Sandbagging OKRs: Why teams under-promise and over-deliver

Sandbagging OKRs: Why teams under-promise and over-deliver

by Steven Jurczak


Published on 02.12.2020

“Sandbagging” means to under-promise and over-deliver. It is a bad habit for countless organizations and teams. Despite enormous pressure to drive growth and shareholder value—and lofty goals about disrupting traditional markets—sandbagging persists. It manifests itself in lackluster product development and subpar customer service. And it metastasizes into underperforming teams and underwhelmed customers.

Look around. Anecdotal evidence abounds. When software release life cycles deliver table-stakes features rather than true competitive differentiation, sandbagging is the culprit. When markets are defined by multitudinous offerings with little distinction between vendors, sandbagging is present. When employees establish personal goals that fall short of higher-level executive go-to-market strategies, they may be sandbagging. In short, sandbagging is and always has been consistent and pervasive.

It’s human nature—rooted in the survival instinct—to expend as little energy as possible to complete a task. Efficiency of effort is necessary and practical when survival is the objective. But it’s the survival instinct—the inclination to aim low due to fear of consequences—that leads to sandbagging or under-promising.

Aim high and over-deliver

Goal-setting and sandbagging have a strained relationship. Goals can open the door to sandbagging even though they’re meant to do the exact opposite. When best practices become your worst enemy, you have to stop and reevaluate. The practice of tying bonuses to goals is an example. Consider the SMART goal-setting framework, where the “A” stands for “attainable.” SMART goals are universally accepted for their ability to measure and support overall business objectives. Attainable objectives are also part of the OKR framework in “Measure What Matters”. They’re akin to what author John Doerr refers to as committed objectives.

Committed objectives are often tied to metrics like sales and revenue goals. They’re the objectives must achieve in full within an OKR cycle. Committed objectives are essential because they help gauge progress toward higher-level aspirational objectives. Committed objectives still need to represent some change in outcome, such as business growth, rather than business as usual.

Aspirational objectives, on the other hand, involve higher risk and are more challenging. They can originate from anywhere and often require company-wide mobilization to achieve. Aspirational objectives, when established within an OKR framework, encourage over-promising without penalty. Setting the bar higher energizes and pushes new thinking. Failure rates for aspirational objectives are higher.

In “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters”, former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz illustrates how the company lost sight of a core aspirational goal—to make great cars that people wanted to drive—by narrowly focusing on attainable goals:

These ranged from “increase market share,” “reduce assembly hours per vehicle” and “speed time to market” to “achieve diversity targets” and “reduce LTI (senior executive) count.” Buried somewhere in the middle of this grand mosaic was a little cell, no bigger than the others, which read, “achieve product excellence.” … There, on the screen, was the core of the GM problem: “product excellence” was merely one out of twenty-five (or thirty-six) things the company should work on.

When you restrict goals to only what is incremental, unremarkable, or merely attainable, and then take the additional step of linking performance reviews and compensation, it creates an environment that rewards employees for under-promising and sandbagging. This is something Lutz, who spearheaded the turnaround for the struggling automaker, was familiar with:

One VLE (vehicle line executive) came to see me in “one-on-one” time and brought his scorecard. He made sure that I understood that he had met or beaten every single target … He deserved, in his opinion, a big juicy chunk of that special VLE compensation fund. “How’s it selling?” I asked. “Well, really not that well; the press on it was lousy, and the public is unenthused. But I can’t be held accountable for that. I was handed my numerical goals, which were signed off by everybody, and if I make them all, that’s success!”

As Doerr points out, when goals are tied to compensation, employees start playing defense and stop stretching for amazing. In short, they sandbag. When OKRs are based on what the team believes it can achieve without changing anything they’re currently doing, there’s a risk for sandbagging and under-promising.

It’s essential that goals are aspirational and potentially unattainable. Only then will teams deliver competitive products and superior customer service. A good test put forth by Doerr is this: If you ask your customers what they really want, does your aspirational objective meet or exceed their request? Another test from Doerr: Teams who consistently meet all of their committed and aspirational goals without needing all of their headcount or capital are hoarding resources, not pushing their teams or both.

The point of OKRs is to drive excellence in growth. OKRs help you stretch—and, perhaps, over-deliver—if they’re aspirational. They must, by nature, be uncomfortable and potentially unattainable. When employees under-promise and underperform, likewise when product releases fail to excite or differentiate, the problem is often rooted in the way the goals were established at the outset.

Shared goals lead to objective objectives

Aspirational goals serve as a lodestar for directing team efforts. They’re also a great tool for confronting under-performance. When employee behaviors undermine aspirational objectives, OKRs and CFRs (Conversation, Feedback, and Recognition) clarify the path back to realignment. An engineering team focused on product excellence can work toward the shared goal of competitive differentiation:

O: Gain product superiority within the consideration set for our key markets.

  • KR1: Bring to market one unique technology feature that doubles retention in our top customer segment (i.e. simplify administration, reduce CPU utilization, increase security, streamline integration.
  • KR2: Land in the top third of the curve on the Challenger section for the Gartner Magic Quadrant.

