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10 Mistakes I Made Implementing OKRs in My Small Business

Objectives and Key Results are a powerful tool for setting and reaching goals, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy! Learn from my top ten mistakes

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

If you own a small business, someone has probably told you the marvels of using Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). I agree, these can be powerful. In November of last year, I began writing a few OKRs for my business and small team. I felt sure I could have the OKRs written and ready to roll by January 1. I was “finished” by late December. Only problem was, I have had to revise them several times. I’ve made at least 10 mistakes with OKRs.

1. I couldn’t identify a few key objectives

Objectives must be written at a high level. Think “mission” or “strategy” here. Not tactics or day-to-day stuff. That means keeping the number of objectives in the single digits. Yet, as I anticipated the upcoming year, everything looked important. I thought, oh, I’ll just review Mike Michalowitz’s excellent book, Fix This Next. But that felt too time-consuming. Then I realized a simple way I could keep the number small.

I asked myself, What five issues keep me awake at night?

If you need a few prompts, consider my Five Pillars of Business. Maybe then you will hear yourself saying something like:

  • My marketing isn’t working well enough.
  • I don’t have enough money in my corporate coffers.
  • Some products/services need to be reviewed and maybe updated.

Yes, I had challenged myself to come up with five, but the word machine in my head kept talking after I listed those five. So I wrote eight. I wish I had stopped at five. It’s too hard to stay focused on more than that. Letting myself list too many was my first mistake with OKRs.

2. I didn’t write meaningful, memorable objectives

I consider myself an expert in creating learning objectives for courses. The big rule is that instructional objectives must be measurable. However, I’m not sure that’s the case for objectives in the context of OKRs.

Although some sources say the “O” in OKRs must be measurable, other sources don’t specify that at all. And I saw many unmeasurable objectives in online examples of OKRs. I could argue that if the “key results” can be measured and they reflect the objectives, non-measurable objectives are probably okay.

Some sources say that the objective should be memorable. I agree with this. Totally. If any of us hope to achieve a goal or an objective, it must be top of mind. If we can’t verbalize it, we probably aren’t remembering it. It’s easy to make this mistake with OKRs.

So next time, skip the measurable, and instead write meaningful, memorable OKRs. I — or you — could use words that are as few and as colorful as possible, something like:

  • Deliver world-class customer service.
  • Launch website for freelance consulting.
  • Win the “East Podunk Business of the Year” award.

I’m guessing that the memorable, actionable words could fall into a few main categories:

  • Words of comparison: “increase to…,” or “higher…;” “reduce to…,” or “lower…”
  • Words of outcome: delight, establish, stir up, etc.
  • Superlative words: best, most, first, fastest, etc.

3. I confused objectives with key results

Although I could find some definitions of OKRs, I could not find anything to help me differentiate objectives from key results. Finally, using multiple sources, I pulled together a comparison table. The first comparison is the difference in what question each one answers.

  • Objectives answer the question “why.” Why are we focusing on this aspect? Does it reflect our vision, our north star, our mission? Or maybe it answers the question “where,” as in, where is the promised land we hope to find? Where do we want to arrive?
  • Key results answer the question “what.” This should include a number, e.g., an integer or a percentage or a dollar figure.
  • Projects answer the question “how.” As in, how will this activity support our big goals, such as our mission or our strategy? (And remember, a project is different from a program. Most notably, a project is an activity with milestones and tasks to be completed by a specific deadline. A program is ongoing.)

4. I wasn’t careful with words

I wrote something like, “Increase new leads by 20%.” Okay, great! But that’s not precise. Increase this as compared to what? To last year in the same quarter? To what it is right now? To our best ever? To something else?

Teammates got a little confused with other words, like “clicks.” Some thought that meant number of clicks, whereas others thought it meant the click rate. That’s fairly simple to solve. I can just say “number” or “rate.” But I had to make the mistake before I figured that out.

We had another issue, too. If I’m talking about OKRs, I’m talking about objectives. But our project software, Asana, calls these “goals.” And “results” in Asana are called “subgoals.” Worse still, we wrote OKRs on the original document at the annual meeting. When we entered them into Asana, the words were a little different, and that was confusing. Then, when it was time to retrieve, analyze, and report the key results, the words were different yet again. Certainly there’s nothing magic about the words “objective” and “key result:” you should use whatever terminology makes sense to you. But keep the terminology standard across all resources to avoid this kind of confusion.

We also had some typos. In one document, the text read, “…a 19% conversion rate.” I couldn’t imagine myself ever writing or approving an odd number like “19%.” I immediately wondered if the “9” should have been a “0” to create the round number of 10%. If I had proofread closer to the date of the original meeting, so that my intentions were fresher in my mind, I could have avoided this issue.

5. I didn’t ask anyone to take ownership of an objective

This is a place where the RACI model (also known as the Responsibility Assignment Matrix) helps:

  • Responsible (the person doing the work)
  • Accountable (the person making the decisions and accepting accountability for the final outcome)
  • Consulted (anyone directly or indirectly involved in process or outcome)
  • Informed (anyone who must know about decisions or outcomes)

Here’s another reason for writing fewer than five objectives. If you have a small team, as I do, it’s tough to ask a teammate to assume accountability for more than one objective.

Regardless of the number of objectives, however, it’s critical to make sure that each objective has an owner. When it’s “everyone’s job,” it’s really no one’s job.

