OKR Anti-pattern: Sandbagging your key results

Posted on February 7, 2022.
Setting the proper goals ensures we’re always pushing ourselves

Sandbagging is a term used to describe the act (and sometimes art) of under promising and over delivering. If someone is sandbagging they set expectations for a certain level of delivery or performance they know they can hit with ease. Then, when it comes time to deliver on the promise, they crush their targets. Amazement, praise, promotions and accolades ensue. Except, did you really achieve as much as is being celebrated?

Why does this happen?

This is a common anti-pattern with Objectives and Key Results. Teams, especially those not fully sold on the goal-setting framework, define success targets for themselves they know they can hit. This way work can continue, more or less, as usual and the discomfort of change or a new way of working can be avoided.

Another reason for this is when an organization mistakenly ties compensation to OKR goals. In this case the team’s reward for hitting their goals is a bonus or a promotion. Conversely, NOT hitting your OKRs when compensation is tied to them can go as far as threatening one’s employment. In these scenarios, teams almost always sandbag their OKRs. Setting goals they know they can hit assures they not only keep their jobs but get their bonuses.

Why is sandbagging OKRs bad?

When a team sets goals it knows it can hit they don’t innovate. They don’t stretch. They don’t try new things. The work continues at pace without the exponential leaps forward required to stay ahead of the competition.

In addition, teams don’t focus on continuous improvement of their process either. If the way we’re working gets us the results we’ve always gotten and that’s what we’ve promised leadership, why should we change anything? Processes, like products, stagnate and harden over time reducing their agility. Teams that sandbag their key results don’t challenge themselves to work differently. They don’t look for new efficiencies, tricks or techniques to gain more user feedback. When the time comes for them to respond to an unexpected sharp shift in the marketplace (and it always does) they’re unable to do so at pace with the competition.

How can I tell if my teams are sandbagging their OKRs?

There are two easy ways to tell if a team is setting their KR’s at a level they know they’ll crush every time. First, take a look at historical performance for the key result the team is committing to. What’s it’s average rate of growth on a quarterly basis? How does that compare to what the team has set for themselves? If it’s identical or very close, they’re not pushing hard enough.

The other way is to approve a team’s initial goal set and see what happens. Did they achieve them with ease? Are they setting similar goals for the upcoming quarter? Did they achieve those with ease as well? Again, they’re not pushing hard enough.

What should I do if my teams set easily achievable key results?

First, decouple your OKRs from compensation. Teams will be loathe to choose stretch goals if their salaries are tied to them. Second, set the expectation that you expect your teams to hit around 75-80% of each key result. That should be considered success. The other 25-80% is the stretch goal or the “nice to have.” Finally, push back on your teams’ key results challenging them to find ways to hit a higher goal. Set the expectation that you’d like to see some “out of the box” or experimental thinking and that it will be ok if those ideas don’t work out as long as we learn something from the effort.

As a leader it’s up to you to create the environment that encourages teams to push harder and try new things. Provide the tools, infrastructure, budgets and access they need to experiment with their product and their process. Make sure they feel safe coming to you with “bad news” or a realization that they’re not going to hit their goals. The more teams comfortable with the process of discovery and experimentation the more likely they are to set true stretch goals. It’s these stretch goals that will drive the creativity and innovation your organization needs to continue its success.

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