OKR Implementation
3 Fatal Mistakes When Implementing OKRs
Many businesses come across numerous success stories centered on the implementation of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). However, it's crucial to recognize a common pitfall: the survivorship bias. This bias is evident when companies mimic the strategies highlighted in these stories, while unintentionally overlooking critical, often less-documented details. Ignoring these nuances can lead to grave errors during the implementation process. Such mistakes can result not only in failing to achieve the desired outcomes but also in squandering resources – money, time, and the trust of employees.
A more comprehensive and methodical understanding of OKR implementation can be gained through the combined study and firsthand experience of numerous companies. This involves analyzing both successes and failures, observing how OKRs are integrated, and monitoring their evolution over several years. This article aims to highlight aspects of OKR implementation that, if overlooked, could jeopardize your efforts and result in failure.
The Orphan
Fatal Mistake #1
Today's business landscape is replete with various change management models. Despite their differences in nuances and approaches, all models agree on one point: successful implementation necessitates committed change agents who are ready to tackle resistance and potential failure.
Firstly, the individual initiating the change and their influence within the company is paramount. Ideally, top leaders serve as the initiators due to their extensive influence. However, initiation isn't merely about introducing an idea to the team, like saying, "Here's a cool concept, OKR, let's understand it and start using it!"
Genuine initiation occurs when the leader actively partakes in the process, not merely observing from the sidelines. This involves setting goals, implementing them, owning one or more company-level OKRs, or setting OKRs for themselves. They should support OKR coaches in word and deed, engaging with other leaders who may be struggling or resisting change. In this context, the leader acts as a 'Sponsor' - an individual who backs the implementation of changes.
Even if, for various reasons, the top manager isn't directly involved in the OKR implementation process, they must function as the Sponsor, offering maximum support to the change agents. Without such backing, the innovation has slim chances of survival.

However, the success of the process can't be solely attributed to the Sponsor. It requires employees who will play a crucial role in implementation and ongoing support. These employees, often referred to as OKR Ambassadors, OKR Champions, OKR Leaders, or OKR Coaches, are integral to the process. This article focuses on the fundamental activities of an OKR coach.
An OKR coach organizes the execution system within the entire company or parts of it, overseeing planning rhythms, retrospectives, progress meetings, and success celebrations. They arrange and maintain a common space for OKR documentation and remind all process participants to update the data when necessary. As an OKR evangelist, they explain the key elements of OKR to all participants and continuously learn and study the experiences of other companies.
Who can serve as an OKR coach?
If Agile coaches are already part of the company, it is logical for them to undertake the task of introducing OKR. However, in many companies we've collaborated with, this is not a separate position but a role assumed by an employee, regardless of their hierarchical level or primary job. It's even better when there's more than one coach, and the team continually welcomes new volunteers. Often, HR professionals, marketers, and product managers become OKR coaches. For a regular employee, taking on the role of an OKR coach presents an appealing opportunity for diagonal growth, as they are responsible for organizing OKR activities for the entire company, including top-level managers.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Fatal Mistake #2
I recall a negotiation with a potential client about a strategic session. The stylish lady across the table asked me, "Do you guarantee results? Last year, we hired a coach, set goals, but achieved nothing." Her voice echoed resentment, mistrust, and a hint of complaint about a service yet to be delivered.
"Nothing at all?" I asked, curious about the context. "May I know what goals were set that were utterly unachievable?"
There was a pause. She exchanged glances with her colleague, who looked away. "Well, I need to find them. I can't do it so quickly." Embarrassment and irritation were apparent in her voice.
Her answer was predictable. The goals remained on flip chart sheets, safely forgotten. And this case isn't unique. Perhaps it's a remnant of our childhood when we believed our wishes would come true just by blowing out birthday candles or placing notes under the Christmas tree.
In adulthood, and particularly in business, it doesn't work that way. We need to turn our wishes into action plans. Even the best-worded OKRs, when placed into the most impressive OKR software and assumed to be an 'OKR application,' won't magically yield results. You need consistent, regular effort to make progress.
Often, when the task of setting OKRs is completed, employees sigh in relief and satisfaction, as if having passed a term paper. They then revert to their usual daily activities, treating the OKRs as a box checked off a list. The next time OKRs are due, it's good if someone remembers to organize the process and conduct a retrospective of the past period.
If you overhear conversations questioning the purpose of OKRs or whether they've become a duplication of work, it's a warning signal. Something has indeed gone wrong, and you've likely made the second fatal mistake that thwarts most implementation attempts.
How can you rectify this error? Even if it's already been made?
First, revisit the first mistake, as these two often go hand in hand. Do you have an OKR coach or someone who has assumed this role, regardless of their title? This person or team is responsible for rectifying the second mistake and setting up the OKR execution process. This involves establishing a clear rhythm of progress meetings.
Consistently measuring progress on OKRs, ideally on a weekly basis, and having brief discussions about synchronization of efforts and roadblocks, are vital parts of the OKR system. These progress meetings should be brief and focused to avoid employee irritation and the feeling of 'all talk, no work.' They are check-ins, akin to checking in for a flight or hotel. They identify if you've passed the gate of the week or are stuck and need help moving forward.
In addition to progress meetings, it's beneficial to celebrate successes. This can be a weekly or less frequent event, offering teams who have set ambitious goals and made significant progress the opportunity to share their successes and gain motivation.
Finally, conducting a retrospective before the planning session allows you to look back at the past period, analyze the dynamics of achieving OKRs, identify good practices, mistakes made, and problems encountered, all to prevent them from recurring in the next stage.

Top-Down Dictated OKRs
Fatal Mistake #3
If your company has a long-standing tradition of directive management, bolstered by a top-down KPI approach, then you are likely to fall into the third fatal mistake trap.
When questions such as, "We've set top-level OKRs and cascaded them down, how do we motivate employees to follow them instead of their KPIs?" or "How can we make employees deliver ambitious OKRs?" arise, we can start questioning the company culture and what it is that the OKRs are actually implementing. A confession like "OKR is a trend, we should have it," isn't indicative of genuine commitment.
If OKRs are imposed from above, without involving the performers themselves in the goal-setting process, it's unnecessary to dub it with the buzzword OKR.
One of the principles of OKR is setting goals both top-down and bottom-up. What does this mean?
While the logic from the general to the specific is maintained in setting goals—first the company level goals, then divisional, then team or individual goals—the inclusion of the bottom-up principle is crucial right from the onset of setting company goals. An extended management team is invited to the planning session, and there's an optional yet beneficial practice of gathering opinions from all employees. What should the company focus on this quarter to maximize progress towards strategic goals, considering the changing internal and external conditions?
After setting the top-level goals, teams convene to set OKRs for the next level. Not just the leader, but as many employees as possible who are involved in achieving these goals should be included. This allows everyone to express their vision of goals and priorities, align it with the rest of the participants, and collectively define a common focus of attention.
Admittedly, this process takes considerably longer than traditional top-down planning. But as the saying goes, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with a team." The benefits of including employees in the goal-setting process are twofold: synchronized understanding of current priorities and accountability for goal achievement. The motivation becomes intrinsic when the team has set the goal and key results themselves, instead of it being handed down from above.
Shifting corporate culture is a slow process. However, our observations indicate that if the OKR process is correctly structured and not distorted by remnants of old habits, the style of relationships, and the level of awareness and responsibility, gradually begin to change.