Also, in retrospect, I wish I had created better guidance on what I wanted to be consulted or informed about. I don’t want to know every little detail. I did create a document that clearly described issues I absolutely want to approve before the wheels are set into motion, and others that I don’t want to be bothered with.

Being clear about who is in charge of what will help you avoid some of my mistakes with OKRs.

6. I didn’t provide enough resources

It’s great to say, “We need to increase revenue by x%.” With a larger or more expert team, you might reasonably expect that teammates will do whatever they need to do to make that happen. But in a microbusiness, each teammate needs some good resources to get the job done.

In retrospect, I would make sure each assigned person was given a clear question to answer and the know-how to do or learn to do the appropriate actions. Here’s an example: the objective was “Increase Facebook presence and engagement.” The questions for the assigned person should have been:

7. I didn’t specify a cadence for measurement

At the end of January, I was looking for those key results. To my surprise, my team — hard workers who are always eager to please — didn’t have a shred of data for me. There were several issues that contributed to this:

  • Lack of understanding: Because these were quarterly OKRs, apparently everyone thought the “key result” could be addressed at the end of the quarter. Nope. The whole idea of a key result is early detection. If you can see what’s off track early in the quarter, you have the chance to course correct.
  • Lack of skill: One person simply didn’t know how to pull the data. Okay, I can forgive that, but I do need to help her understand that not knowing how to do something doesn’t mean it can go undone.
  • Glitches: The team found that there were some glitches in the software and/or analytics that made it pretty much made it impossible to retrieve or analyze some needed data.
  • Poor communication from the boss: I didn’t specify who was responsible for retrieving and/or analyzing the data. (In some cases, a result might be most easily retrieved by one teammate but analyzed by another.) I admit, this was just a blatant case of me not clearly communicating my expectations.

This, along with the “words” problem in mistake with OKRs #4, really boiled down to a lack of good communication to the team.

8. I didn’t help the team to make the “connection”

People need to see that their daily efforts are tied to a bigger picture.

We use Asana, and we hold regularly scheduled scrum meetings. At scrum, we move through each project according to the OKRs. So that was good.

Here’s where it got hairy: Someone said, “Oh, could we do X?” My response was, “No, we can’t. Cool idea. But X is a project that doesn’t support any of our objectives.”

Conversely, I didn’t always point out that we were doing “Y” because it actually does support an objective. Could they or should they have figured it out, even if it wasn’t obvious? Well, yes. But since I’m the leader, I need to make sure everyone on the team knows that they’re working towards something in particular.

If you haven’t read it before — or even if you have — read the famous Parable of the Bricklayer, which is based on a true story as told by the world’s most famous architect, Christopher Wren, in 1666. It demonstrates how we work best when we see the bigger purpose.

9. I didn’t specify how I wanted to see results

People on my team are much too nice to tell me what they think when I grill them for answers to questions they were not prepared to answer, or to interpret data that makes no sense to me. The solution, of course, is to set out my expectations early in the game.

I had hoped to see the data presented in a way that answered the question, Are we on track to meet this objective this quarter? It’s a reasonable question, and one which I had assumed everyone would make clear to me. Nope. I got a bunch of PowerPoint slides with graphs. I know why that happened: my team knows that, often, a graphic representation is more meaningful to me than a string of words. But not in this case.

In retrospect, I realized that I wanted to see the main objective, followed by the data substantiating that we had missed, met, or exceeded the key results for the question. Of course, that didn’t really happen, because I never said that was what I wanted. I ended up confused and frustrated.

I’m a firm believer that most employees want to please their boss. But it’ll be doggone hard for them to do that if the boss doesn’t say what it is she wants. Employees — however loyal, hard-working, or dedicated they are — aren’t mind-readers.

This was a big lesson learned for me. Not making my expectations clear to my team was a key mistake with OKRs.

10. I didn’t use simple questions to guide the activities

Once we had collected and analyzed the data, it turned out it wasn’t great.

At the end of the first quarter, I realized that it would have been a whole lot better to write specific questions that I wanted answered about the data. Finally, I found four key questions that helped teammates to look seriously at the data and give it to me in a meaningful way. These included:

  1. How will these numbers help us to grow the business?
  2. What were the actual outcomes and conclusions?
  3. What explains these outcomes (good or bad)?
  4. What are the next steps to foster improvement?

Making OKRs work for me

Despite these setbacks, I still believe in OKRs as a transformative tool for my microbusiness. I’ve already reaped at least three benefits of using OKRs:

  1. Focus: OKRs create a fabulous springboard for identifying just 3 high leverage activities each week or each month. People in my weekly accountability mastermind group often wrack their brains to identify their most important weekly tasks. A glance through their corporate OKRs helps them to prioritize.
  2. On-time delivery: My team is completing more projects on time. Having OKRs, even if the words are fuzzy or the expectations are unclear, is helping us not stray from the stated objective.
  3. Self-growth: I thought I had licked the OKR task after I had identified and written the OKRs. Now, I realize that, like most leadership responsibilities, implementing the plan hinges on crystal-clear communication to (and among) teammates.

The mistakes with OKRs I’ve described here were growing pains. Sometimes a step forward feels like a step back at first. But once you and your team have overcome the learning curve, OKRs will help you set meaningful goals before your team and keep them moving toward them.

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This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

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