There are a few different ways to facilitate goal setting and measuring progress. Unfortunately, many of them are flawed and end up bringing more friction, confusion, and madness into product organizations. Well, OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) can be one of them. And, more often than not, their miraculous promises at the start don’t leave up to expectations when leaders decide to scale it across teams. Sadly, the blame usually goes to the tool itself rather than to the obvious dysfunctions in how their leaders lead and how their teams operate.
I try to avoid recommending OKRs without understanding the teams’ context first or providing a prescriptive “way” to use them. This is because all organizations are a bit different and there are multiple ways to succeed.
But with that said, when choosing to use OKRs, there are a few crucial and common antipatterns you want to avoid.
The good news?
None of this is rocket science. And when using OKRs well within the right environment, it can be an extremely powerful tool… So let’s dive in!
(Note: Everything I’ve learned about OKRs comes mainly from Jeff Gothelf, John Cutler, Joshua Seiden, Teresa Torres, Marty Cagan, Christina Wodtke, Itamar Gilad, Sonja Mewes & Nattlija Hellesoe, Felipe Castro, Jonathan Smart, and Tim Herbig.)
1. Doing OKRs for the sake of doing OKRs
Many companies start doing OKRs because, well: “Everyone else is doing it and, look, they’re doing great!”. But doing OKRs is never the end goal. Instead, leadership needs to have a deep conversation about why they should adopt them in the first place, and what they’re hoping to achieve.
2. OKRs without a Strategy
OKRs are particularly useful for leaders who want to empower their teams with problems to solve or opportunities to tackle, in a strategic way. Which means that there’s a clear reason why certain problems have been prioritized. And, at the same time, other equally important problems that were put aside (what we’re saying “no” to, for the time being). That’s the essence of Strategy… And that means you need one — before you start with OKRs.
OKRs will then be your strategy deployment tool.
So remember: Strategy first, OKRs follow.
3. OKRs assigned to “groups of individuals”, not real teams
OKRs are also particularly useful for teams who want to have a clear direction and measure their progress continuously and in a meaningful way — fostering ownership around the outcomes they want to achieve together and enabling them to quickly adapt as they go. But that means these objectives are assigned to an actual team — not just a group of individuals who are supposed to work together in an environment with no psychological safety and no shared accountability for the results of their work. That just doesn’t work.
4. Cascaded OKRs, instead of aligned OKRs
The concept of cascaded OKRs is when traditional organizations start by defining top-level Objectives and Key Results, and then each of those key results becomes an Objective in the layer underneath. In a large organization, this cascade can have several layers.
But as mentioned by Felipe Castro, a cascade of goals is:
“(…) a top-down, one-way, irreversible flow, with no feedback cycles that ends crashing on the rocks. Everything an agile, innovative organization does not want to be.”
OKRs should not cascade. They should align. Trust your teams, and provide them with the context they need.
5. Disconnected relationship between leadership and teams
Indeed, assigning objectives to teams is a big part of leading with strategic context.
By assigning teams with objectives (customer or business problems to solve) and being very clear about the “why”, leaders are deploying strategy and empowering the teams to find out a solution to solve such problems.
But many misinterpret the dynamic between leadership and teams when doing OKRs. Some go all-in with a top-down approach, misunderstanding that OKRs should be done extremely collaboratively (top-down and bottom-up). Others, a bit more frequently, do exactly the opposite: they expect the teams to come up with their own objectives. Well, you can probably figure out the problem with this approach, especially in large organizations: no common strategic direction, misaligned teams, siloed thinking, and a path toward failure at scale.
As Marty Cagan puts it:
“They literally think that the idea is to let teams identify a set of objectives, and then let them pursue those objectives, and we’ll see where we are at the end of the quarter. They think that empowered product teams, and this technique especially, is about less management. But as I’ve tried to emphasize throughout this book, it’s really about better management.”
Here’s a little table I put together to help.
6. Too tactical or fluffy objectives
As a rule of thumb when framing objectives for a team, you want to be strategic and specific whenever possible.
But, surprise surprise, this is where it gets interesting and not an exact science — like most things in Product. Remember, none of these statements live in isolation (or, at least, they shouldn’t). And some teams may need more context than others to succeed. Also, some teams may be dealing with high-integrity commitments, for example — where the outcomes may have been previously defined, communicated, and understood. Which, in that case, allows for a more tactical and specific objective without compromising the benefits of OKRs as an empowerment tool fostering an outcome-driven mindset. So, yes, it’s nuanced. But, as a rule of thumb, be careful with objectives that are too fluffy and strategic or too fluffy and tactical. Avoid these.
