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Why OKRs aren’t enough on their own: Goals and Standards

Objectives and Key Results – OKRs – are a well known goal-setting technique; there’s a wealth of great content that explains what they are. This post is about OKRs as part of the blend of techniques needed to responsibly and safely develop organisational performance.

To get this blend we need to be clear on what OKRs are for, how an exclusive focus on them might be damaging, and what else we could balance them with.

Goals

OKRs are a goal-setting technique. More generally a goal is an aim or a purpose and we set them to provide clarity over a future state or desired outcome. Goals encourage us to look forward and achieve remarkable things. Goals also communicate priority and are a source of alignment to enable people to pull in the same direction. Goals say “this way”.

Here, OKRs ‘fit’. They provide both the stretching target – the Objective – and clarity over what needs to be done – the Key Results – that together translate vision into focused execution for the organisation.

Goals rarely provide for all personnel and operations no matter how aligned, focused, and committed an organisation is, . The Goal resulting from the COVID Crisis, to ‘ensure organisational survival’, is an exceptional case. More usually there are individuals, teams, or sections of the organisation less able to directly contribute. In a goals only approach to managing organisational performance two common anti-patterns typically emerge:

  1. Create more goals. Increase the number of goals to cover all the work so that everyone is working towards the organisational goals.
  2. Change the work. Make all teams focus on the goals so that everyone is working towards the organisational goals.

Both compromise the effectiveness of the organisation. In the first case the additional goals dilute the organisational focus as too many goals are created. The sense of focus and priority is lost as goals are aggregated, as a result they become abstract and lose their clarity and meaning. In the second case narrow focus of work causes the organisation to become fragile as it moves effort from functions not related to goals. Levels of service and resilience are reduced leading to orphaned capabilities that are needed by the organisation but it is unable to sustain.

We need something to balance the ambitious and aggressive nature of goals. I have come to use the term ‘Standards’.

Standards

If a Goal is a stretch upward towards a promising future, a Standard is the bar below which we must not sink. Standards can feel scary: In a professional context not meeting a standard can have negative consequences but they provide organisations with a valuable early-warning system of incoming negative impacts.

For this reason Standards should be rooted in the impacts that they mitigate. For example, a Standard for the minimum uptime of a system could be in place to help prevent customers becoming dissatisfied if they are unable to access services. If the Standard isn’t met we understand what might happen and why we should take action to make sure we meet the Standard in future. Standards can apply in any context. For example:

  • We will deliver all orders within X days. Not meeting this Standard will mean that our competitors will have an advantage with customers that want delivery quickly. We will lose market share and revenue.
  • We will have a minimum staff engagement score of Y. Not meeting this Standard will mean that we are at risk of not harnessing the potential of our workforce. They will become disenfranchised and leave.
  • We will have a minimum of Z personnel per team. Not meeting this Standard will mean that those teams cannot be resilient. The capabilities they develop and support will be at risk.

Standards, when used in this way, prevent the gains made by achieving Goals from being lost, and also prevent the pursuit of Goals from cutting too deeply into organisational resilience. Organisations are in a state of constant tension: needing Goals to move forward to stay ahead of the competition, balancing the pace of that movement with the need to do so safely and with responsibility.

Goals and Standards are two side of a pair of scales; uneven weight on either side will cause the organisation to unbalance and performance to suffer.

Considerations

Naturally there are nuances when balancing Goals and Standards, some of which are…

Set low Standards

This shamelessly attention-grabbing statement should read “set your standards as low as you safely can”. Standards set too high incur needless cost and limits how much your organisation can flex towards Goals. Ask if 99.999% uptime is really necessary, because it will certainly be expensive. And where Standards are set to improve performance above what’s currently attainable they’re Goals in disguise.

Goals are an invitation, not an instruction

When Goals take the form of a Leadership or Management instruction, not only does it undermine engagement and alignment but it can inadvertently act as a tacit approval for Standards to be broken. Framing a Goal as an invitation (“We would like you to contribute to this important thing”) ensures teams remain accountable for meeting Standards, and enables Standards to be a meaningful way for teams to signal risks to services and capabilities.

Get comfortable with a mix of Goals

Where organisations and teams don’t follow a standard practice or model they might be lacking a vehicle for stating their Goal(s) and a technique such as OKRs may well be valuable to them. For those that do there may already be something that serves the same purpose – for example the 2020 Scrum Guide now includes a ‘Product Goal’ as a means to align the Product Backlog. Question why all goals need to be in the same format. Could it be enough to just get them all aligned?