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OKRs Not Working? Here Are Somes Clues As To Why

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by Bastin Gerald, CEO and Founder of Profit.co

Let’s say you’re a business leader who has enthusiastically implemented OKRs in their organization. You’ve read the material needed for a successful OKR implementation, prepped your team, and written strong OKRs.

But, a few weeks into the quarter, you notice that your OKRs don’t seem to be progressing. The framework simply isn’t working like you thought it would — and like the case studies from industry-leading organizations promised it would.

It’s important at this point not to be discouraged. All organizations that implement OKRs, regardless of industry, size, and maturity, go through a learning phase with OKRs. This could be in your first quarter or even your third or fourth. If your OKRs aren’t working, there’s probably an identifiable reason.

To help you identify and remedy that issue, we’ll explore ten reasons your OKRs aren’t working below!

  1. Check-ins are not informative
  2. Key results don’t follow the MECE rule
  3. Priorities keep shifting
  4. No one celebrates successes
  5. No learning catalogue
  6. Too many or too little OKRs
  7. Lack of resources
  8. Emphasizing achieving over learnings
  9. Lack of frequent reviews
  10. Lack of innovation

1. Check-ins are not informative.

The first reason that your business OKRs might not be working is centered around one of the most important processes in the OKR framework: check-ins.

Check-ins are more than simply updating the value of a key result in your OKR software. Check-ins are about a weekly connection back to what your priorities are for the quarter, and how you plan to proceed in the next week.

If your team’s weekly check-ins aren’t addressing the three components of an informative check-in (value, status, and comment), then they are not informative enough and are deterring the quality of your OKR program.

Let’s review these three components. First, the value. This is the straightforward part of a key result check-in. You should update the value of the KPI you are tracking, or the percentage progress of the process or initiative you are working on. Many teams are great at this portion of the check-in— but you can’t stop there. Next is the status. Different companies might have different status markers depending on their company culture, but common ones are “On Track”, “At Risk”, and “In Trouble”. The status of your key result isn’t about the number value, it’s about your confidence level in finishing the key result within the OKR period. So, even if your value is proceeding as planned, if you don’t have the vision for how you’ll reach your target, your status might be “At Risk.” Finally, you must include a comment in your check-in to explain the progress made, any issues you are facing, and your plans for the next week.

If check-ins aren’t informative, that means full transparency isn’t being achieved in your organization— even if the company can see all the set OKRs. Transparency means that everyone has a window into the progress, plans, and problems faced by their coworkers. So if your OKR program is having issues, start here by examining check-ins and making sure they’re up to par.

2. Key results don’t follow the MECE rule.

The next area you should focus on if you get the sense that your OKRs aren’t working is your key results. As you know, key results are the outcomes that you need to see in your business in order to know that your objective has been met.

However, there’s a condition attached to this; your key results must be the right key results. And to ensure that they are the right ones, you must follow the MECE rule. Key results on an objective must be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE). This means that together, they must exhaustively address all the components needed to achieve your objective in full. Additionally, they cannot overlap, and one outcome should not be contingent on if another is completed.

Key results that don’t follow the MECE rule can give you a false sense of confidence when it comes to OKR progress. If you’re making progress on key results, but they aren’t the correct key results, then any progress you make on your objective will not actually be reflective of true progress in your organization.

3. Priorities keep shifting.

The third area you can review if your business OKRs are not working are your priorities. Sometimes, the priorities you have at the beginning of the quarter aren’t the same ones you have three weeks into the quarter.

You could set strong, well-written goals with the best intentions during week one. However, it’s entirely possible that your real goals for the quarter are completely different from the ones you set. Changing priorities is natural— the problem doesn’t lie in shifting your focus, but rather the failure to recognize that change and reflect it in your OKRs.

You must change your OKRs to match your true priorities. If you fail to do this, you’ll be making progress on goals that aren’t even reflected in your OKRs, resulting in zero progress

4. No one celebrates successes.

The next issue could be a culture and engagement issue, which is that no one in your company or team celebrates successes. Celebrating successes, no matter how large or small, is an important part of fostering engagement and a culture of support and encouragement.