This helps leaders and teams align efforts toward high-level aspirational objectives. And it helps flag efforts that don’t align with the goal of creating true competitive differentiation. When team efforts are aligned toward aspirational objectives that everyone agrees on, any progress toward that goal is a net improvement.

Where can I get more information?

Are you or your team stuck on attainable goals or struggling with establishing shared, aspirational goals? We’d love to hear from you about them. Reach out and let us know here and be sure to check out all the other FAQs, Stories, and Resources right here on WhatMatters.com.

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


MORE

FAQ

Peer-to-peer feedback creates a culture of shared responsibility, self-organization, teamwork, employee engagement, and accountability. However, this form of feedback can be challenging. Here's how to do it right.

FAQ

As a young professional, you have a lot on your plate. Objectives and key results (OKRs) are designed for ambitious goals and big ideas and OKRs work for everyone.

FAQ

"OKR" stands for "objective and key result." OKRs are a goal-setting tool that helps figure out what you want your team to accomplish and how to do it.

FAQ

What are some examples of OKRs and how do I write them? Get ideas for bettering your OKRs or compare your current ones to gain insight.

FAQ

Learn the best way to kickstart OKR adoption with these 4 steps that work for organizations, individual team members, and departments—with examples.

FAQ

What's the best way to give feedback to employees? Learn the difference between an ineffective work relationship and a great one here.

FAQ

If you're setting personal goals or professional goals, these 3 strategies are key for successful, smart goal setting.

FAQ

The most efficient companies can say no to any opportunity when necessary. OKRs provide a fair and transparent framework for doing so.

FAQ

Pairing quantity and quality key results is a great strategy to strengthen OKRs. Learn how to do it with these examples.

FAQ

Looking for some good examples of customer service or support OKRs? Check out these real-world examples to be inspired to be proactive with customer success.

FAQ

Bottom-up OKRs sparks innovation by freeing individual employees to be creative. Here are some examples.

FAQ

If you’re feeling that your OKR cycle is not working, take a step back and try to pinpoint the problem. Here are some ways to do that.

FAQ

Many people wonder "how to find my purpose." For most, it’s going to take spending time to find your passion. But this goal-planning technique can help hone in.

FAQ

Great sales OKRs can take your sales team to the next level with these Objectives and Key Results examples. Use them to help with revenue and bridging the gap between company and customer.

FAQ

Inputs are the tasks needed to be done to reach your goal. Outputs are the outcomes needed. Learn more about inputs vs. outputs here to write more powerful goals with OKRs.

FAQ

Marketing OKRs are great for teams both large and small because they help bring alignment across departments. Check out these good marketing OKR examples here.

FAQ

Committed or aspirational OKRs both serve different purposes and have separate ways they can be acted upon. Learn how here.

FAQ

When a new or significantly recalibrated high-level quarterly OKR comes up, what’s the best way to keep your team unified?

FAQ

Common OKR 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.

FAQ

Cascading OKRs will help align the various teams and individuals across your company toward the same overall goals. Here are some examples.

FAQ

What is a good number of OKRs to have? When it comes to objectives and key results, what to focus on can seem like an objective itself. Here’s the answer.

FAQ

Why use OKRs? Because OKRs are about way more than just having goals. Objectives and key results help you articulate how you're going to achieve them.

FAQ

Are you looking for an OKR coach, speaker, or author? Let John Doerr and the "Measure What Matters" team guide you through OKRs with FAQs, Resources, and Stories.

FAQ

If you’re looking for paid ways to scale OKR adoption and usage across a company these tools might be something to look into.

FAQ

Organizations that are mission-based can be rewarding but it can be easy to drift from the original mission. Learn how OKRs are great for keeping nonprofits on-track.

FAQ

OKRs are great for software engineers because they prioritize ideas and assign metrics to completion. Get inspired by these real-world software engineering OKR examples here.

FAQ

A well-defined company purpose provides a clear vision and inspiration for your team. Learn how to find your company's mission with these strategies.

FAQ

The 5 key benefits of OKRs include focus, alignment, commitment, tracking, and stretching. Learn more about each of them and how they work here.

FAQ

“OKRs” stands for Objectives and Key Results. They are a tool used by individuals, teams, and companies like Google for setting ambitious goals.

FAQ

OKRs can be used for office administration to help improve productivity and efficiency across your entire operation. Learn how with these examples.

FAQ

If you’re approaching the end of on OKR cycle, it may be time to refresh on how to grade them. Here are some examples of how.

FAQ

OKRs are great for setting personal goals outside of the office. Learn how to use them to think through unambiguous life goals.

FAQ

What free tools and software are available for tracking OKRs? If you're looking for a budget-friendly way to commit to transparency, here are some ideas.

FAQ

Company-wide OKRs help align teams and provide clarity throughout entire organizations. Spark inspiration for your company with these examples.

Join the community

Join the community

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.

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.