The number one mistake teams still make with OKRs

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What are the 10 most important things that your team should achieve this quarter?

Take a minute to get a list in your head. Got it?

Now cut the list down to 3.

This is what good goal-setting should look like. And don't worry if it felt hard to cut down the list – you're not the only one. 50% of the respondents of OKR International's 2022 OKRs State of The Industry Report said that having too many OKRs was their biggest mistake, followed by having an irregular cadence (19%) and tying OKRs to bonuses (18%).

Teams clearly have a hard time trimming down their priorities. Why? Not because we fail to identify what's important, but rather because we tend to overestimate our capacity for execution. Some will point at the Dunning-Kruger effect – I prefer to call it optimism . And I'm definitely guilty of this when I write my standups. Every day, I write down a long list of things that I want to achieve, right after having noted that I only delivered about 30% of what I committed to the day before. My optimism is strong.

Why having too many goals is harmful

But, there's a big difference between having too many goals, and having too many tasks.

You can generally cut down the scope of a piece of work. You can write a shorter post, reduce the complexity of a feature, or simplify a design you're working on. But you can't change the target of your goal to achieve it faster. A goal is a goal. You either increased retention by 20%, or you did not. You either added 10k visitors to your website, or you did not. You either closed 5 partnerships, or you did not.

The problem with having too many competing business goals is that your team won't know what to focus on when multiple Key Results start to get off track. It's hard to pick your battle when everything is deemed important, and it's no surprise that this is the first lesson learned for teams that are new to OKRs.

Thankfully there are a few ways you can mitigate that risk in advance.

3 ways you can mitigate the risks of having too many OKRs

#1 Provide a 3x3 guideline

The easiest way to limit the risks of having too many goals is to make simple recommendations for your teams.

  • Maximum 3 Objectives per plan
  • No more than 3 Key Results per Objective

Of course, you'll have the odd exception, but giving people guidelines will provide a baseline for the average number of active KRs that a team should have. 6 is good, 9 is great, 12 is ok. But, having 20-25 KRs should feel like abusing the system. So, imagine you have 25 KRs for a quarter cycle and each KR has 3 to 5 Initiatives you choose to work on. We are talking now, about running nearly 125 initiatives in a quarter. This is going to cost you resources you haven’t accounted for. Choose wisely and focus on what you really want.

Another recommendation that we haven't talked about in this post is to limit the number KRs per owner. Ideally, no one should be doing more than 6 check-ins per week.

#2 Use committed vs. aspirational OKRs

Another way to help your team understand where to focus their efforts is to clearly indicate which KRs are committed (meaning we have to deliver them), vs. which KRs are aspirational (meaning we expected it to be hard).

Of course, people should do their best to deliver all their objectives. But if 2 goals are in the red, and only one of them is committed, then this goal becomes the priority.

So, effectively, this tactic isn't about reducing the number of goals. Instead, it's about accepting that we'll face challenges and that we'll need to do some arbitrage to figure out what to focus on.

#3 Leverage tools to detect plans with too many OKRs

Finally, there's the question of doing this at scale. It's one thing to tell people to limit the number of goals they have. It's another one to make sure the guidelines have been followed.

If you're an OKR champion in a company having 100+ folks, you'll quickly find yourself spending hours combing spreadsheets to find the teams that still need to adjust their plans.

You can save time by using Tability's Insights feature to filter all the plans that have too many KRs:

  1. Open up the Insights tab
  2. Check the Plans overview warnings
  3. Click on the row to see the list of corresponding OKR plans

You’ll be able to jump to the corresponding plans and reach out to the team with some advice on how they can simplify their focus

This is meant to be hard

There will be occasions where your top 3 priorities will be completely obvious. Enjoy these easy discussions. Most of the time, you’ll find yourself arguing with your colleagues to decide what should or should not be listed in the top goals.

That’s ok.

If building products and winning markets were easy, then we would not be seeing 90% of startups failing. So this is why we need to be careful about what we decide to pursue, while still keeping some flexibility.

Your strategy is a bet, and it’s pretty common to have to adjust your goals during the quarter based on what you’re learning – but that’s going to be for another post!

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Sten Pittet

Co-founder and CEO, Tability

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