OKRS don’t guarantee success

It feels like there’s a great misunderstanding around OKRs: Using Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) guarantees success! Even though guides suggest setting stretch goals (the word stretch implying that they are not reachable) the use of the term goal suggests something tangible and achievable. So companies struggle to write better or perfect OKRs, and we feel that with practice we’ll succeed! Succeed at meeting a predictable percentage of our Key Results. And by extension that our endeavor will succeed! If we’re a start up we’ll define our product and find our market because we wrote OKRs. If we’re a stable product we’ll be able to keep taking our product to the next level and stay one step ahead of the competition because we used OKRs!!

If this sounds too good to be true, it is! 

Too good to be true

The misunderstandings around OKRs build on the premise that there is something that we can do in all situations that will guarantee success. I like Stephen Bungay’s explanation of the three strategy gaps to help us see why guaranteed success can be an unreachable ideal.

The three gaps

In situations where we don’t have full control over all the variables:

  • The landscape is constantly changing and we don’t know everything
  • What we will do (or be able to do) might not be predictable
  • The results that we get may or may not match the outcomes we were hoping to achieve
Stephen Bungay's three gaps

What sometimes happens with OKRs is that we set the outcomes that we want explicitly, but don’t discuss our plans for how to achieve the outcomes. We focus only on what and how to measure, and spend little time talking about:

  • How we’re organized
  • Handling new information that should inform mid-OKR cycle changes
  • How different OKRs interact with each other

Decision making framework

OKRs by themselves are not a strategy. The definition that I like best is:

Strategy is a deployable decision making framework, enabling action to achieve desired outcomes, constrained by current capabilities, coherently aligned to the existing context. 

Stephen Bungay

OKRs can be a tool for conversation, for helping groups in a company align and for creating clarity and transparency on the most important objectives. They can be used to express the outcomes we’re hoping to reach, but even when they are working well, they are not enough to set a strategy. 

What can we do?

Let’s focus on creating a decision making framework that will help us adjust our path as we learn more and we see the effects of what we do . We cannot guarantee success, but by making decisions deliberately as we’re implementing  our strategy we have the ability to revisit, adjust and react to what is going on.

So the next time you’re setting OKRs, consider the following questions, and adress the ones that aren’t by OKRs:

  • Is how we’re organized going to help us achieve our OKRs, or does it require too much coordination and negotiation that just slows us down?
  • Do we have the ability to dynamically respond to changing circumstances, or will teams get stuck in the track that was set at the beginning of the quarter?
  • Is the main effort that we’re trying to achieve clear to the organization, or will we be pulled in multiple directions due to competing OKRs?

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