OKRs for the masses are bullshit

As the small company is growing towards the mid sized company, at some point the pointy haired bosses will realize that their company has become a wild west and will try to impose some order. They will look around to see what other companies are doing and eventually they will come up with salary policies and all sorts of rules that people low in the pecking order should fulfill in order to be worthy of a promotion.

After the first successful wind of change, the people at the top will start nagging subordinates about their career paths and future goals. Somehow “I will work on the same thing as yesterday” is no longer an acceptable answer. To ensure that the entire company focuses on the same end goals, an additional annoyance is needed.

Looking around on how to go about achieving this further company transformation, they will find posts about Google and their famous Objective Key Results strategy (OKR) [1]. For uninitiated, the OKR is a “goal setting framework for defining and tracking objectives and their outcomes.” According to the TED talks given by Google executives, the OKRs were a defining point that helped them become who they really are. Considering the amount of money they are printing each year, it’s no wonder why every company under the sun would like to be the next Google.

The idea behind the OKRs is that the masterminds at the top will define the goals for the bright future of the entire company, while the grunts at the bottom will help them achieve those goals the best they can. These employee goals are then formulated in the form of objectives and measurable results that define whether or not the chosen personal objectives were successfully completed.

Since this sounds rather complicated, let’s try to explain the problem with some examples. If we speak about Google and their future plans, their goals might look like:

  • We will expand our revenue by 0.1%.

  • We will deprecate 5 services.

  • We will launch 6 new services that will replace the old ones, as it’s a waste of resources if they are just sitting around in the kitchen, twiddling their thumbs and stuffing themselves with free food.

After being educated on the topic, the programmer might write something like: “I will finish writing this shoddy website project and that will bring a hefty profit, therefore I am a worthy fighter for the cause. I will achieve this goal if the website passes our quality assurance wall and our internal customer accepts the software before the end of this year.”

On the other hand, the toilet cleaner would write something like: “I will keep the toilets clean for now and ever, so the programmers can do their jobs and bring in that sweet revenue. I will achieve this objective if and only if throughout the year I don’t receive any complaints about the dirty toilets. Cleanliness is next to godliness, therefore I am a worthy fighter for the cause.”

Today’s little chat will not be about why and hows of the company goals. It also won’t be about setting your OKRs that will dazzle your boss and blind your enemies; this is what the SEO content generation farms are for. Instead, we will rather talk about the reasons why the OKRs are much less effective than your favorite growth mindset snake oil salesmen is trying to sell you.

OKRs for the masses

The goals of the company are usually tied to what the company does. In general the goals will be related to increasing the revenue, server uptime, licenses sold or some other customer related measurements.

Now, imagine Bob for a second. Bob is a programmer that can almost find his way out of a paper bag. As Bob is a rather interesting person, that means that apart from programming he also likes to fiddle with other uncommon hobbies like photography and mountain biking. The following illustration represents the possible Venn diagrams of Bob’s interests and goals of the company he is working for.

  1. Wishful thinking: Goals of the company are completely aligning with Bob’s. If Bob and his boss are the same person and that person is able to make a living by selling everything from his bag of life goals, that means he is in the perfect situation that also 100% doesn’t exist.

  2. Business as usual: Goals of the company are intersecting with a small part of Bob’s goals. This is also the situation that the OKRs fans are raving about and the one that I am going to tackle as tonight’s entertainment.

  3. Get out: Goals of the company are not intersecting with Bob’s interests. This is a more likely situation than the wishful thinking one and employees that found themselves in this situation are probably already thinking about jumping ship.

The larger the company the easier is to get in a situation where everybody on the team is pulling into a different direction. If you are the owner or a shareholder of a reasonably large enterprise, everyone pulling into a different direction is the exact opposite of what you want to achieve. Pulling in all directions when you only want to move forward makes you stay in place and your snail’s paced competitor might easily overtake you. Moving slowly is still somewhat better than not moving at all, so having some common goals in mind might help you with moving into the right direction.

