Teams should reset OKRs quarterly – or if not quarterly, at least more than once a year. This is true for any strategic goal-setting methodology. In this reset, they often realise that they haven’t performed as well as they would have wanted to. To some extent, the score is important, but the discussion it instigates is critical.

Why was performance sub-standard? There could be a plethora of excuses, but we find it usually comes down to one of a few simple reasons. It’s critical to interrogate the performance – not to berate or belittle anyone but to understand the source of the problem and address it accordingly.

7 Reasons for Sub-standard Performance

When you reset OKRs, be sure to consider two things – the process and the performance. When you see poor performance, the solution often lies in the process. Here are a few reasons why performance could be lacking and some suggestions about how to address it.

It’s the Market

1. Unfortunate circumstances:

    1. Sometimes – not often – circumstances arise that are outside of your control, could not have been predicted, and significantly influence your ability to perform on OKRs. An event that warrants this category should be close to catastrophic – a global health pandemic is a good example. One of your team members resigning is not a good example. 50% of your team resigning could be a good example.
    2. In this case, it might be warranted to reset OKRs mid-cycle. We want to avoid this as much as possible because, if we do, we take away the opportunity to learn. However, in a catastrophic case, there is no use keeping the OKR if everyone knows that priorities have changed significantly.

It’s the Team

2. Impractical goals:

    1. It takes some time for a team to set OKRs at the right level – if they’re too ambitious, they’ll never be met, and the team gets despondent. If they’re too low, they’re not stretching anyone, and the team disengages. This is the same as the idea of velocity in Agile or Scrum teams. However, when we start with OKRs, they’re often set too high. They would never have been achieved, irrespective of how hard we tried.
    2. To counter this, spend more time planning. Write down some actions or initiatives that will need to be pursued in order to achieve the OKR, or compare it to current performance to assess pragmatism. We find something like the GIST framework from Itamar Gilad helpful for this, but any more detailed project management thinking would work.

3. Vague commitments:

      1. In his Five Dysfunctions of a Team framework, Pat Lencioni purports that commitments can only be made if there’s healthy conflict and debate. Conflict and debate mean confronting the problem, discussing the real concerns and getting input from everyone, which leads to clarity. If we don’t know what we’re aiming for, performance will be poor, and results won’t flow. If goals aren’t clear, no one individual is to blame – it’s the team that hasn’t engaged with it properly.
      2. There’s a specific way that Objectives and Key Results need to be articulated. These are not rules for the sake of rules – they are written in a way that creates clarity for the team. It takes time to write them well, but the time spent will yield a return as teams link their actions to outcomes.

4. Lack of buy-in:

    1. Checking for alignment is critical when you reset OKRs. OKRs need to be aligned horizontally and vertically – with vertical alignment implying it should ultimately align to the organisation’s purpose. If they don’t align, someone, somewhere, might doubt why they are spending time and effort on this OKR, and then they disengage. We’ve seen this play out practically, where teams check in on OKRs, performance is poor, but not a single soul asks a question or challenges it. Hence, the team hasn’t bought into the OKRs.
    2. The first critical step in ensuring alignment to purpose is the OKR description – the “why?” and “why now?” questions that should accompany every Objective. The second requirement is healthy debate. If someone isn’t contributing to or driving progress on an OKR, they might not see the link to purpose. In that case, create the space for the conversation.

It’s the Owner

As much as OKRs are a team effort, the under-performance might come down to the owner or driver of that OKR. Note – this is the last resort. Look for the team’s problems first before looking at the individuals. Sometimes, however, it will sit with the individual.

5. Resource constraints:

    1. How am I expected to perform if I’m accountable for a marketing OKR (as an example) but don’t have a marketing budget? Or, if I need to launch a product without a product team, how will we launch the product? These scenarios come down to a lack of resources – either human capacity or financial resources. It’s arguable whether this is up to the individual or the team to solve. Valid consideration, it’s probably both.
    2. If more than one person is accountable, no one will really be accountable; therefore, at some stage, it needs to come down to the individual. That’s not to say the individual is to blame; rather, it’s the individual’s responsibility to understand what is required to deliver on the OKR and source those resources. If it’s not available, raise it in the appropriate forum. Create clarity for the rest of the team around what is required (the financial or capacity cost) and the potential payoff. This should create the right conversation, and then it’s up to the team to make a decision.

6. Limited capability:

    1. As much as individuals require the means to execute, they also need to possess the ability to execute. This will consist of technical knowledge of the subject and the ability to construct an action plan with tasks and initiatives to pursue. There is a lot of value in an outcomes-based-goal-management approach, which means the “manager” doesn’t micro-manage anymore. Thus, it requires the individual or team to do the planning during the OKR period and every time they reset OKRs.
    2. Fortunately, it’s not impossible to learn these skills. If there’s consistent underperformance on the OKRs because of a lack of planning, incorporate some level of coaching, mentoring or skills acquisition program into the team. In our view, this is best done in practice, consistently as you reset OKRs, instead of through a formal qualification.

7. Destructive individuals:

    1. Lastly, team members sometimes drive their own agendas and can become destructive to the team. If someone has the means (the resources) and the ability (or capability) but still isn’t performing, it might be a lack of willingness. Individuals who aren’t willing to play for the benefit of the team will hamper progress, not only on their own OKR but on any significant project where they get involved, as discussions will centre around that individual.
    2. We should question whether that individual should form part of the team. It’s possible there’s a better position for that person in the organisation, but also highly likely that the best position for that person is not within the organisation.

As a final reminder – the conversations and debates created by OKRs are often more useful than the actual goal. When you reset OKRs, create the space for this conversation. The performance is important, but it’s more important to learn the lessons and continuously hone your execution skills.

“The way you win is as important as winning itself.” 

– Toto Wolff, Team Principal, Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team

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