OKRs AND VUCA WORLD

I have introduced OKRs during a workshop about complexity thinking. More specifically the focus was on how to apply the ideas of Complexity Theoryto define, measure, describe and interpret “complexity”.

After the Covid hit, many people started using the acronym VUCA, a word that actually was created in late 80’s. The Berlin wall had fallen and US Army College introduced VUCA to define a world where threats could have come from anywhere, anytime, with any intensity and in unpredictable way. Unfortunately it is not just a military volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world: liked it or not, VUCA is the world we are living in. Thus Complexity theory and thinking are also crucial in business and management. 

As we know, to face a complex world it is important to be flexible, fast, adaptive, agile both at an organizational and individual level. I believe that OKRs represents a tool that promote this attitude. Differently from the classic management by objectives, OKR are not focused on performance but on aligning and energizing people. As J.Doer says: «OKR is a management tool, not an employee evaluation tool» . 

How can OKRs be such a tool? How can OKRs be really motivational without referring to performance and bonuses? These were the most frequent questions that people kept asking me during the workshop.

As traditional management 2.0 managers it was really difficult for participants to assume an agile approach. Their assumptions were basically the following ones:

  • Goals are strictly related to performance
  • Through setting the goal a manager can and should evaluate his employees performance
  • Failing to reach a goal, it is not good at all
  • It is only the management that define the goals for others

OKRs are rooted in a completely different mindset. As A.Groove used to say the culture of OKRs is people oriented and made of transparency, reciprocal trust and discipline.

Keeping this in mind it was not so easy to share with them a completely different perspective about goals as the one previously defined. This is when I decided to give them some personal examples about how using OKRs within my personal relationships have brought new lights. I have also made them think about their kids. This was the easiest and more effective part of the shared reflection. Thinking about their personal relationships participants came to realize that their traditional approach to goal setting – made of punishment and rewards, top-down definition, like it happen with kids – tends to fail most of the time. Share a goal with your kids and let them decide how to reach it is one way to make them clean their room!

To be honest, if I were asked “what would you do differently next time?”, I would answer “give specific and personal examples first”. Even when I talk about the so called smart goals people always find it easy to get the sense of the concept and very hard to apply them to their either professional or personal life. It happened the same with OKRs during this training…This experience has taught me to never forget this. So for the following trainings I will definitively change something in my deck!

But let’s go back to the specific topic of this article: OKRs.

What makes OKRs working in an organizational environment is the fact that they are:

  • Ambitious
  • Changeable while working on them
  • Public and aligned. That is to say individuals and teams must coordinate with other teams and link up their objectives in accordance.
  • Very specific and measurable. 

More specifically Objectives represent what I want to accomplish, my final destination. Key Results represent how I will accomplish, the roadmap that takes me to the finish line. Thus KRs are quantifiable. As a matter of fact participants found themselves in great difficulties while trying to be very specific. Thus I have made them reflect upon the correlation between the concept of “measurability” and the concept of smart goal. It is also suggested to individuate not more than 3 to 5 KRs per Objectives.

One marketing director wanted to practice the OKRs tool so I gave him 10 min to write it down. He then came with a very generic objective and something more than ten key results. At the beginning I challenged him asking: “If all these KRs were satisfied, would you achieve the Objective?”. The answer was “no”. In that moment he decided to narrow down his Objective and to define only five key results.

Objectives have to be aspirational (although in Google some KR are by default not necessarily aspirational). It is true. But I also believe that in a training session can be much more useful to focus on “less aspirational” goal just to practice with the tool. I asked him: “What would you achieve with your team?” instead of “What would you like your team to achieve?”. This seemed to work. 

The most important part of this experience is not the fact that he was finally able to describe a “well defined” OKRs but what he stated to have learned. As he said, it was an insightful experience because he came to realize a couple of things. First how instinctively he thinks in terms of demanding goals – strictly related to performance evaluation and not energizing goals. Secondly how difficult it is to identify specific, measurable KRs to share with others. Last but not least he has experienced how a clear, quantifiable goal setting makes you feel more confident about reaching the goal. That is something that people often come to realize also with coaching methodology. It is like when sky is clear and you can easily see the road, nothing can prevent you from reaching the goal. 

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