooth and nail over the merits of two candidates running in a certain upcoming U.S. election. But then, amidst that chaos, a realization dawned upon me: their noisy disagreement epitomized the exact topic of this article – alignment. In politics, achieving perfect alignment—where everyone shares the same beliefs and priorities—is a near-impossible feat that we all recognize. The question that concerns us here is: What about the organizational world, is universal alignment from top to bottom an absolute prerequisite for success?

With the exception of infamous troublemakers (and some of my all-time favorite characters) like The Joker and Lex Luthor, when it comes to alignment in organizations most people would agree that it greases the wheels of commerce, making for smoother operations throughout the enterprise. When every aspect of a business is aligned – from goals and strategies to processes and resources – it has the potential to operate cohesively, maximizing efficiency and effectiveness.

In the OKR sense of the word, alignment typically refers to a process in which business units, departments, functions, and teams create OKRs that demonstrate their contribution to overall company-level OKRs. The premise is that when an organization aligns its OKRs from the C-Suite to the shop floor, it fosters unity among all levels of the company, increasing the probability of achieving company-level OKRs through collaborative efforts across all groups below the executive ranks. Here’s an example (drawn from my book “OKRs For Dummies”):

Company objective: Increase sales of product X to drive overall market share.

Key Results:

  1. Launch nationwide promotion campaign by October 15
  2. Increase brand recognition of product X from 50% to 80% of surveyed households
  3. Increase sales of product X from $100M to $160M
  4. Increase company market share in Product X’s category from 20% to 25%

Let’s imagine I run this company’s Marketing division. When creating OKRs my team and I should look at all company-level key results and determine which we can positively influence. After reviewing the entire set of high-level key results we determine that while we can’t directly control or influence market share, we can help the company increase the recognition of product X through enhanced Marketing efforts. In response to that, our OKR might look like this:

Marketing Objective: Provide information on product X to drive interest and recognition.

Key Results:

  1. Create dedicated social media channels for product X by October 7
  2. Increase Twitter followers for product X from 0 to 100,000
  3. Publish a bi-weekly newsletter on product X beginning on October 15
  4. Increase product X newsletter subscribers from 0 to 50,000
  5. Increase number of product X spec sheets downloaded from 10,000 to 20,000

In this example, Marketing was able to influence one of the company-level key results and made that connection the centerpiece of their OKR. The thinking goes that if all units across the company engage in a similar exercise, all company-level OKRs will be “covered” and the chances of overall success greatly enhanced. It sounds like an open and shut case – why wouldn’t every company pursue the scenario of universal alignment in which all units have OKRs that document their contribution to success; how could anyone possibly argue against that?

One of the most interesting and gratifying aspects of being a management consultant is rolling up your sleeves and diving into real-world scenarios with your clients; confronting the reality they face and offering proven solutions based on your years of experience and expertise. When doing so you quickly come to understand that sometimes so-called ‘principles’ and ‘rules’ can’t be effectively applied in all situations. Universal alignment of OKRs is one such principle. Outlined below are three reasons why the ideal of universal alignment may not always be possible or even desirable.

Specialized functions are…well…specialized:

In the example above I chose a Marketing department to demonstrate alignment, and in my experience most Marketing departments can typically find a compelling way to influence at least one high-level company key result, since many of those focus on expanding sales and market share of certain products or services. Additional functions, such as Sales, Customer Service, and Operations are also able to document their influence with relative ease. But, the same cannot be said for other corporate groups whose roles, while critical to success, don’t always directly align with company-level OKRs. Obvious examples include support functions such as Finance and Legal, but many groups may struggle in finding a direct connection to high-level OKRs.

I’ve seen many organizations ignore this reality and try to force alignment to company-level OKRs across every unit and function, whether it truly makes sense or not. But here’s the thing: when you do that, those ‘force-fitting’ groups end up with OKRs that often don’t add any value on a day-to-day basis. Instead of being a powerful tool for execution and innovation, OKRs become more of a box-ticking exercise. Everyone plays the game, submitting OKRs, regardless of whether they’re actually beneficial for the business, and then typically ignores them throughout the quarterly cycle. So, does this mean groups that can’t directly impact company-level OKRs should skip the process altogether? Not at all. It just means they should have the freedom to choose OKRs that genuinely benefit them. This flexibility allows their function to excel, even if it doesn’t directly impact company-level OKRs. And in the end, it leads to improved overall performance and greater engagement.

