Why OKRs Matter – and Why They Aren’t Enough

For those who are familiar with the Clifton StrengthsFinder test, you may know what I mean when I say my number one strength is ‘Harmony.’ For those who aren’t, “People exceptionally talented in the Harmony theme look for consensus and seek areas of agreement.” As a harmonious individual, you can imagine my delight when I first discovered the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) model. “A tool designed to keep 100% focus on a single objective, tracked by a small number of non-negotiable, measurable results?” I pondered. “What could be better?”

If you’re new to this concept, the OKR model starts by setting a single, qualitative Objective (O) that is of mission-critical importance. Let’s start with a timely example: ‘Prevent the spread of COVID-19.’ From there, we would identify a limited number of metrics that best indicate progress towards our objective. In COVID world, our main focus might be on “Total Number of Infections” and “Mortality Rate.” Finally, we would pool our knowledge to select challenging yet achievable Key Result (KR) targets. An example KR for COVID-19 might be ‘3.0% Mortality Rate.’

Experts agree that the OKR model has proven to be a wildly useful tool for maintaining focus and alignment. Moreover, I’ve personally found that OKRs support employee engagement. When created correctly, a solid objective identifies the most important task you and your team need to accomplish. So many individuals and organizations fall into the trap of running in 500 directions, going nowhere. Objectives create singular, clear focus and, in turn, a sense of unified purpose. Key results, on the other hand, offer freedom. As teams test and learn their way around “how” to move the needle, key results articulate how far that needle needs to go. In other words, OKRs enable both autonomy and accountability.

If it’s not obvious, there is much I love about the OKR model. But, as today’s crisis reveals, using the OKR model is not enough. To be fully successful, the OKR model must be implemented with three additional components:


1. An Inspiring Vision

While objectives should always inspire, they are also designed to be revamped on a quarterly or annual basis in order to stay relevant. What’s missing in this model is the long-term vision. The long-term vision articulates things like: Why are we working? What is the world we’re seeking to create? For who? What does it look like? For example, one vision I might propose for society today is: “We envision a world where all humans are free to play, touch, and wander without reserve; where the world is not only safe and healthy, but thriving.” 

Done well, the long-term vision serves as the reason you and your team wake up and get to work every day. Your vision represents the lifeblood of your organization, generating a pulse of meaning and higher purpose that OKRs alone can’t achieve. Vision is also a core alignment tool, one that orients a team from the inside out.


2. A Tactical Strategy

While OKRs are designed to give teams full autonomy in deciding what to deliver to achieve results, executors and leadership alike will have opinions about where to play. To refine this, organizations require a tactical, hypothesis-based strategy for how to tackle OKRs. For example, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, our strategy might be to target a specific population (e.g. senior citizens) or a geographic region where we believe we’ll have maximum impact. From here, we use our KR metrics and targets to test and learn which techniques achieve maximum results. Without a strategy, our OKR approach might be disorganized and duplicative.


3. A Set of Guiding Principles

While OKRs communicate where we want to go and what constitutes success, they intentionally say nothing about how results should be achieved. To ensure quality and mitigate the chance of unethical or detrimental outcomes, we need a set of guiding principles. To stick with my example, when trying to prevent the spread of COVID, we as a society might commit to the principle of ‘transparency,’ defined as ‘a commitment to be open and honest in all efforts and losses related to COVID-19.’ While not specific to any one situation, principles provide a decision-making framework for individuals and organizations. When faced with opportunities to be non-transparent, or even dishonest, we still have a choice to make, but are encouraged to play within the ‘transparency’ guidelines.

Implementing these tools requires a great deal of work. It helps to have an experienced advisor and facilitator to help you determine how to begin and move forward. Contact me at marisaschulercoaching@gmail.com if I can help your organization today.