7. Set-in-stone OKRs, regardless of new evidence that comes to light
OKRs are supposed to foster agility. Some teams commit to an OKR at the beginning of the quarter and learn a few weeks later that what they articulated is now irrelevant or suboptimal. What do they do? They stick to it at all costs throughout the three months. That’s a blunder.
Make sure you inspect your OKRs regularly with short OKR check-ins and — more importantly — adapt when needed! The goal is to make progress and drive meaningful impact. Not to run an OKR show.
8. OKR cadence as a restrictor of thinking and value creation
Many people believe that OKRs only have one cadence: quarterly. All work must follow this cadence — which becomes more like a “boundary”. But that’s just a common misconception. As a result, “OKRs can cause teams to miss the big picture and focus only on what they can accomplish in three months”.
The reality is that different goals have different rhythms.
Solving complex problems may take a “think big” approach. So make sure your quarterly OKRs are not restricting you, but rather helping you set a direction and measure the progress towards it. Also, adapt when you need a shorter-term goal (e.g. monthly) that is a bit more tactical or a goal that requires a faster feedback loop. Again, context is key. Product is messy. Embrace it.
9. “New quarter, new objectives” mindset
Another common mistake is that, for any new given quarter, you need new objectives. Welcome to the OKR rat wheel.
It may sound logical, but make sure to review your OKRs at the end of the quarter and conclude on what needs to “move” to the next quarter — before you set completely new ones. Remember: the goal is not to “score” your OKRs at the end of the cycle and move on with your lives hoping for a better quarter with new objectives. The whole point is to make meaningful progress on the most important outcomes you want to achieve.
10. Team dependencies dependent on Objectives
When a team is dependent on another team, they might feel that the only way this dependency will be addressed and satisfied is by creating a shared objective. “We have an OKR for this, now Bob’s team needs to commit to helping us!”. More often than not, this is all artificial. To avoid this, teams and leaders must be conscious of who’s truly dependent on whom, which objectives should be shared or common, and be clear about the fact that there will always be “day-to-day” work that needs to be done collaboratively to keep the lights on.
11. Treating all objectives as equally important
A set of multiple OKRs may create the illusion that they are all equally important. Reflect — and communicate — what the number one priority is. Make it clear.
12. OKRs for everything you do
“If it’s not on this list, are we even doing it? Where is X?”. This one is a classic. Remember, OKRs aren’t supposed to cover every single “business as usual” initiative to keep your lights on. They are meant to cover the most important outcomes you want to achieve. Less is more.
13. Reverse engineering OKRs to fit a backlog
This happens when teams artificially create and adjust their OKRs to match what they are already doing. It’s at the epicenter of an OKR Theatre. When teams use OKRs effectively, they first reflect on the outcomes they want to achieve. After that, they ideate solutions (the outputs) aimed to achieve such outcomes. However, many teams do exactly the opposite. They start with what they want to build or the task they’re already doing, and they write down the results those specific actions are supposed to achieve in an ideal scenario. Sadly, they fail to understand that the whole point is to start with the outcome in mind. Outputs follow.
14. Key results as tasks
This antipattern affects big names in the industry too. You’re not alone.
It’s easy to fall into the “task list trap”. But Key Results are exactly that: results. So, hopefully, after some reflection, you understand that “releasing feature X” is not a result. What this activity will lead to is. Maybe by releasing this feature, you will “increase user retention by 10%”. Now we’re talking. But maybe what you’re looking for is to increase retention by 50% — not 10%. And in that case, you should probably build something else than feature X. You see: The outcome first, output follows.
15. Non-measurable and non-provable key results
When you have a key result such as “improve customer engagement”, how do you know you actually moved the needle in the right direction? You don’t. Because it’s too subjective. It’s not provable. However, if you break it down into meaningful indicators that may represent an improvement in your customers’ engagement, you may end up with measurable results like “increase users’ time-spent in product X by 10%”.
Just ask yourself when reading your key results: “does it have a number?”
Of course, it can’t just be any number… You need to be able to measure it!
16. Focus on system behavior, rather than human behavior
You can optimize a system almost infinitely. For example, let’s say that one of your results is to “increase upload speed by 20%”. At first, this sounds like a good key result. But will this improve customer experience AND lead to more sales/higher revenue/higher retention rate or any other change in human behavior that will drive a meaningful business result? Great key results focus on the human behaviors that drive a real impact for your company.