What if your OKRs are wrong?

Posted on December 13, 2021.
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You’ve identified a problem to solve. You’ve collaborated with your team and stakeholders to come up with a set of well-written objective and key result statements as your goals. You set off to run your early product discovery efforts. Within the first couple of sprints you start to get a sense that something’s not right. The experiments are working. The customers are providing useful, valuable feedback. The solution hypotheses you came up with are solid and yet, customer behavior isn’t moving in the right direction. What could it be? 

It turns out your OKRs were wrong. 

OKRs are assumptions

Every decision you make on what goals to pursue is based on the best information you have at the moment. It’s a guess. Or if that word sounds too unprofessional, it’s an assumption. You’re assuming certain customer behavior changes will happen if you build and design the right set of features. As much as your solution hypotheses can be wrong, sometimes it’s the goals that we’re targeting that are wrong because they, too, are assumptions. 

We make a series of assumptions about what we believe a “meaningful positive change” to customer behavior will look like and the impact it will have on our business. We expect our users to behave predictably. And, perhaps more often than we’d like to admit, we’re wrong. 

This is a feature of OKRs, not a bug

One of the main implementation steps of objectives and key results is more frequent and transparent check-ins. While the quarterly check-in is the bare minimum, teams should touch base with their stakeholders informally on a more regular basis. These informal meetings are the perfect venue for conversations like, “We keep trying different feature ideas but our users seem intent on the old way of working.” Or, “No matter what we suggest to customers it seems they don’t want to increase their usage of the service much more than what they’re currently doing.” 

Stakeholders can step in here and offer suggestions, direction and perhaps insight from their broader perspective about ways the team could keep trying to hit their key results. In the same way we’re not married to a set of features, we’re also not indefinitely committed to our OKRs. The evidence we collect each sprint helps to build a case for maintaining our goals or changing them. If the evidence overwhelmingly challenges the validity of either our objective, our key results or both then they must change. This, like killing or pivoting our solution hypotheses, is the organizational agility OKRs enable. In changing course we reduce the amount of effort sunk into the wrong effort and start to pivot towards potentially more accurate goals and successful product development efforts. 

Having the tough conversation 

Approaching your stakeholders with a request to change your goals can be a daunting task, if not a terrifying conversation for some teams. To maximize the chances of success, approach the conversation in the following ways:

  • It should never be a surprise. The onus is on you and your team to continuously share learnings, decisions and risks with your stakeholders. When it’s time to have “the conversation” you’ll have a lengthy paper trail to justify your request.
  • Bring the proof. While you may have dependably shared your concerns with your leadership team ahead of the meeting, don’t bet on them having read it. Always come prepared with a well-designed presentation of the data you’re using to make the request to change your goals. 
  • Suggest alternatives. I hate the mantra, “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” It discourages teams from bringing up issues in a timely manner or at all if they don’t know how to solve them. That said, in this situation, you’re closest to the data and should at least have an opinion about where and how to reset your OKRs. “Instead of chasing customer LTV, the evidence suggests that we should pursue average order value instead. Here’s why…”
  • Know the cost of not changing course. These conversations won’t always go your way. What happens then? Be prepared to with the cost already sunk into the work, how much more is potentially at risk and, perhaps most importantly, what won’t get done if we maintain the current trajectory. 

By showing up prepared with evidence, data and strong opinions you can make a strong case for shifting your team’s goals. You also demonstrate the power of agility, managing to outcomes and evidence-based decisions.