OKRs as institutional memory

person holding a book

(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.)

We’ve been implementing OKRs over the last couple quarters on my team. Early in our roll-out, I reiterated a point I made in my OKR video almost a decade ago: the grades don’t really matter. (Robin Kwong helpfully pulled out a few quotes from the video, including my comments about grades specifically:

I always felt, and continue to feel, grades don’t matter except as directional indicators of how you’re doing. If you’re spending more than a few minutes at the end of a quarter summarizing your grades, you’re doing something wrong. The work should go into doing – and delivering on – the OKRs, not grading them.

In a recent 1:1, one of the leaders on my team told me that they’d be editing their current OKRs, as the team had learned several things that they didn’t previously know. Since the grades didn’t matter anyway, his logic went, they’d modify their goals on the fly to hold themselves accountable to a modified goal.

His logic was sound. So why did I resist this mid-quarter adjustment? Because over time, OKRs can be the organization’s institutional memory. In the absence of OKRs, an organization’s mistakes made and lessons learned are locked in people’s heads. New team members struggle to get up to speed with what the veterans already know; “this is the way we do things” can feel mercurial and opaque. With OKRs, the lessons from past quarters jump off the page: that team tried to do X, didn’t succeed, they iterated in future quarters based on what they learned, and achieved Y.

I talked about this in an interview with Ally.io’s Marilyn Napier in 2020 shortly after I left Google Ventures:

When asked what the most valuable part of OKRs, I said this:

Let’s not distract ourselves just because someone had a good idea on a Tuesday standup meeting; let’s finish the stuff we said we were going to do. We might not succeed at all of it. In fact, we probably won’t, but we’ll have learned more and more. You can encode that. That becomes part of the institutional memory at the organization. (link and emphasis mine)

If that leader on my team edited his team’s OKRs on the fly, the value of those OKRs to future team members years from now would be nearly non-existent. Sure, we would have the impact from that revised OKR, and the compounding effects over future quarters that built on that outcome. But we’d lose the institutional knowledge that the team had started out trying to achieve X, and eventually learned that their attempt at achieving X had failed. The next time some future team member proposes to try to achieve X, would anyone remember that they’d tried that before? Or will they all be new apes?

There’s a fine line here: if it looks likely that the outcome of a team’s objectives will be a zero, there’s no real point in continuing to tilt at that particular windmill. Take the loss and move on; redeploy those resources in service of one of the remaining goals, or get a head-start on something that might otherwise be a next quarter goal. But leave the current quarter’s goals written down, so that in the future someone has a better-than-even shot at knowing that we’ve already got some data that given similar circumstances, we know how that will turn out.

In other words: once we’ve learned a lesson, let’s make sure we remember it. Think about that future new team member: when she dives in, she can spend hours browsing the team’s past OKRs, quickly absorbing past successes and failures. She’ll see how the organization thinks, how they hold themselves accountable, how they strive. She will know what the organization knows. She’ll remember, even though she wasn’t there.

4 responses to “OKRs as institutional memory”

  1. […] That was possible because the OKRs lived in one place. If you make your teams hunt for the info – even if the info is, technically, public – you’re limiting the number of people in the company who will ever browse the work underway, or ever do the historical navigation I did when I joined Google. That defeats the purpose of making the OKRs public, and means you’ll miss out on the incremental value of OKRs over time as they create and capture institutional memory. […]

  2. […] Cela a été possible parce que les OKR se trouvaient à un seul endroit. Si vous obligez vos équipes à chercher l'information, même si elle est techniquement publique, vous limitez le nombre de personnes qui, dans l'entreprise, parcourront le travail en cours ou feront la navigation historique que j'ai faite quand j'ai rejoint Google. Cela va à l'encontre de l'objectif de rendre les OKR publics et signifie que vous ne pourrez pas profiter de la valeur ajoutée des OKR au fil du temps, car les OKR créent et captent la mémoire de l’institution. […]

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