So you’re planning to adopt OKRs in your company? Well, you might want to think this through a bit more carefully.

OKRs can be an amazing tool for strategic alignment and improved results, but they can also be an incredible source of waste and confusion when poorly implemented.

With the recent popularity of OKRs, many companies are jumping headfirst into it without really understanding all that it entails. What might look like a simple framework adoption on the surface can quickly become a complex and disruptive process that generates a lot of headaches along the way.

The truth is that not every company will benefit from OKRs (no surprise here, eh), so before jumping on the bandwagon, it might be better to understand if OKRs are actually the right fit for you.

Here are three signs they’re not:


1. Outputs Matter More Than Outcomes in Your Organisation

If delivering features matters more than solving problems in your organisation, then OKRs will very likely become a waste of time.
OKRs are supposed to help measure the impact of your work, not the work itself.

For example, if your goal is to increase retention, your Key Results should answer: “Did we manage to increase customer retention?” and not, “Did we manage to ship all those shiny features that we think will increase customer retention?”

In companies where the culture is all about pushing out features to meet predetermined plans, this distinction gets lost and OKRs quickly become (just another) TO-DO list.

I’ve seen multiple companies adopting OKRs while still maintaining lists of — super important — centrally managed — initiatives that basically took all the capacity of pretty much all teams in the company. Little space was left for OKRs, and no space at all was left for experimentation.

This led to multiple clashes between the OKRs and all the other prioritization lists in the company. Teams end up confused, asking, “What’s more important — this high-priority initiative that I was assigned to or these other OKRs that the CEO said were our top priority?”

If your company isn’t ready to shift its mindset from outputs to outcomes, diving into OKRs will likely just add more noise to the system. Besides, if your current initiative lists are working for you, and you’re not willing to let go of them, why would add another source of work?

2. You’re Not Great at Measuring Things


If your company isn’t big on measurement, OKRs will be an uphill battle. OKRs rely heavily on measurable results. After all, if you can’t track your progress, how can you really know if you’re achieving your objectives?

For example, I worked with an organization that wanted to deliver better software faster (classic) but had no way to measure it whatsoever. In summary, they didn’t have any metrics to set a target against (lead time, deployment frequency, change failure rate, etc.), but somehow they knew that their teams weren’t delivering good software fast enough (??).

Another company wanted to improve user engagement in their product but never really had the time to put the proper tracking in place to get the required metrics. Well, they had deadlines to meet and more important features to push out (technical debt, much?).

So, what happens when you don’t have the metrics to measure the impact of your work? You guessed it right — you start measuring the work itself (back to 1). In the examples above, their Key Results became purely delivery-focused, such as:

[] Implement a new DevOps pipeline
[] Implement three new features to increase user engagement

Did those Key Results help them to achieve their objective? Well, maybe, but until they measure it somehow, I guess we’ll never really know.

So, unless you’re prepared to identify the gaps and set better measurements as part of your journey toward better outcomes, OKRs will probably not add much value to you.

Maybe instead of jumping straight into OKRs, you could use that overhead time to allow teams to identify their key metrics and put the proper mechanisms in place to track them?

3. You Have Too Many Layers of (Top-Down) Hierarchy


Picture this: You’re in a company with six layers of hierarchy between the development teams and the strategic layer — a structure that’s led by top-down command and control.

Now that you’re doing OKRs (and not individual KPIs anymore 😉), every single manager in the chain wants to weigh in and reflect their own priorities on the OKRs that will be cascaded down.

By the time these Objectives and Key Results trickle down to the teams, they’ve mixed and multiplied, becoming a jumbled list of confusing (and often conflicting) goals.

In this scenario, teams are left to wonder which OKRs are the most important. Maybe their immediate manager’s OKRs? Or maybe the OKRs set by their manager’s manager? Or maybe the ones set by their manager’s manager’s manager?

Not to mention when functional OKRs (Product, Design, Engineering, Quality, etc.) come into play. Now, besides the jumbled list mentioned before, each team member also has their own list of OKRs to align with.

Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? That’s because it is.

This confusion erodes the team’s sense of ownership, hinders autonomy and collaboration, and stifles their creativity.

If you’re looking to adopt OKRs in a similar company, maybe try to make sure that OKRs are not a mere reflection of the hierarchical structure.

Instead of simply cascading OKRs down on every layer, you can maybe foster a culture of more collaborative alignment and use leadership as guides that help teams understand how to best align their work with the company’s strategic goals.

The Takeaway


OKRs can transform the way your company operates, but they’re not a silver bullet (duh). If the things above sounded too familiar to you, you might be better off without them.

Or maybe not.

Maybe OKRs can actually be the catalyst, the driving force that triggers positive change in your company toward better outcomes. However, that will only work if you’re aware of what you’re getting into and have enough appetite for this type of change (which many companies don’t, for many good reasons).

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