Tue Feb 21 2023

Building an implementation of OKRs

The OKRs framework is a trendy, desirable tool for increasing productivity. However, it seems OKRs is really only for teams that already have established psychological safety, a sense of empowerment, and are capable of delivering results on their own. OKRs, then, is not a solution to productivity problems, rather it is an accelerator.

You have to feel safe first

In 2015, Google conducted indepth research with their team members to find out what made teams successful. They published a summary of the results from the study that found that the number one dynamic was psychological safety. They defined that as “Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?“. This sense of felt safety was more important than any other also-important factor in a team’s success. In that same previously linked results page, they found in general that team members who felt psychological safety stayed with Google longer, were more likely to admit mistakes, were more open to new opportunities, and were overall more effective in their roles.

I think this safety is a key requirement if teams want to implement OKRs for managing their work because so much of OKRs depends on being able to debate with your team, admit your mistakes, and have open discussions about the work you and your team did. Christina Wodtke, a popular write and consultant in management science, in her book Radical Focus lists Make a Safe Place for Learning as one of the prerequisites for implementing the OKRs framework for teams. In her estimation, the real, human connections you form with your team members will help everyone grow as individuals and as a team. The connections also help the team through difficult discussions around the success or lack-of-success for the team’s work. In addition, she discusses how teams should create their own OKR sets, and I feel those discussions would be difficult, if not impossible, if team members do not feel safe enough to voice their opinions or debate the ideas under consideration.

You have to feel empowered

So much of OKRs seems to me to depend on teams acting on their own initiative and making their own decisions regarding what is good for the business or how they can best serve the business’s established goals. In my personal experience at least, teams who are not in the habit of exercising their own judgment or whose feedback has been ignored struggle to decide what they should do. They may also set very limited goals (commonly referred to as sandbagging) or decide on goals that match the highest paid person’s opinions (the HIPPO). In either case, OKRs become more about productivity theater than actually striking out to do innovative, valuable work. By productivity theater, I mean that people feel it is more important to be seen to be doing work than to do work that actually impacts the business in some meaningful way.

Empowered team members feel like their opinions matter. They feel like they can voice their opinions, their criticisms, and their feedback safely without fear of reprisal. They have trust that their leaders are invested in their success and their personal welfare. They feel like their leaders trust them to make the right choice without consultation or manager approval. Empowered team members also know they can make mistakes without having to worry about losing their jobs, losing prestige, or being penalized; they are given space and the opportunity to learn and to try again. They feel like they have a stake in the work their team does and a say in the direction their work goes.

Empowerment can be extremely difficult for managers and leaders who are used to exercising tight control over their teams. Managers and leaders must learn to trust their team members. They have to understand that in many cases people do not make errors out of malice or an intent to harm the business. Mistakes are often the result of a lack of training or a failure in the system the business has designed to deliver its services or products. You must learn to make room for your team members to help you manage the team’s direction. They usually know better than you how to do their job, and if they do not, you must help them become better than you.

You have to focus

One of the more surprising things I have learned while digging deeper into OKRs is how much they are actually about picking a few things that are important to you and then focusing on those things. The unsuccessful OKR implmenetations of which I have been a part wrote OKRs for everything the business already wanted to do. Upon reflection, I see now that this style of implementing OKRs is probably more like applying OKRs as a thin mask over what you are already doing. You are not actually implementing or adoptiong OKRs if you are not changing the way you do business.

Instead, as folks like Christina Wodtke explain, you really should write a small number of OKRs. Your OKRs should be enough that someone can remember them all. This in practice probably means defining 3-5 OKR sets at most that each person on your team needs to remember. This does mean reducing the number of things people focus on at any given time. I understand that not doing any work at all in certain business areas is an extremely difficult proposition. In general, if something does not support or drive your OKRs forward, you probably do not need to be doing it. The exception to this, of course, is doing the activities that keep your business going, including but not limited to responding to existing customers needs, working with vendors, and supporting team operations. While you likely would not write OKRs for these activities, the OKRs framework recognizes them as essential activities you must do in order to create the space for OKRs-oriented teams to work towards their OKRs.

How to Implement OKRs?

I believe the path to implementing OKRs for a team runs through establishing psychological safety, fostering individual empowerment, and creating a set of positive outcomes for the business. From these three elements, teams can use the OKRs approach to maintain focus on providing the biggest impact for the business or the team’s customers (internal or external). Teams considering adopting OKRs should work to establish psychological safety, to empower their team members, and to decide on what work has the biggest potential positive impact on the business.