“We have 27 team members, 5 corporate objectives with 3 key results for each.”
That was the moment I hit pause on the coaching call with a recent prospective client. An organization with less than 30 employees working towards 15 outcomes at any given time is a clear indication of “too many OKRs.”
“Why do you have so many goals?”
“We have a lot to get done this year.”
“Is it even possible for you to get close to completing all those goals this year?”
“No, this is aspirational.”
“Then your OKRs are fictional.”
Too many OKRs is a prioritization problem
OKRs are designed to draw out what is strategically most important for the company in the coming cycles. They are a filtering mechanism used to reduce and focus your company’s efforts on the critical hypotheses for current market conditions. When an organization sets multiple OKRs across the organization that cover every function in a traditional way, it prioritizes nothing. The message to the teams is, “Do everything as you’ve always done it and do it well.” Strategy is diluted. Mission is lost. Teams lose focus. OKRs lose efficacy.
Dilution of effort is obviously an issue for a company with 30 employees. But even at scale, the broader we spread our teams’ efforts the less effective we are as a company. Imagine if an entire business unit had the same strategic priority and worked towards one objective and a couple of key results. The impact would be exponentially bigger, not to mention alignment and productivity across the teams.
A clear strategy helps reduce the number of OKRs
We’ve talked about this here a few times but it bears repeating: objectives and key results are not strategy nor do they help you determine your strategy. They are derived from your strategy. Because of this, the clearer and more refined your strategy is the easier it is to define a finite set of targeted OKRs.
We’re all victims of our own ambitions, especially as leaders. Applying OKRs gives us the opportunity to focus our ambitions on the work that requires the majority of our attention right now. The conditions of “right now” will inevitably change as our markets iterate and evolve continuously. When that change is meaningful enough we reconsider our goals and, to some extent, our strategy. At some point this will require a shift in our OKRs too. This is by design. OKRs are agile goals set to reflect our focus for current conditions. Changing them based on evidence from the market and our teams is exactly how they’re supposed to work.
So how many OKRs should you have?
I wish I could give you a single number of OKRs as the “right” maximum amount. I can’t. The answer is based on your context. If you have 30 employees in all likelihood one objective and up to three key results is the most they can handle. For larger organizations having business unit specific goals makes sense. Again, start with one objective for the next two quarters and see if you can align your organization around it. If you end up with more than one make sure you’ve got enough staff to support that effort. Keep in mind that not every team needs to have a unique OKR to achieve.
In all cases err on the side of fewer OKRs. The fewer your goals your teams are chasing, the more likely they are to reach them. In addition, they’ll have a much clearer sense of what the organization is trying to accomplish and how their efforts are making that a reality.