Objecting to Objectives (and Key Results)


On a couple of occasions last week I found myself supporting teams around drafting (or redrafting) their OKRs. This is a bit of a tightrope for me as I want to help the teams but – and I say this knowing it might get me thrown out of the product person club – I really don’t like OKRs. Sure I like the concept, read all the Google stuff and enjoyed Radical Focus by Christina Wodtke but practically they have been a burden that stresses teams and adds little to zero value in every place I’ve seen them implemented in my work. I suspect they fit better in start-ups or internet-era companies with really clear propositions, goals and strategies (mainly related to revenue or user numbers for instance) but particularly in public service (including the BBC when I was there) I find teams twisting themselves in knots to come up with decent OKRs – that too often exist in a void even if they succeed.

While this post was spurred by things last week the thoughts weren’t – it has been brewing for a while now and doesn’t reflect things specifically in the day job – just a growing sense of unease about the practice. I have gone from OKR advocate to sceptic in around five years as I’ve seen team after team struggle to live up to the expectations set in the product propaganda blogosphere – of which I certainly contributed to.

I often turn to Adrian’s video or Steve’s post about OKRs from his initial GDS days when I need talking off the ledge on the topic as they demonstrate it can be done – and done well – in our context…but they also demonstrate some of the challenges teams face when they lack the strategic infrastructure to support the teams. 

Too often the Objectives are either unreasonably ambitious or too tactical and there isn’t a clear enough (product) strategy to align to – the void again – so teams try to fill this gap one way or the other. Either they try to use the Objectives to simulate a strategy or they hunker down and get real feature focused and tactical.

Neither helps them in the medium or long term but in the short-term they get a sense of achievement.

Alongside this the reality is that Key Results are a constant struggle as far too often teams just lack that baseline data from which to extrapolate (reasonable) quantitative goals – and they are uncomfortable with basing their recommendations on educated guesses. Christina Wodtke says if in doubt about a key result;

“Go ahead and guess.”

…and that just isn’t something I find people are comfortable with – either on the product side nor the stakeholder side.

Not to mention that so much of the work we do is qualitative and key results are expected to be quantitative  – how do you quantify design or user research…because X user research sessions or Y design iterations is not getting you closer to the Objective. The insights from those sessions are but who knows how many sessions or iterations will be needed – it is just counting for counting’s sake. I’m sure some teams in some places have cracked this but I rarely see it evidenced – and I really could do with some words of wisdom to share!

Where I’ve seen OKRs really work in my corner of the internet is around established platforms and products where they have more mature measurements and understanding of their place in the universe. Not at Disco, Alpha or even Private Beta. 

Oh and don’t get me started on the whole quarter by quarter nature of them. I get that it is probably helpful in a fast moving, high performing environment but in the land of Large, Established Organisations it encourages short-term thinking and stimies ambition. 

Time and again I am reminded of this quote from Marty Cagan;

“If the company is still using feature teams, as most unfortunately are, then the OKR technique is going to be a cultural mismatch, and almost certainly prove a waste of time and effort.”

Now I’d contend that many of the teams I’m talking about would certainly not see themselves as feature teams but the reality of the public service digital world today is that we are not seeing a preponderance of truly empowered teams…and if this is the case then I worry that there is an element of theatre with the wide take up of OKRs and it isn’t really bringing benefits – just stress.

I’m not sure what I’m suggesting instead – but I feel like better outcomes based roadmaps tied to well articulated missions where the ‘Now’ of the roadmap is high definition enough to contain success criteria (whether qualitative or quantitative) should be enough to give interested parties the assurance they need.


One response to “Objecting to Objectives (and Key Results)”

  1. Thanks for writing this, there’s a lot I agree with here.

    After writing that post on OKRs, I’ve had a lot of people get in touch about how to use the guide in their product context. In almost every situation it’s highlighted a lack of clear strategy & goals, or a lack of good data as you’ve highlighted. This isn’t a problem caused by product teams, it’s a failure of senior management and leadership.

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