Declaring Goal Bankruptcy

Posted on January 9, 2023.
Another OKR? Really?

Laid up in bed last week with a lovely stomach virus I read a tweet that Shopify was declaring meeting bankruptcy. All recurring meetings involving more than 2 people were cleared off everyone’s calendar. The theory behind this is that these meetings add up over a year (or years) to a point where they’re actually stifling the work they were supposed to enable. By declaring bankruptcy on these meetings — deciding there were just too many of them for them all to be valuable — and canceling them the organization is hoping to do at least two things:

  1. Free up time for more productive activities
  2. Force staff to deliberately figure out why they were needed in the first place and only add them back if they actually enabled some kind of productivity. 

Goals end up being treated like meetings

Goal setting often takes a similar shape to people’s calendars. In the same way we schedule meetings to appease the needs to each individual stakeholder or individual we work with, goals are assigned for each person, team, project and initiative. By the time we finish setting goals, we end up with a list of priorities that encompasses every known activity taking place. 

When everything has a goal, teams lose focus. If everything is important then nothing is important. Goals, and specifically OKRs, are designed to help us determine what work is the most important to do right now. Instead most teams are often trying to figure out how to spread themselves thin enough to achieve all of their goals rather than the most important one. 

Declare bankruptcy on goals

As you kick off a new year, consider declaring bankruptcy on all of your existing goals. Delete them. I know you spent days of your lives last year negotiating for them and determining what you believed to be reasonable thresholds for each. But if you have too many goals, your teams will achieve none of them. There will always be a scramble to hit the ones “we’re forgetting.” 

By declaring goal bankruptcy you’re doing exactly the same thing Shopify is doing by deleting their repeating meetings. You’re freeing up your teams to focus on the most important work needed right now. You’re also forcing everyone to deliberately add more goals to the teams. In doing so, they have to justify it and can visibly see (hopefully) the impact this has on each team’s productivity. 

So, we shouldn’t have any goals at all?

No. You should have one goal. Just one. For each team or team of teams working on an initiative. What’s the most important thing they need to achieve this quarter? The answer to that question is that team’s goal. It’s their objective. You can then set appropriate key results for this coming quarter. 

Giving a team one OKR to work on tells them exactly what’s important and what’s not. It gives them focus and direction. It helps them say no to work that will distract from achieving the goal. Instead of trying to boil the ocean, this year why not give your teams the direction, focus and alignment they need by clearing out all of last year’s goals and focusing on just one OKR? They’ll thank you for it.