If this sounds reasonable to you, it’s because it is. Don’t worry though, here comes the corporate lunacy. Usually the captains who are steering the ship are expecting from their employees at the bottom to embrace those goals, align their OKRs with mentioned goals and do whatever it takes to help them achieve those goals according to their area of expertise.

There are a couple of reasons why people might want to do that. Some might have their compensation tied to how well the company is doing, so it is in their best interests to reach whatever whackadoodle goals that are being set that year. Others genuinely like the project they are working on and their situation aligns closely with the wishful thinking diagram; they can pick from the entire circle of current company goals and find an interesting challenge there.

For everybody else that don’t fall into any of the previously described situations, the goals of the company simply do not matter. Regular worker who is not a major shareholder, does not really have much influence in what the company goals are. The company goals are not aligning with their interests and the reward for improving anything is low or nonexistent.

When working for a product oriented company, your day to day tasks will be closely tied to the product’s roadmap. In an agency like environment you might bounce from a project to project more often, but not every one of those assigned projects will be meaningful and exciting.

Some of the assigned projects/tasks will be fun and they will fall into the “luck favors the prepared mind” situation, in which some of the project related tasks will overlap with your interests. In such case you will be able to find some meaningful tasks that you could do and set the OKRs in order to define some challenges and track your career progress.

On the other hand, some of those assigned projects are just going to be a royal pain in the ass. While your interests might in general overlap with what the company is doing, that doesn’t mean they will overlap with your currently assigned project. This represents the “it’s called work for a reason” situation on the right side of the illustration. If you don’t find your work meaningful and you can’t switch to a different project then setting an OKRs is pretty much a waste of time. How can you set a meaningful objective if you don’t care about the thing that you are working on?

It’s not all sunshine and roses

Now that the cat is out of the bag you might realize that your OKRs are not really yours, as they are defined by your manager who is assigning you projects or tasks according to “the squeakiest wheel gets the oil first” strategy. A good boss that genuinely cares about you will try to find the “luck favors the prepared mind” situation regardless of the project. A crappy one will make sure to educate you on the “it’s called work for a reason” topic.

The analysis above leads us to the following insight: if the employees can only pick a meaningful objectives from that rather small intersection of the company and their own goals, then the end objectives are most likely not going to be worth talking about. Next time you are scrounging for the public OKR pages of your coworkers, take a good look as you are in for a treat. You will see one of the most generic and bland corporate tasks, such as:

  • I want to read such and such book by the end of the year.

  • I will mentor this new employee from another department.

  • I want to work on a slightly bigger project than last year.

  • I will write a 300 word essay on the corporate blog that nobody is going to read.

What kind of goals are those? Do you really internalize with them? Does writing a 300 word article on the corporate blog really means so much to you, that if you are not doing it right now you are going to regret that decision a few years down the road?

No, you are probably not going to regret not writing that article. At that point it simply won’t matter and the rest of the internet will thank you for not saturating the search engine’s inverted indices with crappy blog posts. So why would you put such task as one of your objectives or career goals, if you don’t care about them in the first place?

The usual answer to that question would be: “Well, it’s because my boss is pushing me to write down some objectives, so they can go to their little promotion scheming committee and present them that I am a good and obedient worker who sticks to their goals and achieves them despite all the misfortunes that life throws at me. That 3% raise is coming in any day now.”

The companies are usually not willing to let their people make improvements outside of the already charted path and employees will play this game by writing some generic mumbo jumbo in order to satisfy their superiors. At the end of the day, somebody still has to work on the day to day activities that are crucial for the company regardless of your goals or wishes.

The OKRs are only meaningful when you are the one who is deciding on the future steps. If you are just bouncing from a project to project and putting out fires as is the case in most companies, then the OKRs are nothing more than a wishful thinking. Other things will always have the priority or you might not have the power to avoid the projects that you don’t like. More often that not you will find yourself in the “it’s called work for a reason” situation and in such case setting your OKRs does not matter.

But, it makes the suits happy and you still get to keep your job.

Notes

[1] They say OKRs originally came from Intel, but they only got popular once Google adopted them. If you really care about the origins, make sure to dust off the history books.