Friday, November 29, 2019

How (not) to destroy an aspirational OKR

Imagine you’re in a meeting with some of your company’s management in a monthly status meeting. It’s halfway through the year. You’re reviewing your group’s OKRs (Objectives and Key Results, for those of you that haven’t heard the acronym before – it’s the latest management by objective hotness with its own TED talk). One of your objectives has a key result of finding 5000 dingleberries for the year. That’s pretty aspirational, given that you only found 1200 last year.

It’s good to have a challenge. Nobody in the group knew if there was a way to get to 5000, but setting the goal means that your team would go and try to see if there was a way to acquire significantly more dingleberries than ever before.

The bad news, however, is that it’s halfway through the year, and your group has only managed to find 650 dingleberries so far. Either your group’s efforts to significantly increase the number of dingleberries found haven’t yet panned out, or they’re the wrong efforts. The pessimist on your team might say that your group hasn’t really tried anything new, but let’s give the benefit of a doubt here, shall we?

In any case, using the OKR framework, this result tells you that you’ve got more work to do to break free of your current dingleberry acquisition curve and get onto a new one. It might be time to try some new things, or maybe you need to give a bit more time to see if your current efforts will pay off soon. This is valuable information!

Here’s where it can quickly go wrong, however.

Everyone room sees a target number of 5000. Of course, that was supposed to be an aspirational number, but with enough repetition, it’s on the verge of being transformed into something that will grade the group’s performance. And the group is on track to hand in a result of finding 1300 dingleberries.

Failure, even with an almost 8% increase!

At this point, it’s all too tempting for someone in the room to flinch and ask: “Should we revise that number downward so that we can make sure to come in on target?”


In a single stroke, especially if it’s the boss that asks the question, this can destroy the usefulness of the aspirational objective and make clear that the highest priority is the internal need to appear successful. Worse, it’s a great way to encourage your group to sandbag the targets for all of their OKRs next year — not a great outcome.

Now is the time where you need to brace, be strong, and embrace the fact that you’re learning valuable information about what your team has done so far. Now is where it’s time to say, “Well, it looks like whatever we’re doing so far hasn’t panned out yet.”

And then ask, “Why is that? What else are we going to try?”

Otherwise, you might as well just call your target a key performance indicator (KPI), celebrate the 8% increase, and skip the aspirational part of the exercise.