Understanding Goal Fatigue

If you’re having a tough day and need a pick me up or are just in the mood for a good laugh, check out this clip from the 1950s sitcom, “I Love Lucy.” Lucy can’t keep up! In the clip, Lucy and her friend Ethel have taken jobs at a candy factory, tasked with wrapping chocolates coming down a conveyor belt. Initially, the pace is manageable and they neatly wrap each treat. But then the belt’s speed increases rapidly until chocolates are flying at them in rapid fire succession. Determined to keep up, Lucy and Ethel soon resort to stuffing chocolates into their mouths, hats, even their dresses, becoming disheveled and hilarious messes in the process. So much for easy money – by the end of the clip they look like they’d lost a battle with Willy Wonka!

While the chocolate mayhem scene makes for great entertainment (seriously, you should watch it!), the underlying concept of taking on more than you can handle and suffering unintended consequences is a legitimate potential pitfall OKRs practitioners must avoid. In the case of OKRs, I’m referring to the concept of goal fatigue. This phenomenon refers to a state characterized by the reduced capacity to set, pursue, and achieve goals due to the cumulative effects of never-ending goal-setting and constant striving. And, when not managed properly, that’s what OKRs can become – a repetitive and exhausting grind, rather than an inspiring and enlightening system of strategy execution.

If you follow the OKR expert advice on how to effectively implement OKRs you’ll likely be told to follow a quarterly cadence, setting new OKRs every 90 days, and to ensure those OKRs are visionary in nature, stretching you and the organization to new heights. In a nutshell that’s OKRs – set, monitor, and analyze hard to achieve goals quarter in and quarter out, edging ever closer to flawless execution. But is the perpetual pursuit of stretch goals a realistic prospect for teams and individuals already struggling under the weight of lofty expectations from managers and executives looking to constantly increase efficiency and drive value throughout the enterprise? Think about it, if you’re following the advice to the letter, your teams will be expected to achieve extremely difficult OKRs every 90 days. Rinse and repeat, with no time to exhale, take a breather, and recharge the batteries for future efforts. That constant grind is neither possible nor healthy (for the teams and the organization).

Signs of Excessive OKR Pursuit

Here are some signs that you may be pushing the accelerator too aggressively on OKRs:

  • Decreased Motivation: Teams feel less inclined to pursue OKRs enthusiastically, viewing them as never-ending unrealistic burdens rather than meaningful achievements. This can manifest in OKRs being wearily submitted well after the quarter has begun, and little desire to engage in check-ins during the period.
  • Burnout: Do I really need to describe burnout? I’m sure everyone reading this has witnessed it in colleagues, if they haven’t experienced it themselves. You know the signs: emotional exhaustion, cynicism (“Tell me again, why we’re doing this OKR thing?), and a sense of ineffectiveness.
  • Deteriorating performance: Instead of boosting outcomes, constant OKR pressure can actually lead to diminished performance on important key results.

Balancing Ambition and Sustainability with OKRs

Of course it doesn’t have to be that way. When managed effectively OKRs have proven to be a remarkably successful framework for untold numbers of organizations, driving focus, alignment, and engagement. As with most systems it’s not the framework itself that matters as how it’s implemented to drive maximum benefits for an individual organization operating within the boundaries of its own unique culture. Here are three things to keep in mind as you deploy the OKRs Framework; guidelines that will ensure you motivate your team to strive for great performance without introducing the downside of goal fatigue.

  1. Set challenging but realistic targets for your OKRs. How many times have you been told to “Shoot for the moon, because even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” That advice might work for Elon Musk who happens to own a rocket company, but the rest of us would probably benefit from setting our sights a bit lower, keeping our OKRs targets within the bounds of the earth’s atmosphere where they are ambitious but achievable.
  2. Limit the number of OKRs. Did you know that prior to the twentieth century the word “priority” was used in the singular form only? Our modern use of the term – to suggest several ‘first’ things can be juggled simultaneously – goes against the essential meaning of the word, which is derived from the Latin for ‘earlier’ or ‘first.’ When creating OKRs, I’ll often hear clients talk about their most important priorities, but as we’ve just seen you really can’t have multiple priorities. Do yourself the immense favor of limiting your OKRs to what really matters, and if you take that admonition seriously you’ll likely have just one per team per quarter.
  3. Provide support and resources. This can come in many varieties. For example, support could take the form of celebrating successes and recognizing even small achievements on the path to OKRs execution. Sometimes a pat on the back along with a boost of encouragement can go a long way in instilling the motivation to persevere. As for resources, ensure your teams have what it takes to meet their targets. This could mean human capital (assistance from other teams, access to required expertise, etc.), financial resources, or physical tools.

Goal fatigue is a legitimate risk when implementing OKRs. Just like Lucy and Ethel struggling to keep up with the relentless pace of the chocolate conveyor belt, teams can find themselves overwhelmed by the continuous pursuit of lofty OKRs.  However, it doesn’t have to derail your organization’s success – with mindful implementation, OKRs can still drive focus, alignment, and remarkable achievements. By setting realistic targets, focusing on the essential, and providing the necessary support and resources, you can prevent your teams from becoming frazzled and disengaged. It’s about striking the right balance between ambition and sustainability. When done correctly, OKRs can help your organization achieve its goals without the chaos, ensuring motivated and high-performing teams ready to tackle any challenge.

Paul Niven is the author of OKRs For Dummies, The ABCs of OKRs, and Objectives and Key Results, Driving Focus, Alignment and Engagement with OKRs.