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Bastin Gerald


Ten Surprising Reasons Your Objectives and Key Results Are Failing

Are you succeeding or just staying busy?

Published: Monday, December 6, 2021 - 13:02

It’s a great feeling for business leaders when they find a framework they know can change the way their company formulates and executes their goals. The feeling of possibility that comes with finding the right goal-setting framework acts as motivation to achieve more, more efficiently. Many leaders who learn about objectives and key results, or OKRs, report that finding the framework was an exciting time for them, and they were confident that this was the framework that would help them bring their business to the next level.

Although it’s true that the OKR framework can help your business close the gap between your strategy and execution, it still requires time and attention. No company—no matter how enthusiastic their OKR implementation is—is immune to problems.

If you have noticed that your OKRs simply aren’t working the way you thought they would, or having the impact you predicted, you might be on the hunt for answers. Don’t be discouraged. Many companies face setbacks during the first three or four quarters that they use OKRs. The first step to resolving the problem is to figure out what exactly is holding you back.

In this article, we unpack 10 surprising reasons that your OKRs could be failing and offer tips on how you can set your team back on track.

Lack of success celebrations

The first issue with your OKR program could be a culture and engagement issue, which is that no one in your company or team celebrates successes. Celebrating successes, no matter how large or small, is an important part of fostering engagement and a culture of support and encouragement.

If there is no positive reinforcement or recognition for hard work, all of the increased employee engagement that the OKR framework can create is negated. Employees can be nervous about talking about their progress. The attitude surrounding success and perceived “failures” should be the same: What can be learned from this? Ensure that you celebrate successes, and catalogue what went right so that when failures do occur, employees know that they have a supportive team around them.

Lack of resources

The issue of a lack of resources, or a lack of proper resource distribution, can pop up in many OKR programs. Leaders must have a clear understanding of what materials, software, timelines, and people they have at their disposal, and properly assign these resources to certain outcomes.

If a stretch goal is assigned too few resources, then there’s absolutely no chance that the goal will even reach the 70-percent mark that the OKR framework emphasizes. Meanwhile, if a business-as-usual goal is overcompensated with resources, then there is waste, and the business loses out on an opportunity to reach all its goals effectively.

No learning catalogue

A common reason that your OKRs simply aren’t working is because you’re not taking the “learning” aspect of OKRs seriously enough. This issue might make itself known in the form of repeated mistakes, and no forward progress.

An important tenet of the OKR framework is having a solid learning catalogue. Team members should be able to document the things that they have learned from their successes and times they fell short. All companies should have a learning log that is easy to access and add to as lessons are learned. Additionally, everyone should be able to access this throughout the quarter.

That way, if a team member is working on a target that has already been attempted by their peer in an earlier quarter, they can consult the strategies that have already been tried. Instead of learning from their own process of trial and error, that employee can circumvent all the faulty strategies that were already attempted and instead build on past learnings, which means they are more likely to find a successful strategy.

Too many—or too few—OKRs

Another issue is that many companies don’t follow the rule of five.

The rule of five states that you should have between three and five OKRs for each OKR level, department, team, or individual you are setting OKRs for. Additionally, there should be between three and five key results for each objective set.

Many teams exceed this number, focusing instead on six or seven OKRs. This dilutes focus and stretches resources too thin to make any substantial progress on goals. Alternatively, some teams have only one or two OKRs. This is an issue because it means that not enough important goals and priorities are being addressed to have any noticeable effect in the organization.

Additionally, having more than five key results for an objective diverts focus to too many targets at once. Meanwhile, having too few key results means that you’re probably not following the important MECE principle, which states that all key results of an objective should be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.

Lack of innovation

A lack of innovation could be thought of as a special type of “resource” problem that stunts your OKR progress in large ways. This might be caused by a restrictive company culture that doesn’t allow for fresh ideas and conversation, or might even be a process problem, which puts too much pressure on employees to draw inside the lines.

Well-written OKRs should encourage team members to push themselves and be innovative about the strategies they exercise to reach their goals. Ensure that your team is collaborating on the OKR planning process and engaged when setting goals for the quarter.

Achievement comes before learnings

If your business does not have a “safe-to-fail” environment, chances are you’re feeling the detrimental effects of that in your OKR progress.