If there is no positive reinforcement or recognition for hard work, all of the increased employee engagement that the OKR framework can create is negated. Employees can be nervous about talking about their progress. The attitude surrounding success and perceived “failures” should be the same: What can be learned from this? Ensure that you celebrate successes, and catalogue what went right so that when failures do occur, employees know that they have a supportive team around them.

5. No learning catalogue.

A common reason that your OKRs simply aren’t working is because you’re not taking the “learning” aspect of OKRs seriously enough. This issue might make itself known in the form of repeated mistakes, and no forward progress.

An important tenet of the OKR framework is having a solid learning catalogue. Team members should be able to document the things that they have learned from their successes and times they fell short. All companies should have a learning log that is easy to access and add to as lessons are learned. Additionally, everyone should be able to access this throughout the quarter.

That way, if a team member is working on a target that has already been attempted by their peer in an earlier quarter, they can consult the strategies that have already been tried. Instead of learning from their own process of trial and error, that employee can circumvent all the faulty strategies that were already attempted and instead build on past learnings, meaning they are more likely to find a successful strategy.

6. Too many or too little OKRs.

Another issue is that many companies don’t follow the Rule of Five.

The rule of five states that you should have between three and five OKRs for each OKR level, department, team, or individual you are setting OKRs for. Additionally, there should be between three and five key results for each Objective set.

Many teams exceed this number, instead focusing on six or seven OKRs. This dilutes focus, and stretches resources too thin to make any substantial progress on goals. Alternatively, some teams have only one or two OKRs. This is an issue because it means that not enough important goals and priorities are being addressed to feel any real effect in the organization.

Additionally, having more than five key results for an Objective once again diverts focus to too many targets at once. Meanwhile, having too few key results means that you’re probably not following the important MECE principle, which states that all key results on an objective should be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.

7. Lack of resources.

The issue of a lack of resources, or a lack of proper resource distribution, can pop up in many OKR programs. Leaders must have a clear understanding of what materials, softwares, timelines, and people they have at their disposal, and properly assign these resources to certain outcomes.

If a stretch goal is assigned too little resources, then there’s absolutely no chance that the goal will even reach the 70% mark that the OKR framework emphasizes. Meanwhile, if a business-as-usual goal is overcompensated with resources, then there is waste, and the business loses out on an opportunity to reach all their goals effectively.

8. Emphasizing achieving over learnings.

If your business does not have a “safe-to-fail” environment, chances are you’re feeling the detrimental effects of that in your OKR progress.

Emphasizing achieving over learning is a dangerous game, because you’re communicating to employees that it’s not okay to set stretch goals and fall short— but that is where the true benefit of the OKR framework lies. You must emphasize learning opportunities above all else.

This is not to say that achievement isn’t important. It absolutely is — but it’s much more likely that you will have high achievement if you first allow your team to try out their strategies, learn lessons from their errors, and try different approaches until they find what works best.

As long as you are sure that the effort and attempt that employees make is sincere, you should encourage your team to document the learnings, share them, and use that learning to make sure you achieve your key results the next time.

9. Lack of frequent reviews.

If you are not taking the time to review OKRs using the PPP framework, you’re probably not making much progress on your OKRs at all.

The PPP framework stands for progress, plans, and problems. This is a structure to help teams emphasize the most important aspects of their key result progress: what went right, what the plan is for the next period, and what went wrong.

If you conduct these reviews each week, you have the opportunity to help employees solve issues before they become roadblocks. Additionally, team members can help each other out with planning strategy and providing support. If there is no opportunity to connect as a team and draw support from one another, then your OKRs most likely will not see any progress at all.

10. Lack of innovation.

A lack of innovation could be thought of as a special type of “resource” problem that stunts your OKR progress in large ways. This might be caused by a restrictive company culture that doesn’t allow for fresh ideas and conversation, or might even be a process problem, which puts too much pressure on employees to draw inside the lines.

Well-written OKRs should encourage team members to push themselves and be innovative about the strategies they exercise to reach their goals. Ensure that your team is collaborating on the OKR planning process, and they are engaged when setting goals for the quarter.

 

Bastin Gerald is the CEO and Founder of Profit.co, an intuitive cloud-based software that helps teams manage their OKRs with focus and alignment. Additionally, Bastin is the CEO of Apptivo, a 200-person company that aims to provide an easy software solution for small and medium businesses.