How to improve OKRs when they're not working

How to improve OKRs when they're not working

by Sam Prince


Published on 09.06.2019

OKR (objectives and key results) goal-setting is a powerful system that helps drive individuals, teams, and organizations forward. But to make sure you are moving in that right direction, you have to use the map correctly. If you’re feeling a little lost, it’s okay! It can take up to a year to fully “get good” at OKRs, and feeling disoriented is part of the journey.

Every adventurer has a story of getting blown off course. Even Phileas Fogg lost his way when he tried to complete his “OKR” of going "Around the World in Eighty Days."

So if you’re feeling that your OKR cycle is lacking direction, take a step back and try to pinpoint the problem. It's good to be intellectually honest about room for improvement with your OKR practice. It may even be helpful to have your team help you pinpoint potential improvements.

OKR improvement checklist

Andy Grove’s seven rules for basic OKR hygiene is a great place to start your OKR “recalibration”:

  1. Less is more: It’s been said by nearly every guru and it rings true with OKRs, too. An organization should have no more than seven, well-chosen objectives and they should all fit one line. Each objective should have no more than five key results.
  2. Set at least half the goals from the bottom up: The most powerful and energizing OKRs often originate with frontline contributors. OKRs can help these employees see how their work aligns with overall goals.
  3. No dictating: Collective agreement is essential to maximum goal achievement. Remember, OKRs are a self-governed social contract.
  4. Stay flexible: One of the most powerful things about OKRs is that if one is no longer working or relevant, it can be tossed out at any point in an OKR cycle.
  5. Dare to fail: It’s good to have committed OKRs—things that everyone agrees must be achieved—but one of the most compelling aspects of OKRs is the “aspirational OKR.” Sometimes called “moonshots,” an aspirational OKR is something that happens when you aim for the stars. You may come up short but still reach the moon. misses the moon, they will still be up in stars.
  6. A tool, not a weapon: Andy Grove described OKRs as a stopwatch, a personal tool so he could gauge his own performance. They are not meant to measure others. If you are using OKRs for compensation, you’re doing them wrong.
  7. Be patient; be resolute: OKRs are trial and error. It may take a few cycles before they feel natural, or even go well. You don’t go to the gym and pick up the heaviest dumbbell and expect magic. Using OKRs is developing a muscle. John Doerr often says to commit to OKRs for a year so you have a few chances to build up your “OKR muscle.”

Other common OKR problems

There are other situations that thwart progress when setting OKRs. Our very own Coach Ryan lists these five as other high-level things to watch out for:

  • Not committing to the calendar, or setting concrete dates for finalizing and reviewing OKRS.
  • Not having a tool where everyone can access their OKRs.
  • No clear owner for each OKR.
  • Not having the right support team (OKR Shepherd/Coach) who owns getting OKRs done well in the org.
  • An unclear org-wide goal.

When implementing an OKR, tracking it with hard calendar dates is paramount because it keeps a pace to the practice and the time frame for when CFRs can happen. As Coach Ryan says about performance management, “Google does it (for 75,000 people) in a 2.5-week window every quarter. Lock in the timing, know when to review and come up with the next cycle. Because without it you don't have the right forcing function.” For help staying on top of your calendar, check this out.

To help prepare for these calendar dates, we recommend these OKR-tracking tools for individuals and smaller teams and these tools for larger enterprises. (Number two on Coach Ryan’s list.)

As for number five, another common OKR issue is that all objectives should be aligned with a clear company goal. The more precisely the org-wide meets criteria for a great OKR, the better (and sooner) your organization will see results. If you need help crafting a company mission and findings its "why", check this out.

Where can I get more information?

If you’re still having trouble figuring out what is not working with your OKRs, WhatMatters.com is here to help. This piece on common OKR mistakes when writing them might be useful to you. We also have other FAQS, Resources, and Stories all available.

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

Sam Prince (@samprincetweets) is a journalist, storyteller, and the content strategist of WhatMatters.com. 


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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.