What my OKRs video got wrong

(Each week, I write a post about OKRs. You can see the series of posts here; if you have a question about OKRs you’d like to see me cover down the road, drop me a line.)

When I resurrected this blog, Michael was one of the first commenters who asked:

Any chance you could do a follow up post on OKRs? I would love to know whether you discovered something new about OKRs since publishing the GV post on Medium.

The Medium post in question is here; there’s not much to the post, other than the embed of the video I originally made in 2012 that now has over 1M views on YouTube. (If you don’t know what OKRs are, starting with that video isn’t the worst introduction. Though note that the purpose of this post is to update some things I think could be better.)

A while back, I wrote on Twitter about a few things I would do differently if I were recording the video today; it’s been a few years since then, so consider this my periodic update to the video:

  1. What you and your team say no to is at least as important as what you say yes to. This is (at best) implicit in the video, as I talk about the importance of setting a few objectives (and, by extension, saying no to others). But the more time I’ve spent with teams who are implementing OKRs, including the last couple quarters with my current team, it’s clear to me that one of the biggest near-term values of committing to this framework is the permission to your team to say no to lots of good ideas. (This deserves its own post; I’ll flesh this out in the weeks ahead.)
  2. If you’re implementing OKRs for the first time, or the team is still learning how to work with OKRs, ignore individual OKRs. There just isn’t enough difference between what the group is committed to delivering and what the individual’s contribution to that commitment is for individual OKRs to add a lot of value. They end up confusing / frustrating people, or they feel redundant – which can give people a reason to write off OKRs altogether. Give the team a chance to see OKRs work well at aligning the teams across the org, and seeing the kind of larger impact that’s possible when those commitments produce compounding impact, before you worry too much about encouraging individuals to spend much time thinking about their individual OKRs. (And even then, maybe make them optional.)
  3. When identifying metrics for your key results, make sure they quantify impact and/or outcomes, not progress. Metrics that just capture the work in progress – the number of tasks, the lines of code, the incremental effort – but which are disconnected from the actual goal are ultimately unhelpful, and may even be counterproductive. Metrics that suggest momentum and progress, but which fail to lead to the ambitious outcomes the team committed to, can really kill a team’s confidence. (It should be noted: some of the example OKRs I included in the video are, well, not great!)
  4. OKRs should not do double-duty as your performance review system. I noted this in the original blog post about the video, but it really needs to be shouted from the rafters: if you use OKRs as a performance review (which often has a compensation component tied to it), you’re going to encourage your teams to sandbag their OKRs, and set entirely achievable goals so they can get their bonus. You’ll punish ambition – only the people who get 100% of their targets will get 100% of their bonus. That is entirely counter to the idea that OKRs (at least as embodied at Google, and as I embraced them in this video) should reflect ambitious goals, goals that you’re not at all confident you can achieve (but if you did achieve, would be amazing). Sure, an individual’s contributions to a team’s accomplishments (as captured in their OKRs) can and should be an input to their overall performance review. But if they’re toxic in the workplace, if they demean coworkers, if they fail to uphold the organization’s values as they deliver those results? Your performance review approach has to have the ability to capture those counter-productive contributions to the overall organization, or your hands will be tied and your culture will suffer.

While I’m on the subject of what the video got wrong, I can’t end this post without pointing you to Felipe Castro’s suggestion that the video needs to be retired altogether. Felipe said my tweetstorm linked above should have been a blog post, which… here I am! Better late than never. 😂 Kidding aside, Felipe raises a number of solid points – including that the football example I included in the video is too rigid. (In my defense, I was showing the original slides John Doerr had presented to Google’s leadership in 1999 to anchor everyone on how OKRs were introduced to Google – but yeah, looking back on it, I didn’t exactly put together original content to capture 13 years of evolution in how Google applied OKRs. A missed opportunity.) Thankfully, John updated his football example in his book Measure What Matters, one of many good reasons to read that if you haven’t already. Bottom line: there are far more rules and structure in a football game than there are in a company’s journey. The analogy breaks down pretty quickly. Anyway, give Felipe’s post a read.

In the nearly ten years since I recorded that video, I’ve talked with hundreds of founders and leadership teams about implementing OKRs. I helped a number of Google Ventures portfolio companies implement them, and we’re in the process of adopting OKRs on my team at CDT. In the months ahead, I’ll write up the answers to the questions I get the most often, examples of what it looks like when they’re working well, and more. If you have a question about OKRs you’d like me to cover, drop me a line.

4 responses to “What my OKRs video got wrong”

  1. Good evolution on the video! If you haven’t, I suggest posting this with the video.

    Two further risks of individual OKRs.

    1. Keeping them aligned when you do have to change team OKRs is time consuming.
    2. They can give leaders an out from doing the really necessary work in 1:1s, coaching.

    Making them non-mandatory is a good step, but I’d go further and don’t apply them at all.

  2. Thank you for that follow up post and doubling down by committing to weekly OKR posts. I’m always fascinated by how seemingly simple OKRs are, but how tricky it is to get them right.

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