Review your OKR

Company Objectives and key results (OKR) impact more people than just the development teams, they affect everyone working in or with the company. In theory, coming up with good OKR might seem easy enough, but when you start using them in real life, writing the right OKR becomes very complicated.

Teams we often work with repeat the same mistakes, which usually leads to missing the mark on what they wanted. The root cause of this problem is lack of vision. People writing their OKRs don’t realize why they want the objective they just defined. How it would change the world around them. Typical examples of wrong OKRs are:

The best event management application in the world.

We will need 4000 clicks.

Deliver XYZ feature till the end of the quarter.

The right people for the right position.

Create platform XYZ in the next quarter.

Always start with why, think about how later.

These examples raise a question: Why do you need it? If you ask why repeatedly, you should slowly work towards an objective with “higher” and meaningful goal. However, improving your OKR only by asking why is difficult, especially if you’re new to the topic. Start with avoiding the mistakes we describe here as they should be easier to find. Or use them to review your OKR and improve them to help you achieve what you really want.

Types of objectives to avoid

Aspirational mistakes

Vision-jective: we will save the world

Objectives like we’ll save the world, we’ll make the best app in the world, change the industry. An objective should specify the company vision for two, maybe three years. It shouldn’t be the whole vision. Many people new to OKR treat objectives like the company vision board and when people read the objective, they roll their eyes and stop working with you.

Huge aspiration: the biggest e-shop in the world

Nowadays, everyone wants to have the best and the fastest app in the world. The new Uber, AirBnB. Be more realistic. Higher aspiration can encourage people, but be careful not to overdo it. Just like the vision-jective types of OKR, huge aspirations might cause detachment from work.

Small aspiration: 1000 clicks, just enough

The exact opposites are small aspirations. They’re very easy to think of and usually come to mind first. But after giving it more thought, you’ll realize that completing an objective like this will have no effect on the world around you.

 A real-life example:

Our objective is to have the best people in the right position. We’ll achieve this by publishing a value triangle with our principles.

How do we know we achieved the objective and the principles work?

We have 1000 employees, so we’ll have 1000 clicks on the value triangle.

But does everyone clicking on it means we completed the objective?

No, that is only the outcome. We can’t know if people work by the principles only by knowing they read them.

Small aspiration that comes to mind quickly but doesn’t have any real effect on the world around you.

Delivery-jective: feature XYZ available

Common mistake in product-oriented companies that need to implement new features often. They start using OKR as task management and delivering a new feature translates to completing an objective. But be careful, new version doesn’t mean we made user’s life better.

Mistakes in defining your OKR

Who cares: solve 1000 bugs

An easy to find mistake with already built products where you mostly need to solve bugs. It’s very easy to find an objective like solve 1000 bugs in the next quartal. But is that necessary? What does it do for the people in the company or the user? Nothing. It doesn’t change anything, simply who cares. You shouldn’t have 1000 bugs. If you do, you probably don’t even work with the client anymore. Solving bugs is a day to day activity, not an objective.

More, more, more: increase, grow, ear more

Everyone wants more, to be bigger, keep increasing. But this has no real impact. Close your eyes and describe what you see around you after achieving your goal. How much is enough? Set your boundaries because you’ll want more in six months, in a week, and even tomorrow.

Copycat-jective: copied examples

When people start with OKR they look for examples. However, most of the time, they look for examples only for their department. They copy-paste and start using them. The problem is they only do it under their roof, but OKR are supposed to align the company through shared goals. This way, you just create department silos.

OKR and people

Selfish: we, our

WE, OUR product, OUR people. If you use these pronouns, it probably means you’re centering your OKR around yourselves. But it’s not you who makes the business, it’s the people, the users and how they view you. Write your OKR to help the client, not yourselves. Go beyond the company’s door.

Salary formula: 100% = bonus

Management starts doing OKR and they decide to reward people for completing objectives or key results. Don’t make this mistake, people will be motivated by the reward, not by the objective itself (read more about motivation and types of rewards). OKRs should not have a big impact on salary. However, achieving a goal should be motivating.

People allocator: person A to launch X

The theory of OKR says that every objective and key result should have an owner. But people tend to misunderstand this responsibility and become a deadline chaser. The owner of the objective should be a leader and ask about whether we are able to complete a goal or if it’s still even necessary. Just like a Product Owner in Scrum. It’s servant leadership, not a push system.

Mistakes in aligning your OKR

Ground forgotten: let people add their OKR

If you want to improve your OKR, let people bring their ideas and their point of view on where the company can go. This will bring your goals to a whole new level you wouldn’t even think of with your mindset. Write OKR together, not closed in an office with a few people. The variety of different work experience will give you new meaning.

Types of mistakes reviewing OKR

0.7: is 70% the new reality?

Some people read the theory and think an objective should be achievable only on 70% so they set it 30% higher. But only the higher, challenging goals are supposed to be doable on 0.7. If you get 0.7 from nirvana, it’s a great success. However, with most goals, it creates an opposite effect. People learn they only have to do 70% and it becomes the new standard, the new 100%. People play by the rules you give them.

Zombie: afraid to stop

If the objective stops making sense, stop doing it and don’t waste your energy. Completing an objective means creating a meaning, don’t do it just to move it to done pile. Don’t be afraid to kill the zombie.

Last year we did an OKR review with a team of 20 leaders. They talked about an objective that was almost done (two key results 100% done and the last one 80% done) and the team working on it said they’re stopping the objective. They realized it doesn’t make sense anymore.

Even though they invested a lot of time and effort to realize the objective doesn’t make sense, they stopped close to the finish line.

In classical management, they would complete the goal just to do it. Here they killed the zombie.

Great OKR start here

Outcome > Output

Think about an outcome, not an output. What does completing the objective change around you, not what new feature comes from it. Start by identifying what you want to achieve. Ask why you want it, multiple times. When you find the reason why you’ll find an objective that has a meaningful outcome.

Close your eyes and imagine the world around you in a year. What do you see? Not what feature, but what did the feature change.

Do this to get the right objective.

How can I help achieve objectives?

Think about what objective you think is right. Don’t wait for “an order” from someone. You are a part of the company, see the processes and results from a different perspective. Working together can elevate company OKRs to a whole new level. Do your part.

Does your objective exceed customer’s request?

Customers are a crucial part of the business, so don’t forget to think about what value you bring to them. Evaluate your OKR from the client’s point of view, because they might have a completely different one. It’s more common than you’d think.

Start small. Go for delivery first. Go for aspiration one you’ve grown.

Start with smaller goals and take small steps. Once you feel confident, start increasing your expectations and go for bigger aspirations. You’ll grow together with your goals.

Perfection will find you.

Don’t try to get it perfect on your first try. Writing great OKR takes time, it’s a lot of trial and error. Don’t be afraid to change what doesn’t work and learn from failure. Keep trying, and perfection will come with time.

Always ask why, then ask again

Have these examples near when you write your OKR to learn from others’ mistakes. A universal guide to the perfect OKR doesn’t exist, you have to write them depending on your company’s culture and individual processes. The main thing is to try and go beyond, don’t be happy with the first idea. Keep asking why until you find the right objective, “a higher” reason. And stay open to feedback.

Always start with why. Repeat.

Objective: what.

Key result: how much of it.

This article is based on a talk Don’t give KO to your OKR by Dusan Kocurek, a ScrumDesk mentor, at the Product Meetup #10 in Bratislava. Video of the whole meetup in the Slovak language is available on youtube and the slides are available here. We recommend you watch the entire video with a talk by Michal Blazej about his experience with OKR and a talk by Lubo Drobny on OKR examples from Slido Slovakia.