"If a framework gets a bit of love, it shall also be loathed by many" – Internet proverb
OKRs, like any framework, have a bit of a learning curve. There's a bunch of new terms and processes, but also a new culture to adopt. Projects take a back seat in meetings, and people need to shift their focus towards outcomes instead of outputs.
We do all this because the big promise of OKRs is to create orgs where everyone is aligned and happily working towards common goals—how nice is that!
But, the problem is that we often forget to describe what the journey looks like. The first milestone is not to achieve alignment. It is to create visibility across teams.
Before OKRs: no shared language for focus
Many, if not all, teams have some form of goal-setting. It can be expressed as a set of KPIs in Google Sheets, "priorities" in a Confluence page, "big rocks" in a Notion doc, "themes and metrics" in a Keynote. I'm using product names on purpose because reality matters.
Without OKRs, our teams express their focus with different words and track their progress in different tools. Everybody is working hard! But we can hardly map and match everyone's efforts. Your org looks like a set of beautiful shapes, but there's no sense of direction.
With OKRs: a shared language for focus
Teams adopting the OKRs framework should start by translating their existing goals into Objectives and Key Results. No need to run a big workshop yet. You can simply re-write the spreadsheets, docs, keynotes using the OKRs format.
Because that way you can finally compare the focus of your teams. Everybody is now using the same terms:
- Objectives to express their ambition.
- Key Results to measure progress.
- (it's also good to keep projects as part of the picture)
Now the diagram above looks a bit different. You can still see the shapes of your teams, but it's also possible to compare their direction.
And this is where leaders tend to panic.
As soon as you can compare goals, it often becomes clear that you have misalignments. A knee-jerk reaction is to then blame the OKRs process as ineffective and roll things back to their previous state.
OKRs did not cause misalignment. It simply highlighted a situation that existed before. I'll go one step further: an org that doesn't find any misalignment is probably not looking hard enough. Markets change fast, ideas and projects have uncertainty. We should be celebrating any kind of increased visibility we get, rather than blaming the tools that allow us to see better.
Being able to see discrepancies in strategies is a sign of progress.
Next step: iterate on your North Star
It's far easier to create a shared path for your teams once you have a common language for success and understand the gaps in your org. A recommended approach is also to align, rather than cascade your OKRs. The book Measure What Matters had a great example of a cascading model, but the reality tend to be more complex for teams, and experts have since rallied against that approach.
Once your team are aligned you end up getting a picture that looks like the one below—but it takes time to get there.
A word of caution: the picture above might be correct at the beginning of the quarter, but change rapidly as teams start executing on their goals. Distractions will pop up, new priorities will emerge, fires will need to be put out. You'll need to keep track of progress on your OKRs every week if you want to maintain alignment.