5 reasons why your OKRs failed and how you can fix them?

End of the year means beginning of the year. The client requests I received in Q4 to review/ restart their Objectives and Key Results was more than I could handle. 

It seems like companies had their OKR sets almost unreviewed throughout the year, but now that the year comes to an end, they take a look at them again after months of neglect, because they need to plan the next year. This phenomenon is called “Set and Forget”.

5 reasons why you fall into the trap of “set and forget”

Lack of Focus

I’ve seen OKR lists filled with dozens of OKR sets, per level/unit/team. Either you didn’t have a thorough discussion about what’s really important and what to focus on, or you don’t have a clear strategy so that teams write OKR for anything they think is important. 

OKR for everything

Once I had this conversation with a CEO, who was convinced that everyone needs OKRs, because otherwise they wouldn’t feel valued. If you do Objectives and Key Results for everything it gets messy quickly and people get overwhelmed for having to write down OKR for every step, they take. 

Lack of OKR Rituals

Please go and check your calendar now and tell me when your next OKR related meeting is? If you can’t answer it within a minute, then you are an obvious victim of “set and forget”. What a pity! Because the whole organization spends so much time writing the OKRs. For what? Not to look at them later? Why writing them then at all? What a waste of time, effort, money, and energy this is.  

Business as Usual overhauls OKRs

“We don’t have time for our OKR!” It breaks my heart seeing teams being too busy cutting down the forest and has no time to sharpen the saw. It’s even sadder to see, when teams have OKR sets that might help them to sharpen the saw, but get blocked by other parts of the organization, because they’re expected to deliver as fast as usual, when not even faster.

OKRs On Top

“Why is your roadmap separated from your OKR?” I asked a team recently. They never seemed to think of OKRs as part of their business. Instead, they wrote OKR sets for “On Top” topics such as “improving the team communication”, which might be a very good reason for an OKR, if it’s part of your strategic focus. The real power of OKRs can be activated if it reflects your intent how to realize and validate your strategy.

How to avoid the trap of “set and forget”?

Strategic Focus

Bill Gate says „My success, part of it certainly, is that I have focused in on a few things.“ If you want OKRs to work, you need focus on a few topics, as a whole organization! This means the decision about what to focus on, takes place even before you start writing your OKRs. It’s a strategic decision you need to take. Observe your environment and discuss where (not) to play and how (not) to win? Choose 1-3 topics to focus on in the next 3-6-12 months. Communicate it till everyone internalized it. Whatever you do limit the number of OKR sets to max. 3. Besides, if you focus on outcomes, not outputs, you’ll realize that the number of OKR sets, especially number of Key Results decrease naturally. 

OKR for strategic topics only

It is important to find a balance between being adaptable and maintaining stability. While we need to continuously change and improve ourselves to stay relevant tomorrow, we also need to maintain things that keep us alive today. Both facets are crucial for a successful business, and they need different approaches. You need OKRs for strategic changes for a better tomorrow (explorative), not to keep the lights on today (administrative). 

Make OKR part of your work rituals

Setting the OKR is only one part of the whole process. It’s like buying a plane ticket for your journey but not checking-in. The actual work starts after defining your OKR. You need to think of initiatives (bets, features, experiments, activities, etc.) that might help you to reach your OKRs. You regularly need to check-in if the initiatives helped or not, so that you can decide on your next steps. Also, at the end of the OKR cycle (3-4 months) you should review and reflect on what happened. You need to have this conversation to understand if and how OKR helped you to get closer to your mid- and long-term goals. Integrate these conversations into your meetings. Make OKR part of your work rituals, so that it doesn’t feel like something extra you have to do, but something you just do to keep the ball rolling.

Reduce time for BAU with help of OKR

Instead of saying “we don’t have time”, ask yourself “how can we make time to work on strategic changes”. Be very critical with everything you do and ask what can be eliminated, improved, or automatized. Write OKR sets to reduce the time you spend for repetitive administrative work. Your future you will be very thankful for being foresightful.

OKR as part of your roadmap

Make OKR part of your strategic roadmap and be it the generator of your delivery roadmap. First you define what change you want to create (outcome), and then define what to do for it (output). With Outcome-OKR you can communicate your strategic intent and then think of initiatives, features, user stories, etc. as hypotheses or bets to see if they helped your case. Don’t commit to your feature list but rather to the outcomes.

Last but not least …

Not only at the end of a year, but at the end of each OKR cycle, ask yourself what helped, what not? What to start, stop, continue to do to make OKR work for you. 

Happy OKRing.

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