OKRs are hard. They’re supposed to be.

Posted on November 20, 2023.

On a weekly basis I explain OKRs to someone. Regardless of who it is – a client, a colleague, a friend, a family member – I can get through the explanation of the idea in about 3 minutes. It’s a simple idea. You set a qualitative goal that proposes a future state where a problem you’re currently facing has been solved. You follow that up with measures of behavior of the people you serve that tell you you’ve achieved that future state. When you boil down objectives and key results, this is as basic as it gets. Perhaps not surprisingly then, it’s all uphill from here. 

The first challenge: writing good OKRs

Understanding the basic concept is the easy part. The next step, and your first challenge as an organization, is writing well-structured, meaningful OKR statements. These are your goals for the coming months. It’s an exercise that should be taken seriously and done within the context of your organization’s strategic priorities. While this is not an easy exercise it’s also not a hard one. With practice teams get good, quickly, at setting impactful OKR goals for themselves. Coaching teams to avoid solutions and metrics gets them to a solid objective statement. Adding in the framework, Who does what by how much?” ensures their key results are measures of human behavior. And, with a bit of editing and iteration the teams have their goals defined. With a bit more conversation and negotiation, alignment and compromise a set of targets is approved across the organization. 

The hard part: everything else

Working with OKRs is a lot like opening a can of soda that has been shaken up. Popping the top on it is the easy part. Containing what starts to come out of the can becomes far more difficult. OKRs are similar in that getting started – writing them – is the relatively easy part. Everything that comes once you’ve set your goals with this new framework is a lot harder. I don’t think a lot of organizations understand this. Because of that OKRs often end up as a benign rebranding of the old goals. The reality starts to creep in almost immediately when the teams set out to achieve their goals. They quickly notice that there isn’t a single feature in their OKRs. Someone has always told them what to make. Now, they have to figure it out on their own. How do they do that? How will that affect existing backlogs and requests? 

What to work on is just the first of the hard parts of working with OKRs. Other challenges that start flying out of that soda can include:

  • Did we choose the right numbers for our key results?
  • What happens if we don’t hit them?
  • What if we don’t know how to figure out (or discover) what to build?
  • What if we learn that our initial ideas were wrong? Is it ok to change course?
  • How do we communicate our work and progress to other departments like sales and customer support? 
  • What impact do OKRs have on my performance management assessment? 

It can be overwhelming. 

OKRs are hard, by design

Reframing your goals as outcomes instead of outputs is a significant shift in your organization’s ways of working. It should be hard. It should force you to think about how you serve your customers, how you build products and services and how you measure success. It will force you to rethink what “good” looks like in your work and in your culture. It will challenge your assumptions about what you know about your market and your customers. It will transparently call out when you’re wrong. These are all good things. They’re just not easy things. OKRs are a simple concept. They are not easy to implement. Go in with eyes open. 

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