“A goal is a dream with a deadline”

– Napolean Hill

Deadlines often elicit a certain degree of anxiety, and sometimes even sheer dread. However, when used optimally, deadlines can create clarity around possibilities and urgency that drives results and innovation.

OKRs utilise deadlines through a regular cadence, either weekly, quarterly or annual, which determines which goals will be achieved by when.

However, given the aspirational nature of OKRs – which are intended to stretch us – teams may often be tempted to change their OKRs mid-way through an OKR cycle or as their deadline encroaches.

Why shouldn’t we change OKRs?

As compelling as it may seem to change OKRs mid-cycle or before looming deadlines, there are three important reasons why we shouldn’t change OKRs once set.

1. Changing OKRs mid-cycle nullifies the learning journey

“The most important thing you can do as a company is learn. If you constantly change the goals and never feel the consequences of getting it wrong, you won’t become the epic heroes you dream of becoming. You’ll just be moving the finish line closer.”

– Christina Wodtke

As we progress on our OKR journey we may come to realise that our OKRs may not be achievable by our deadline. Or perhaps we come to discover that the OKRs we are pursuing won’t be effective in achieving our intended outcome.

It’s better to embrace these “fail cycles” and learn from our missteps than to change our OKRs as we progress. By reflecting on these learnings we get better at formulating OKRs, and developing fitness in the process.

An important feature of the ongoing discipline of OKRs is the Reflect and Reset sessions held at the end of every cycle. This critical element of the OKR process allows teams to pause, look up from the busyness, and truly take time to reflect and learn from their experiences of the past cycle.

Reflecting on the successes, accepting blunders and identifying areas for improvement provides context to inform the OKR Resetting process. It is at this point in the cycle where OKRs can either be modified or removed.

In this way OKRs create space for learning and the freedom for teams to test hypotheses in situations of uncertainty.

If teams change OKRs as they progress, this learning journey becomes null and void. Teams won’t have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to fully understand how they can improve their OKRs going forward.

2. Changing OKRs won’t make us fitter

If we change OKRs once, a precedent will be set. Changing OKRs when they may seem too ambitious or not effective enough, results in the formation of unhelpful habits. We don’t want our teams to deploy a fail-safe, essentially opting out of “failure” or hard conversations.

In setting OKRs, we want to drive discipline and grow our execution fitness. We want to motivate teams to strive for better OKRs that push their boundaries and seek to uncover the true measures of success for their business.

“Each quarter that you use OKRs you’re building a muscle, one that grows stronger as you introduce the discipline of setting, monitoring, grading, and most importantly learning from what the key results have to tell you. Frequent alterations of OKRs during the quarter may be dressed up as “agility” or adaptive behaviour, and in some situations that may be true. But, in most cases it’s simply an unwillingness to commit to the rigor and discipline necessary to strive for better and better OKRs that push the frontiers of knowledge about what really drives your business.”

– Paul Niven

We might not get a perfect set of OKRs immediately – but we don’t need to strive for perfect. We just need to set the direction, determine the next best steps and let momentum build on itself.

By grounding ourselves in a growth mindset and working together through a number of OKR cycles and deadlines, we will start to develop a better understanding of our team. This includes a deeper understanding of our context (i.e. dependencies, capacity etc.), velocity and most importantly the right drivers for our success.

3. Changing OKRs pulls energy away from our priorities

Changing our OKRs mid-cycle will require attention, focus and energy that could be spent executing other OKRs.

It takes time and effort to formulate and reset OKRs. This is why we have dedicated Reset sessions at the end of every cycle. Finding additional time to reformulate OKRs that “aren’t quite right” or are too ambitious for our deadline will shift our focus and energy away from tasks that will drive traction on other OKRs.

A better approach is to update the progress to date, identify blockers or dependencies, note any thoughts on how the OKR could be modified and park it until the Reflect and Reset session at the end of the cycle.

When can we change OKRs?

While the general consensus among OKR practitioners is that there shouldn’t be any “take-backs” once we’ve set our OKRs, there are occasions where changing OKRs may be necessary.

OKRs can be changed if we have just set them or are 1-2 weeks into our OKR cycle and have a clear view of how they need to be adjusted. Teams should, however, be mindful that the goal might need to be scaled back accordingly to meet the deadline to make up for the lost time between setting OKRs and changing them, even though early in the cycle.

We can also consider changing our OKRs if unforeseen circumstances or black swans arise, necessitating a complete shift in priorities and focus. For example, the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 might have resulted in OKRs being reset to something along the lines of “Keep the lights on and ensure our employees safe”.

In these types of unprecedented situations, Christina Wodkte advises that instead of completely resetting OKRs, rather set another goal focused on the crisis at hand. At the end of the quarter when reflecting on our other OKRs, if they have not been met, there is context why they have not been achieved.

Embracing OKR deadlines and the learnings along the way

Teams that are willing to learn and grow through the process, even if they don’t achieve their OKRs by their deadline, will receive far greater benefits than those that move the finish line closer by changing their OKRs.

It is through ongoing discipline and commitment that teams will find an even greater dopamine hit when they do ultimately meet the deadlines for their most ambitious goals.

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