We start our journey to our dreams by wanting, but we arrive by focusing, planning and learning. (Christina Wodtke)

Recently discussing OKR learnings with a team of OKR coaches from a corporate client, we arrived at 12 reasons for OKRs to fail:

1. Using OKRs without a Mission (or higher level OKRs)

Simon Sinek OKRs advises organisations to think about their purpose, the „Why“, first. OKRs are all about aligning execution to the „Why“. If you are not clear about your organisation’s Mission (or higher level OKRs), you are faced with boundless possibility. As a result, focusing the discussion on what will move the organisation forward becomes almost impossible.

2. Setting Goals too far into the Future

Large organisations have a tendency to engage in long-running projects. As a consequence Objectives will often be focused on achieving the end result of these projects instead of delivering business value along the way. If Objectives take longer than your strategic cadence to achieve, they should either become the organisation’s Mission or need to be broken down to deliver value within your tactical cadences.

3. Too Many Objectives – Capturing your Daily Work as OKRs

OKRs are about focusing resources on outcomes that matter. More than five OKRs signal a lack of focus. Items that fall into the “business as usual” category, like e.g. „answering emails“, only need to be included in OKRs if your objective is to change the way you go about business as usual. “Get everybody to inbox zero” or „Reduce response time“ might qualify.

4. Setting Objectives Top-Down only

Traditional management dictated a top to bottom cascade of objectives. OKRs on the other hand are to supercharge organisations, harnessing the knowledge and the experience of teams by having them determine how they will best contribute to fulfilling your Mission.

5. Business as Usual OKRs

OKRs are sometimes written based on what a team believes it can achieve without changing anything they are currently doing, as opposed to striving for outcomes that would have true business value. Sandbagging OKRs this way defeats their purpose to generate strategic impact.

6. Linking OKRs to Compensation

OKRs are meant to motivate a team, increasing team focus and operational excellence along the way. Evaluating the performance of individual employees and determining their compensation as a result of OKR achievement, violates Goodhart’s law. Individuals will be intrigued to fudge Key Results instead of focusing on the desired outcomes.

7. Delegating OKRs to Individuals

This failure is closely linked to 4., 5., and 6. Assigning individuals the responsibility for particular OKRs undermines the shared sense of purpose, team effort, and team creativity that is vital for improved outcomes. Moreover, the team lead needs to keep abreast of the OKRs‘ progress and actively facilitate the conversations around it.

8. Binary OKRs

Although their composition often requires extra effort, Key Results as a general principle should be quantitatively measurable to facilitate tracking them. If Key Results are set in a binary fashion, gauging progress and – if required – adjusting actions becomes much harder. As Peter Drucker said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

9. Neglecting Regular Check-ins

No matter how inspiring a team’s OKRs, there will always be any number of distractions. OKRs have to be tracked consciously and intentionally, asking questions and having the important conversations around them regularly. Weekly or sprint-end Check-Ins ensure the necessary continuity.

10. Adding OKRs on Top of Other Goals

OKRs are often viewed as yet another goal set to be tracked. To achieve the organisational focus they were originally devised for, OKRs have to be considered all-or-nothing. Anything outside of the agreed focus of the current OKR set should not be pursued.

11. Key Results that Undershoot the Objective

In case the agreed Key Results don’t add up to the Objective, either the Objective or the Key Results need to be adjusted. The reason may be the team not being able to commit the resources for the OKR-set as drafted. However, while OKRs should be ambitious, they still need to be realistic enough to be perceived as relevant and motivating.

12. Haphazard OKR Creation

To promote meaningful outcomes, OKRs need to reflect the strategic thinking and priorities for the upcoming cadence. Failing to commit the required time and resources to define a well-considered set of OKRs, that conveys purpose and focuses the organisation for the intended period, may come across as cynical and as a consequence impact trust in the practice.