Common OKR mistakes when writing them

Common OKR mistakes when writing them

by Sam Prince & Multiple Authors


Published on 07.17.2019

OKRs, objectives and key results, are a great way to attain your most audacious goals. This is because setting OKRs force individuals, teams, and companies to articulate their goal in a timebound and measurable fashion. And while crafting OKRs are only a part of the process, writing them well plays a huge part in anyone's ability to succeed at them.

In "Measure What Matters", John Doerr presents classic, OKR-writing mistakes one should avoid when setting objectives. They include things like staying away from key results that are necessary but not sufficient and avoiding writing OKRs that are low business value.

All in all, these common mistakes are all litmus tests to decide: Are you really measuring what matters? Check and see with these common OKR mistakes taken from Google’s OKR playbook:

Common OKR mistakes

OKR Mistake #1: Failing to differentiate between committed and aspirational OKRs.

  • Marking a committed OKR as aspirational increases the chance of failure. Teams may not take it seriously and may not change their other priorities to focus on delivering the OKR.
  • On the other hand, marking an aspirational OKR as committed creates defensiveness in teams who cannot find a way to deliver the OKR, and it invites priority inversion as committed OKRs are de-staffed to focus on the aspirational OKR.

OKR Mistake #2: Business-as-usual OKRs.

  • OKRs are often written principally based on what the team believes it can achieve without changing anything they’re currently doing, as opposed to what would push the company's growth and impact.

OKR Mistake #3: Timid aspirational OKRs.

  • Aspirational OKRs very often start from the current state and effectively ask, “What could we do if we had extra staff and got a bit lucky?” An alternative and better approach is to start with, “What could my (or my customers’) world look like in several years if we were freed from most constraints?” By definition, you’re not going to know how to achieve this state when the OKR is first formulated—that is why it is an aspirational OKR. But without understanding and articulating the desired end state, you guarantee that you are not going to be able to achieve it.
  • The litmus test: If you ask your customers what they really want, does your aspirational objective meet or exceed their request?

OKR Mistake #4: Sandbagging.

  • A team’s committed OKRs should credibly consume most but not all of their available resources. Their committed + aspirational OKRs should credibly consume somewhat more than their available resources. (Otherwise, they’re effectively commitments.)
  • Teams who can meet all of their OKRs without needing all of their team’s headcount/capital... are assumed to either be hoarding resources or not pushing their teams, or both. This is a cue for senior management to reassign headcount and other resources to groups who will make more effective use of them.

OKR Mistake #5: Low-Value Objectives (aka the “Who cares?” OKR).

  • OKRs must promise clear business value—otherwise, there’s no reason to expend resources doing them. Low-Value Objectives (LVOs) are those for which, even if the Objective is completed with a 1.0, no one will notice or care.
  • A classic (and seductive) LVO example: “Increase task CPU utilization by 3 percent.” This objective by itself does not help users or Google directly. However, the (presumably related) goal, “Decrease the quantity of cores required to serve peak queries by 3 percent with no change to quality/latency/... and return resulting excess cores to the free pool” has clear economic value. That’s a superior objective.
  • Here is a litmus test: Could the OKR get a 1.0 under reasonable circumstances without providing direct end- user or economic benefit? If so, then reword the OKR to focus on the tangible benefit. A classic example: “Launch X,” with no criteria for success. Better: “Double fleet-wide Y by launching X to 90+ percent of borg cells.”

OKR Mistake #6: Insufficient KRs for committed Os.

  • OKRs are divided into the desired outcome (the objective) and the measurable steps required to achieve that outcome (the key results). It is critical that KRs are written such that scoring 1.0 on all key results generates a 1.0 score for the objective.
  • A common error is writing key results that are necessary but not sufficient to collectively complete the objective. The error is tempting because it allows a team to avoid the difficult (resource/priority/risk) commitments needed to deliver “hard” key results.
  • This trap is particularly pernicious because it delays both the discovery of the resource requirements for the objective and the discovery that the objective will not be completed on schedule.
  • The litmus test: Is it reasonable to score 1.0 on all the key results but still not achieve the intent of the objective? If so, add or rework the key results until their successful completion guarantees that the objective is also successfully completed.

Where can I get more information?

Did any of these common OKR mistakes resonate with you? If they did, now is the time to take another look at your OKRs. Remember, it's completely reasonable to do away with an OKR mid-cycle if it's not producing value. You can also learn more about OKRs by reading "Measure What Matters" or exploring more FAQs, Resources, and Stories right here at WhatMatters.com.

Or, if you’re looking for an OKR coach, check this out.

Sam Prince (@samprincetweets) is a journalist, storyteller, and the content strategist of WhatMatters.com. 


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