9 initial mistakes to avoid when starting to do OKR goals
April 16, 2019

9 initial mistakes to avoid when starting to do OKR goals

OKRs (objectives and key results) are an extremely effective goal setting practice. While they are simple and especially easy to use once your organization develops a rhythm with them, as with any other new practice, organizations can make mistakes when first introducing OKRs.

Here, we’ve compiled nine of the biggest and most common OKR mistakes, as well as what you can do to avoid making them in the first place.

Mistake #1: creating unachievable objectives

It’s one thing to be ambitious and to set goals that are a bit aggressive, but you shouldn’t be setting goals that are so big that they’re impossible. The idea is to challenge employees to push further, not to demotivate them. Choosing objectives that are impossible from the outset will only cause frustration.

How to avoid it: Collaborate with employees to set objectives that are challenging but achievable. That way, even if they don’t achieve 100% success, they’ll still have made progress without feeling that they’ve failed entirely.

Mistake #2: failing to designate a DRI (directly responsible individual)

A DRI is responsible for ensuring that OKRs are being completed. Failing to assign one single person to be accountable for OKR progress could allow finger-pointing and lack of discipline to ensue.

How to avoid it: Assign one person this task and hold them accountable for completion of objectives. This is especially important for team OKRs. Never make the mistake of simply listing the team name when composing OKRs; always take the time to designate a DRI.

Mistake #3: setting only top-down objectives

While it’s true that cascading goals make up some OKRs, some should also come from the bottom up. Setting objectives that are only top-down will thwart motivation and creativity. Giving employees some level of autonomy, on the other hand, encourages independence and facilitates growth opportunities.

How to avoid it: Your employees have a firm understanding of what their priorities need to be in order to drive results. Allow them to have a voice in the OKR process. Just be sure that you’re collaborating with them and encouraging them to structure their OKRs so that all objectives are supporting company goals. As long as that happens, making OKR setting a collaborative process is advantageous because it drives buy-in and commitment.

Mistake #4: authoring OKRs using vague language

OKRs such as “increase sales” are ineffective because they can’t be measured. It’s a good start and a worthwhile goal, but by what percentage should you increase sales? And within what period of time? Failing to structure OKRs in a way that answers these questions will make it difficult to track progress—and to complete objectives altogether.

How to avoid it: To make sure that employees have total clarity about expectations, OKRs should be structured according to SMART criteria. When writing objectives, make sure that they are specific, measurable, aligned/actionable, relevant, and timely. When employees know exactly where they are going, it makes it easier for them to determine what they need to do to get there.

Mistake #5: failing to track progress weekly

One of the primary reasons that OKRs are so effective is because they make it easy for leaders to check in on progress. The catch is that they truly must check in regularly to drive discipline amongst their teams. If your team sets objectives at the beginning of the quarter but you fail to follow up on progress until weeks later, you’ll likely find that not much has been done.

How to avoid it: To stay consistent with progress, you must briefly discuss progress every single week—without fail—with each of your team members. Encourage employees to aim for about 10% completion each week if you’re using quarterly OKRs, for example. That creates a timeline that allows them to complete their OKRs in their entirety, even with a 2-3 week grace period.

Mistake #6: using OKR goals as if they are tasks

OKR goals aren’t tasks. They’re outcomes or results, not activities. Remember the phrase, activity does not equal results?  Being busy doesn’t mean you are accomplishing results.

Objectives are not tasks. And key results are not tasks either.

See Google’s re:Work on OKR goals which states about OKRs: “One thing OKRs are not is a checklist. They are not intended to be a master task like…Use OKRs to define the impact the team wants to see, and let the teams come up with the methods of achieving that impact.”

So just note these definitions.

  • A task is something that you do.

  • A project is an initiative—to complete your project, you have to do various tasks.

  • A goal, an OKR goal or an objective, is what you want to achieve and you usually have to complete a combination of various projects in order to attain your goal.

Objectives are measured by key results, but how do you accomplish those objectives? You can associate your key results with projects, which in turn have a lot of tasks that you need to act on in order to complete those projects (and of course, these projects will help you achieve your KRs and ultimately your objective). 

How to avoid it:  Use a single work management platform to keep track of the activities your employees need to do in order to complete their key results, and ultimately, their objectives. This will help them stay on track with progress consistently, and in combination with your weekly one-on-one check-ins, there will be virtually no excuse for them to fail at making progress on OKRs.

Mistake #7: assigning only aspirational or  operational objectives

It’s important to strike a balance between operational and aspirational objectives. While no OKRs should be “easy,” planning only operational objectives doesn’t provide an opportunity for associates to use their strengths in order to complete ambitious goals.

How to avoid it: When collaborating with employees to set OKRs, double check to make sure that there is a healthy blend of both operational and aspirational OKRs.

Mistake #8: having too many objectives

Without imposing a limit on OKRs, you’ll set your team up for failure. When there’s simply too much to do, employees lose focus, become overwhelmed, and will ultimately disengage from their work. Many leaders make the mistake of encouraging more OKRs so that their teams will accomplish more, but this typically backfires. It’s better for employees to perform above-and-beyond expectations with fewer objectives than to struggle to get anything accomplished with too many.

How to avoid it: For a quarterly time frame, we recommend setting no more than 3-5 objectives, and perhaps even fewer when you are first introducing them to the company. If you find that your team is consistently meeting all of their objectives in their entirety each quarter, you can consider introducing one or two more for the next period. Or, you may want to make them more challenging by aiming for higher results.

Mistake #9: poor resource allocation

Encouraging your employees to do something without providing the proper resources for them is one of the worst mistakes an employer can make. It will fuel frustration and resentment, and worse yet, employees won’t be able to get much done.

How to avoid it: Before final OKR approval for the upcoming quarter, ask yourself this question: Can I provide the available resources to help this employee achieve these OKRs? Whether the resources include more of your time, allowing the employee to delegate tasks so they can focus on objectives, or providing more training and support, make sure that you are 100% certain that you can provide them. If not, consider how you might be able to restructure the OKRs so that they’ll require fewer resources, or see if there are any creative solutions that will allow you to provide them after all.

OKR goal setting, when done properly, has the ability to help your organization yield remarkable results. While the introductory phase may have a few small bumps, any issues will be easy to detect and fix. One you develop a rhythm with your OKR practice, you’ll begin to see just how powerful this goal setting methodology is, as well as all of the ways it can help your company grow and improve.

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