OKRs are not “Set it and forget it!”

Posted on February 28, 2022.

Growing up in the US during the golden age of infomercials there was no escaping Ron Popeil, purveyor of fine cooking appliances and his golden catch phrase, “Just set it and forget it!”

Mr. Popeil and one of his ingenious cooking devices. 

The promise was that you could just put a set of ingredients into the appliance, push start and then forget about it. The meal would prepare itself and you didn’t have to worry about that aspect of your daily routine any more. You have to admit it, it’s a compelling proposition. Think about something once, do the bare minimum, start the process in motion and then, like magic, forget about it. It’s as compelling in food preparation as it is in business strategy and process too. How nice would it be to just decide on a strategy, set some goals and then never look at those things again. Wait, that actually sounds awful, right? And yet, it’s an all too common approach today. 

We cannot assume our environment will remain static

“Set it and forget it” assumes nothing will change. It works in the context of high certainty and low risk industries. Sadly, we don’t work in that reality. Our world is ever changing (and if you need proof of that then may I simply point to the last 2 years?). Our ability to predict markets, geopolitics, technology and consumers becomes less reliable as cycle times shorten and new ideas get deployed to the market. Striking out in a bold direction is crucial to inspiring and motivating our teams, not to mention aligning them. Assuming that we will be 100% right about that bold direction is a recipe for failure. 

Cargo cult and high level OKRs exacerbate the problem

As teams work through new ways to set goals using objectives and key results, there’s an anti-pattern emerging. Teams are opting for key results that tick all the requisite boxes just to say they’re being compliant with the new goal setting framework and then return to building what they’d planned to originally. The OKRs are now set and the team, eager to get back to their backlog, is quick to forget. Without predetermined check-in points with their leaders on their progress towards their goals, teams report progress on feature development to a management team used to these types of updates. Nothing changes and nothing gets better. 

Other teams leave their OKRs at the strategic level. Instead of doing the hard work of determining, defining and choosing tactical measures of user behavior, teams stick with high-level impact metrics like revenue, sales or profit as their key results. The goal here is, literally, to set it and forget it. “We have revenue targets for the year, hit them.” Once again, teams will go about shipping features assuming the revenue targets will follow, rarely pausing to reflect how the work they’re doing is driving that trend. Without a clear correlation between feature (output) to customer behavior (outcome) to company success (impact) the OKR framework is rendered toothless. 

Our goals require continuous review and adjustment

OKRs are meant to drive focus, alignment and agility into the team that uses them. They are never going to be 100% accurate. Like our feature choices they are assumptions – our best guesses – about how we believe we will be successful. As we ship ideas to market quickly we collect data. That data informs our next steps and affords us the ability to change course – to be agile – if the work we’re doing isn’t driving the behavior we assumed it would. A regularly cadenced review is required to ensure we can answer the following questions:

  1. Do our key results still make sense?
  2. Should we measure a different set of customer behaviors?
  3. Are our goals realistic? Are they too high? Too low?
  4. What adjustments should we make going forward?

Done quarterly, an OKR review provides the team with enough information to answer these questions and decide how best to adjust their plan. The decisions made at these meetings should not be surprises. The team and their stakeholders should have been monitoring the KR’s over the previous 12 weeks. The quarterly review is designed to determine what the team has learned and what course corrections they suggest. Given all the unknowns in digital product development, this continuous review allows teams to redefine success based on the latest facts on the ground. 

Set it and check it!

Years ago I worked on a team that had one specific key result as its goal. Every day, one of the developers on our team would come in, check the daily value of that metric and print it out with the delta from the day before. He would then print up 20 copies of this statistic and post it all over the office – from the front door to the coffee area to the bathroom stalls. Sometimes the change from the day before was positive. Other days it wasn’t. Why would he do this? He did it to remind us and the company what the goal was and how we were progressing towards it. On days where the metric spike positively we got a lot of praise. On days where it cratered, we got a lot of questions. But we checked the metric every day. It held us accountable to our work and it forced us to have good answers to tough questions from stakeholders. 

As you move forward in your OKR journey, remember that you’re not in the cooking appliance business (most of you anyway). Your value proposition is not “set it and forget it” but rather “inspect, adapt and improve continuously.” Build checkpoints into your OKR process and communicate clearly about it along the way. Actively question whether or not your goals still make sense and change them when they don’t anymore. That’s the superpower of objectives and key results and the source of your team’s agility.