How to Improve OKRs When They're Not Working

How to Improve OKRs When They're Not Working

by Sam Prince


Published on 04.06.2019

OKR goal-setting is a powerful system that helps drive individuals, teams, and organizations forward. But to make sure you are moving in that right direction, you have to use the map correctly. If you’re feeling a little lost, it’s okay! It can take up to a year to fully “get good” at OKRs, and feeling disoriented is part of the journey.

Every adventurer has a story of getting blown off course. Even Phileas Fogg lost his way when he tried to complete his “OKR” of going Around the World in Eighty Days.

So if you’re feeling that your OKR cycle is lacking direction, take a step back and try to pinpoint the problem. It's good to be intellectually honest about room for improvement with your OKR practice. It may even be helpful to have your team help you pinpoint potential improvements.

Andy Grove’s seven rules for basic OKR hygiene is a great place to start your OKR “recalibration”:

1. Less is more: It’s been said by nearly every guru and it rings true with OKRs, too. An organization should have no more than seven, well-chosen objectives and they should all fit one line. Each objective should have no more than five key results.

2. Set at least half the goals from the bottom up: The most powerful and energizing OKRs often originate with frontline contributors. OKRs can help these employees see how their work aligns with overall goals.

3. No dictating: Collective agreement is essential to maximum goal achievement. Remember, OKRs are a self-governed social contract.

4. Stay flexible: One of the most powerful things about OKRs is that if one is no longer working or relevant, it can be tossed out at any point in an OKR cycle.

5. Dare to fail: It’s good to have committed OKRs—things that everyone agrees must be achieved—but one of the most compelling aspects of OKRs is the “aspirational OKR.” Sometimes called “moonshots,” an aspirational OKR is something that happens when you aim for the stars. You may come up short but still reach the moon. misses the moon, they will still be up in stars.

6. A tool, not a weapon: Andy Grove described OKRs as a stopwatch, a personal tool so he could gauge his own performance. They are not meant to measure others. If you are using OKRs for compensation, you’re doing them wrong.

7. Be patient; be resolute: OKRs are trial and error. It may take a few cycles before they feel natural, or even go well. You don’t go to the gym and pick up the heaviest dumbbell and expect magic. Using OKRs is developing a muscle. John Doerr often says to commit to OKRs for a year so you have a few chances to build up your “OKR muscle.”

If you’re still having trouble figuring out what is not working with your OKRs, WhatMatters.com is here to help. We have Resources, FAQs, and Stories all available to you.

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


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Get exclusive guidance from John, Ryan, and the What Matters team by signing up for our weekly newsletter, Audacious. You’ll learn week-by-week how to sharpen your OKRs and stay on track to reach your goals.