Emphasizing achieving over learning is a dangerous game because you’re communicating to employees that it’s not OK to set stretch goals and fall short—but that is where the true benefit of the OKR framework lies. You must emphasize learning opportunities above all else.

This is not to say that achievement isn’t important. It absolutely is, but it’s much more likely that you will have high achievement if you first allow your team to try out their strategies, learn lessons from their errors, and try different approaches until they find what works best.

As long as you are sure that the effort and attempt that employees make are sincere, you should encourage your team to document the learnings, share them, and use that learning to make sure you achieve your key results the next time.

Infrequent reviews

If you are not taking the time to review OKRs using the PPP framework, you’re probably not making much progress on your OKRs at all.

The PPP framework stands for progress, plans, and problems. This is a structure to help teams emphasize the most important aspects of their key result progress: What went right, what the plan is for the next period, and what went wrong.

If you conduct these reviews each week, you have the opportunity to help employees solve issues before they become roadblocks. Additionally, team members can help each other out with planning strategy and providing support. If there is no opportunity to connect as a team and draw support from one another, then your OKRs most likely will not see any progress at all.

Uninformative check-ins

The first reason that your business OKRs might not be working centers around one of the most important processes in the OKR framework: check-ins.

Check-ins are more than simply updating the value of a key result in your OKR software. Check-ins are about a weekly connection back to what your priorities are for the quarter, and how you plan to proceed in the next week.

If your team’s weekly check-ins aren’t addressing the three components of an informative check-invalue, status, and commentthen they are not informative enough and are deterring the quality of your OKR program.

Let’s review these three components. First, the value. This is the straightforward part of a key result check-in. You should update the value of the KPI you are tracking, or the percentage of progress for the process or initiative you are working on. Many teams are great at this portion of the check-in, but you can’t stop there.

Next is the status. Different companies might have different status markers depending on their company culture, but common ones are “on track,” “at risk,” and “in trouble.” The status of your key result isn’t about the number value; it’s about your confidence level in finishing the key result within the OKR period. So even if your value is proceeding as planned, if you don’t have the vision for how you’ll reach your target, your status might be “at risk.”

Finally, you must include a comment in your check-in to explain the progress made, any issues you are facing, and your plans for the next week.

If check-ins aren’t informative, that means full transparency isn’t being achieved in your organization, even if the company can see all the set OKRs. Transparency means that everyone has a window into the progress, plans, and problems faced by their co-workers. If your OKR program is having issues, start by examining check-ins and making sure they’re up to par.

Key results that don’t follow the MECE rule

The next area you should focus on if you get the sense that your OKRs aren’t working is your key results. As you know, key results are the outcomes that you need to see in your business to confirm that your objective has been met.

However, there’s a condition attached to this: Your key results must be the right key results. And to ensure that they are the right ones, you must follow the MECE rule. Key results on an objective must be mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive (MECE). This means that, together, they must exhaustively address all the components needed to achieve your objective in full. Additionally, they cannot overlap, and one outcome should not be contingent on whether another is completed.

Key results that don’t follow the MECE rule can give you a false sense of confidence when it comes to OKR progress. If you’re making progress on key results, but they aren’t the correct key results, then any progress you make on your objective will not actually reflect true progress in your organization.

Shifting priorities

The third area you can review if your business OKRs are not working are your priorities. Sometimes, the priorities you have at the beginning of the quarter aren’t the same ones you have three weeks into the quarter.

You could set strong, well-written goals with the best intentions during week one. However, it’s entirely possible that your real goals for the quarter are completely different from the ones you set. Changing priorities is natural—the problem doesn’t lie in shifting your focus, but rather in the failure to recognize that change and reflect it in your OKRs.

You must change your OKRs to match your true priorities. If you fail to do this, you’ll be making progress on goals that aren’t even reflected in your OKRs, resulting in zero progress.


About The Author

Bastin Gerald’s picture

Bastin Gerald

Bastin Gerald is the CEO and Founder of Profit.co, an intuitive cloud-based software that helps teams manage their OKRs with focus and alignment. Additionally, Gerald is the CEO of Apptivo, a 200-person company that aims to provide an easy software solution for small and medium businesses. Gerald holds an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Throughout his career, he has gained expertise in multiple strategy-execution frameworks, including Hoshin Kanri and Objectives and Key Results. Gerald has over ten years of experience coaching and training clients in transformation engagements, and has trained upwards of 250 leaders across different industries and continents.