Why Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) Are Not a Substitute for Strategy

When Google launched its new Chrome browser in 2008, it set an ambitious goal of 20 million weekly active users by the end of the year. Though it missed this number, the Chrome team continued to think big and continually innovate until finally they achieved their 2010 target of 111 million users. Sundar Pichai, Google’s current CEO who led the project, attributes a large portion of this success to the company’s use of Objective and Key Results (OKRs). 

Why Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) Are Not a Substitute for Strategy

OKRs involve setting clear, aspirational objectives then specifying a way of accurately measuring whether you achieved them or not. The process helps teams focus on what’s important, think bigger and track their progress, keeping everyone aligned, engaged and motivated. John Doerr, who introduced Google to OKRs, once said: “OKRs have such enormous potential because they are so adaptable. There is no dogma, no one right way to use them; it’s up to you to find your points of emphasis and make the tool your own.”  Each organization can leverage best practices, but creating its own process to fit the requirements and strategic vision of their unique organization is key to unlocking the full potential of OKRs.  

3 Key Lessons About OKRs

As with any new process or system, it can take time to figure out how OKRs can deliver the most value to your business. To help speed up the time to value in your organization, here are three key lessons about OKRs that I’ve learned while helping to implement, scale and refine the process at Pluralsight.

  1. Remember That OKRs Don’t Replace Strategy

Because they help to concentrate efforts on reaching those goals, OKRs are fantastic for giving individuals and teams clear aims to aim for. It will take time to define, communicate, and align OKRs, but it’s crucial to keep in mind that they serve as a tool, not as the goal in and of themselves. Each goal and the essential achievements that go with it are only the first steps towards realizing a larger plan centered on the mission of your company. Before top company OKRs are developed, it’s critical that everyone in the business is aware of this distinction and that strategy is well-defined.

If you’re in a planning motion and feel like OKRs, whether team or top-level, are uncoordinated or created on a whim without vision, then it’s time to take a step back and reflect on your strategy or create one. I recommend at least annual planning for alignment to strategy, followed up by quarterly goal setting and measurement to constantly align and re-align toward that strategy. The timing of your planning motions – from leadership down to individual team planning meetings – is much more important than you might think. It is a critical link between setting the objectives and ensuring they are met, so plan accordingly – and if you are a leader do not let this slip or take it lightly. Cross-functional planning itself is one of the hardest things to learn as an organization, and one of the most valuable outcomes of deploying OKRs effectively. This shouldn’t be a hindrance to using OKRs or any goal-setting tool, but rather something to get out in front of that will help you immensely. 

It is essential that individual employees and teams are able to clearly link their own OKRs to company priorities that reflect the organization’s strategic aims. This ensures everyone can still see the big picture while remaining focused on their immediate targets. It supports the necessary daily decision making and inevitable reprioritization when everyone understands the desired outcome. 

  1. Keep the Entire Process as Transparent as Possible

Varying teams and departments will have different OKRs, even though everyone is ultimately focusing on the same top priority. It is critical to keep in mind that team dependencies exist throughout the trip. It is essential that this information get shared when one team discovers something important that justifies changing an existing objective. Changes to OKRs throughout execution are OK, but you must provide all impacted teams the chance to step back, comprehend how this alters their commitments or direction, and obtain the realignment necessary to deliver on the new key outcomes.

Any OKR process should emphasize transparency, and this applies throughout the entire quarter, not only at the beginning for alignment’s sake. The progress made by each person and team in relation to the determined priorities over the course of the quarter and the year is also transparent. Cross-functional teams can be immediately informed of delays or missed deadlines thanks to this transparency. The required problem solving for communications, adjustments, or course corrections is driven by this shared knowledge.

This transparency into and communication of key learnings is paramount for leaders at any level. OKRs can become a set it and forget it if your leaders do not make it a consistent focus.  Having a technology (like Betterworks) that is dedicated to supporting this transparency across and within teams is essential. When you can link your OKR measurement directly to the tools your employees use everyday — Slack, Jira, Leankit, Asana and more —  it ensures everyone is always up to date. In time-sensitive businesses, you don’t want to have to rely on people logging into to yet another tool simply to update progress. 

  1. Remain Agile and Open to Learnings

The beauty of the OKR process is that it is inherently flexible so if/when your business strategy does change, you have the means to communicate the change and ensure every person in every role is able to rapidly realign their work around it. We’ve already touched on the importance of transparency, but it is also important in the context here of being agile in rapidly-evolving industries and markets. In fast-moving organizations or teams it’s important to embrace the change, be agile and as a leader communicate these learnings to your teams so they can adapt to new information or market conditions and update their OKRs. If you have teams that are trying to find ‘product-market fit,’ weeks and even days are incredibly valuable, and quarterly planning can’t be a constraint. 

Your people managers have an outsized impact on the overall success of this process, so it’s essential that they understand how to treat OKRs and are given the freedom to run their teams in their own way.  They should be empowered to change goals and adapt the process to fit ever-changing business needs and priorities. For example, when OKRs are reviewed and updated at least quarterly it allows your organization to adapt to changing business conditions successfully.  

OKRs Aren’t One-Size-Fits-All, but You Can Optimize Them to Work for Any Organization

Not every business has Google-size goals or even similar company structures, but OKRs still work for any organization or team because it is not a one-size-fits-all process. The value of this methodology lies in its flexibility and ability to adapt and evolve with your business. 

For OKRs to be effective, the entire process must be a continuous one of setting goals, basing goals on strategy, allowing teams to plan coherently, measuring results and checking that the goals align to the changing priorities of the business and adapting as needed. If your organization can do that, and not allow a rigid adherence to a set process override the need to be agile, it will be set up for success with OKRs and achieving its broader strategic goals. 

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Grant Boudon


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