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Common causes for having way too many OKRs!

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

The OKR Framework has a reputation for being simple, but not easy. The guidance for Os and KRs is the same - less is better. In the leanest of cases, people will make a strong argument that a single OKR should be sufficient. The more mainstream guidance is that you should set 3 to 5 objectives, each having 2 to 4 key results. The notion of fewer is better with OKRs is intended to drive greater focus. However, one of the primary challenges we help our clients overcome, is that they end up creating too many OKRs. This article will describe 3 main causes for ending up with too many OKRs, and what you can do about it.

Cause #1: Your leaders aren't creating shared OKRs

Getting your OKRs aligned across two or three levels of your organization needs to be a goal. Companies will use specific language to describe the different levels of their OKRs. A very common way to describe levels of OKRs, would be Company > Department > Team. Another way to describe levels is Strategic > Tactical, where strategic OKRs are annual and tactical OKRs are quarterly. Having aligned OKRs across at least two levels of your organization is a good thing. However, how those OKRs are crafted at each level matters considerably.

One approach we see companies take that leads to too many OKRs, is when the leadership team has each leader create their own OKRs and then, perhaps create OKRs with their teams. Let's do the math on why this approach leads to an exponential increase in OKRs. If you have a leadership team of say 10 people and each leader creates 3 to 5 OKRs, that would mean that the first layer of OKRs would create 30 to 50 OKRs. Even if subsequent levels of the organization only created a single OKR, the result would still be way too many OKRs and virtually no improvement to focus.

Why this happens is the result of siloed thinking and binding the alignment strategy too tightly to the organizational hierarchy. The fix for this is to get the leadership team to align on 3 to 5 shared OKRs. This approach will substantially increase the alignment of your leadership team and significantly increase focus in the organization. To further help decouple the OKR alignment strategy from the organization, use the language of Strategic and Tactical OKRs, where strategic OKRs are annual and tactical OKRs are quarterly. Develop a strategy to share OKRs are each level, and you could reduce your OKRs in many cases to less than 12 or 15, and that is across two levels!

Cause #2: The sequence of OKRs and work is all wrong

One of the main goals of with OKRs is to shift people's thinking from being output focused, to becoming more outcome focused. Outputs are the deliverables we produce - like tasks, projects, and initiatives. Outcomes are the business results that come from those tasks, projects, and initiatives. If the sequence is wrong between a company's OKRs and their projects and initiatives, they will no doubt create way too many OKRs.

When done right OKRs are leveraged to inform our decisions about what work to do and what work not to do. If OKRs are created after decisions are made on which projects and initiatives to do, then OKRs have no ability to influence work choices. Instead OKRs are used to support decisions that were already made. In the worst examples of this approach, every single project that a company does will have one or more OKRs related to it. And the OKRs do not describe the business outcomes the company is trying to achieve, but rather project milestones and "important" project tasks. With this approach, OKRs end up looking more like mini project plans, instead of measurable business outcomes.

The fix for this issue is to create OKRs before you decide on what projects and initiatives to fund. Mature organizations that follow traditional approaches to annual planning, which is initiative and funding based, would need to incorporate OKR development into their annual planning process. That way the organization can consider funding business outcomes and strategy, rather than projects.

Cause #3: OKRs are being created to support ALL work

If it's good enough to do, it must be good enough to overdo, right? Wrong! The last common mistake we are going to look at in this article is when companies try to tie all work back to an OKR. Even work that they have no intention to do any differently than they have always done it. Many "keep the lights on" (KTLO) or business-as-usual (BAU) efforts do not require an OKR. When companies take this approach, they are typically trying to drive greater accountability in the organization, rather than greater focus and aspiration toward new levels of accomplishment.

That's not to say a KTLO or BAU effort can't be aligned to an OKR, but that approach should only be taken when an improvement is being initiated. For example, desktop support in an organization often falls under the category of business as usual work. If the company has no plans to improve anything with desktop support, then an OKR to track that work would not be adding value. However, if there was a goal to improve the internal NPS for the desktop support experience, then that is a perfect use for OKRs in support of a BAU effort.

The fix for this issue is to start by developing a 1-to-3 year strategy that established strategic themes across four dimensions - financial, customer, operational excellence, and people and culture. The result of this approach is a strategy map that can be used to inform the annual strategic OKRs and the quarterly tactical OKRs. This approach ensures OKRs are leveraged to put focus on specific things - not everything. It might seem intuitive to make all work have an OKR, but that approach is only logical if a company is trying to use OKRs primarily as an accountability framework, and less about a strategy and alignment framework.

There are other causes that lead to too many OKRs, but we wanted to leverage this article to touch on the ones that we feel are most common. These are also the ones that we feel have the greatest likelihood to derail the success of your use of OKRs, because to the organization OKRs will feel like yet another deliverable for them to produce. And that is not the goal of the OKR framework.

If you are experiencing any of these common causes, or if you recognize that you have too many OKRs but you're not sure why, please contact us for a free consultation - we'd love to help get your OKR implementation on track!

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