Divergent OKRs can spark innovation:

Many organizations establish an annual cadence for their highest-level company OKRs, assessing progress quarterly. However, these high-level OKRs typically remain unchanged throughout the fiscal year to provide context and stability for lower-level functions tasked with creating aligned OKRs. While these lower-level groups are required to showcase alignment each quarter, my concern is that this approach may box them into a singular strategic view, limiting their capacity to explore new and uncharted territory—often fertile ground for breakthrough innovations. By providing all groups with the flexibility to create OKRs that encourage experimentation and push boundaries, organizations can unlock significant downstream rewards. Fortunately, this isn’t an either/or decision where lower-level groups must align all OKRs with company-level objectives or none at all. Instead, organizations should allow space for functions to create both types of OKRs, thereby fostering alignment while also nurturing innovation.

The power of autonomy:

In his book “The Voltage Effect,” author John List recounts the story of the initially promising, but ultimately ill-fated, “Kmart Blue Light Special.” In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s a summary. In 1965, a Kmart store manager in Indiana had a bright idea—he rigged a flashing blue police light above slow-selling items, announcing discounts over the loudspeaker. This spectacle, known as the Blue Light Special, grabbed shoppers’ attention and fostered a sense of urgency, leading to its widespread success. Initially, store managers had the autonomy to select sale items based on local customer needs, scaling the promotion brilliantly. They leveraged their intimate knowledge of their communities, handpicking products that resonated with their shoppers’ preferences and current demands. This personalized approach not only maximized sales but also enhanced customer satisfaction and loyalty. Unfortunately for Kmart, corporate brass ultimately determined they knew more about local markets than did their store managers and mandated that all goods sold on Blue Light Specials be dictated from the corporate office months in advance. As a result, the once successful promotion lost its agility and relevance, failing to adapt to regional variations in weather, seasonality, and consumer behavior. This top-down approach undermined the program’s scalability and eroded the competitive advantage it once provided.

The Moral of the Story?

The moral of the story here is clear: as is almost always the case, those closest to the action are in the best position to make strategic decisions and choices. That maxim applies whether it’s the suits at Kmart deciding to sell snow shovels in Florida (bad idea), or a Compliance department in a corporate behemoth attempting to create OKRs. Autonomy matters. When teams have the freedom to create OKRs that matter to them, they’re more invested in their work—it’s theirs, after all. And with ownership comes accountability, morale, and creativity. That kind of autonomy ignites the spark of motivation, leading to higher engagement and productivity levels. On the flip side, strict alignment—where everything must tie back to company-level OKRs—can breed detachment. If teams’ feel their goals are imposed rather than chosen, it’s a recipe for disengagement and skepticism.

In conclusion, there is little doubt that organizational alignment is crucial for strategic coherence and overall direction. The challenge lies in striking an appropriate balance between strict alignment with company-level objectives and the autonomy necessary for teams to create OKRs that resonate deeply, stirring their collective passion and galvanizing them toward creative breakthroughs. Are the two mutually exclusive? I don’t believe so.

It simply (easy for me to say, right?) requires organizational leadership to recognize that both elements are necessary for an effective OKRs implementation. Those functions that can directly impact company-level OKRs should of course do so, while also potentially pursuing other high-value objectives that will push them and the company forward. For those that cannot show a direct line to company-level OKRs, they should be granted the liberty to create OKRs that allow them to flourish and provide value to their internal customers.

“Houston, We Have Alignment”

I’ll end with a story, likely apocryphal, about a visit U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson made to NASA in the mid-1960s. Upon entering the facility he came upon a janitor pushing a broom. Johnson asked the man, “What do you do here?” and without missing a beat the janitor replied, “Why Mr. President, I’m helping send a man to the moon.”  The janitor’s sense of purpose embodies the philosophy we should all strive for in our pursuit of organizational alignment—a shared commitment to a common vision that transcends any individual roles and responsibilities.

OKRs Coach Paul Niven is author of OKRs For Dummies and the president of