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OKRs, Okay-Rs and NO-KRs

June 3, 2024

After publishing some training, I had a conversation last week about suitability of OKRs.  Here’s a quick summary in case you’re thinking about using them.

OKRs, like Scrum, Excel, or a shovel, are a tool.  While some tools can be used for more than one job, that doesn’t mean that you should, nor that it may be efficient.  In other words, tools have context and, thankfully, most of us have well supplied toolboxes to work with.

To OKRs then.  Their intent is broadly to help you coordinate the achievement of something.  To clarify and rally effort from some kind of performance today, to a new performance tomorrow.  More prosaically, they are a tool for handling objectives – like OGSM, Hoshin Kanri, MBO, SMART or the occasional rebranding of OKRs to include the word ‘outcomes’.

This is where suitability pops up.  If you have no system or tool for handling objectives, then just about any of the above might give you an advantage.  At least, they can help you to describe, share and track your progress towards whatever you want in tomorrow’s performance.

If, however, you already have a system, be warned that here be dragons.  You already have people, practices, and understanding that is linked to that system.  Imagining it’s MBO, you already set objectives and – theoretically – manage their performance.  People know what the format is, the expectations you have and so on.  I also guarantee that regardless of what reputation MBO has, Stuff-Still-Gets-Done™.  So, what new thing would OKRs give you?

Practically, I find that the format is more explicit and can make intention clearer than others.  Already splitting out qualitative and quantitative information gives a step up on SMART, and regular 3-month cycles give you more adaptability than annual objectives I’ve experienced when using MBO (in typical implementations of both.)

But the other stuff you might read about – that OKRs help with ambition, innovation, collaboration or whatever – are things that OKRs assist you with ONLY IF you decide they are important.  That is, if you want your teams to be more ambitious and chase bigger targets, that isn’t caused by an OKR.  It comes from consideration of the system people are in, and activities to experiment with, learn and develop those behaviours.  Incidentally, something people like Deming have been teaching since the 1950s.  Likewise, an OKR won’t make your teams focus more, deliver more, or give each other better feedback. ALL of these things are decisions and intentions about how you might like things to be, and – with that context – OKRs can help to try things out and through them, to nurture the results you want.

So the question, to borrow from clean, should be:

[If you implement OKRs] What would you like to have happen?

I’ll offer a guide, where if the answer is something like:

Answer 1. “I’d like to keep up with the trends, keep my boss happy or get it on my CV.”

NO-KRs.  It’s going to waste everyone’s time, patience, and energy.  Even if you did get some benefit, it’s unlikely to ever be measurable.

Answer 2. “I need something to manage objectives.  To make a connection between our purpose and the delivery of our strategy.  Get some visibility.  Try to get people more involved.”

Okay-Rs.  Any method would work well for this, but the format of OKRs is useful and may outweigh the effort teaching people about it.

Answer 3. “I want something to supplement some already intended or active changes, like growing ambition, autonomy or agility in my teams.”

OKRs.  This is (my opinion) the best use case, since you can emphasise aspects of your implementation to help this happen. E.g. if you want more ambition, set some guardrails that encourage that – being very careful to consider the other parts of the system, like consequences for failure.  You can also leverage a bit of the mystique and “New! Shiny!” that such a change might encompass.

In the end, I urge people to think about their own reasons for any tool.  At least doing that gives them a chance to see if their OKRs – or indeed, their Scrum, their ISO9001, or their next-gen CRM system – has made any difference.

If you want to know more, there’s much more in my course, and – if you hadn’t guessed – that’s aimed at the ‘answer 3’ folk above.

Or, if you’re thinking about implementing OKRs and just want some quick advice, get in touch.  It is essential that you know about what could go wrong as much as what can go right.

Here’s a link to the training too: https://opensquare.podia.com/