Avoiding Common Pitfalls in the OKRs Cycle

Note to my readers: I am pleased to share this blog post that I recently co-wrote with Karen Schroeder. Karen reflected on her experience ramping up as a certified OKRs coach over the past six months. Her analysis of the OKRs cycle draws from many years of experience as a strategy execution and OKRs consultant as well as content from the preview-edition of the OKRs Fieldbook. The preview edition is currently available to a select group of beta readers. These readers include our clients as well as partners around the world who deliver OKRs coaching services. It will be made available to the public in 2020 and will have contributions from a diverse group of OKRs coaches, including Karen! For an example of the kinds of stories that will be included in the fieldbook, refer to my recent post, OKRs Workshop and Fieldbook Preview.

I met Karen about 10 years ago. We worked together at a small company that used OKRs from 2010-2012.  Now, we’re collaborating to help organizations deploy OKRs successfully. Unlike me, Karen completed her Ph.D. program, and I suspect you’ll find her writing is quite refined. I hope you enjoy Karen’s first contribution to the OKRs.com blog!

-Ben Lamorte

Karen on the OKRs Cycle

Hello OKRs.com blog readers! I want to share one of the major insights that I gained during my OKRs certification training with Ben.  Like many people, I thought that since the basic theory behind OKRs was amazingly simple and could be taught in an hour, it would be easy to implement OKRs. But the devil is in the detail of execution.  Most organizations that claim to be doing OKRs are not actually getting the full benefit of it. The OKRs methodology is not only a way to put metrics against a few goals, it is both 1) a critical thinking framework and 2) an ongoing discipline.   

Ben reports that companies only realize the full value of OKRs when they do both of these two things.  First, they need to ask themselves a certain set of questions that help them understand what the primary objectives are that will allow them to achieve focus and alignment within the company.  They need to engage in this critical thinking framework to inform the choice of objectives. Secondly, with regard to the ongoing discipline, they must keep asking themselves these questions and commit to measuring and discussing progress toward the objectives.  When we really acknowledge that something matters, we check on it regularly, not just when the deadline approaches. For a detailed step by step approach to getting started with OKRs, please see Ben’s recent post, Team-Level OKRs in 7 Steps.

Implementation of OKRs with a number of companies has crystallized three major steps: 1) setting objectives and key results, 2) holding check ins and reviews, and 3) reflecting on each key result to capture lessons learned as we reset the objectives and key results for the next period. Each step has some elements to watch out for. Here are some recommendations for avoiding the common pitfalls at each step.

Step 1: Setting OKRs

Each team that is writing OKRs needs to pay attention to the discipline of critical thinking, looking for the root causes of what really matters to their business.

Pitfalls

  • Failing to provide each key result with a measurable way of assessing progress
  • Listing lots of key results which reduce the focus for the objective
  • Attempting to map all work to objectives in a massive to-do list

Solutions

  • Choosing just 1 – 3 objectives and ensuring that each key result is measurable
  • Discussing OKRs with senior management to ensure alignment with company priorities prior to publishing OKRs
  • Distinguishing between key results and health metrics
    • Key results: what we want to focus on improving in the near term
    • Health metrics: other metrics that we currently track and are important to monitor and maintain, but are not the current focus for improvement

It is often helpful to get an outside perspective on the discussions of which key results will be most indicative of progress in achieving the objective. Bringing a colleague from another team or an outside coach in to support this process may result in much better metrics and more ambitious goals than the team would come up with on its own. Ben Lamorte wrote an interesting blog post on this.  Ben has found that many organizations who say they do OKRs, in fact, only complete step 1. Remember, you’re not actually doing OKRs if you simply set it and forget it.

Step 2: Check-ins and Reviews

Teams should be reviewing their OKRs regularly, but we do not want them to add dedicated meetings to their already crowded schedules! Teams that are serious about the ongoing discipline of using OKRs to manage will always start their regular team meetings with a quick update of the OKRs, since the OKRs represent their primary areas of focus. A team which does a quick discussion of current position, issues and barriers to progress for each OKR will benefit from the team members’ problem-solving capabilities, stay focused on the objectives and remain aligned on priorities.

Pitfalls

  • Failing to review OKRs at all
  • Adding more OKRs-specific meetings to team members’ schedules

Solutions

  • Integrating discussions of OKRs into existing team meetings
  • Conducting a single mid-quarter review with the extended team

 Step 3: Reflect and Reset

One of the best things about using OKRs is the learning that emerges from regular review of the team’s work on achieving the key results. Each cycle, the team can get greater clarity on what is moving the dial and what isn’t by holding a session to reflect on the past quarter’s OKRs and reset them for the coming quarter. My experience has shown that it is extremely helpful to bring in a someone from outside the team to sit in on the meeting and ask the awkward questions.  Getting the outside perspective helps teams surface assumptions that were implicit and consider them explicitly. I have seen that lead to greater clarity and insight. Moreover, to the extent that an OKR involves another team, the Reflect and Reset session should involve both teams. They should collaborate in identifying which key results to keep, remove or modify for the next quarter.

Pitfalls

  • Scoring key results without capturing lessons learned
  • Playing the blame game in assessing the scores for key results
  • Looking back only; failing to “reset” by applying learnings to start drafting OKRs for the upcoming cycle

Solutions

  • Structuring Reflect & Reset meetings to include the right people
  • Capturing learnings from the previous quarter’s OKRs
  • Ensuring that the meeting ends with a solid set of draft OKRs for the coming period

Here is a sample template used in a Reflect and Reset session:

Key Result Final Score Learning Keep, Modify, or Remove? Notes to inform next cycle
Increase Category F partners from 100 to 500 140; score is ZERO Assumed that since partners pay upfront, they will do the sales themselves.  Learned that partners need more hand-holding. Need to look beyond paid partner sign ups Modify: let’s draft a KR like #partners that are “good” as measured by 3 certificates sold within one month after signing up.

Conclusion from Ben

Karen’s overview of the three steps in the OKRs cycle is a preview of some of the content that will appear in my upcoming OKRs Fieldbook.  This blog is a general treatment of the OKRs cycle. It is not specific to your actual OKRs situation.  To make this real for you, Karen has offered to reward you for reading this far with a free 30-minute OKRs cycle coaching session to review your actual OKRs and how you can optimize your OKRs cycle.  To request your free session, simply email Karen@OKRs.com with the subject line “FREE OKRs SESSION.”

Related Posts

Leave a comment