Don't Use Individual OKRs

Photo by sandeep damre on Unsplash
7 June 2020

For teams (and entire organisations) adopting OKRs, it’s common for people to ask: “Should we have personal OKRs at the individual level in addition to our team OKRs?” Often, they want to use OKRs as a means to measure performance and personal growth. While personal OKRs can be a great way to get comfortable with OKRs as a concept, I usually recommend against people having personal/individual OKRs in a team context. Ever ahead of the curve, Spotify dumped individual OKRs back in 2013 (before I’d even heard of OKRs). Here are my thoughts on why individual OKRs are a bad idea.

It’s all about teamwork

The reason we do work as teams (and organisations) is because we recognise that we can accomplish much more together than we can as individuals. The whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. The team is the primary delivery unit; they are closest to the customer and the collective work they do has the greatest impact on customer outcomes.

The power of OKRs comes from the way they help teams to get clear on what they’re doing and how they will measure success. They help teams to visualise the results they want and find out where they have dependencies on other teams. They allow teams to have difficult conversations with each other and make tough choices about what to do and what not to do. The weekly checkins make these decisions even more immediate.

Individuals are a finite resource in any organisation. For organisations employing the so-called Spotify model (even though there is no such thing) or using Communities of practice, individuals may spend their time in a variety of areas (their team, one or more chapters, a guild or two, etc). When you have OKRs at a chapter level (e.g. “user research” or “front-end development”) these OKRs (which are also delivered by members of teams) may be seen as conflicting or distracting from the team OKRs. Likewise, if I have personal OKRs I will be tempted to prioritise my own OKRs above those of my team. This risk is particularly strong if my organisation is using OKRs to evaluate my individual performance and whether to present me with a promotion, bonus, etc. If I’m concerned about reaching my personal OKRs, I may even unconsciously (or otherwise) sabotage the work of my peers or my team to improve my results.

Cut the admin overhead

Another reason not to adopt individual OKRs is that OKRs do take work. Sessions for setting them, checking-in, sharing results, etc. all take time and effort away from “delivery” tasks. It’s a kind of tax but one which, hopefully, leads to great results. Because of this admin overhead, it’s easy for teams and individuals to feel a little overwhelmed when adopting OKRs. This is one more reason to focus on team OKRs (and probably only a few teams in the beginning) before considering individual, chapter or functional OKRs.

What to do instead?

I recommend continuous Conversations, Feedback, and Recognition (CFRs) to help individuals grow and stay on course. It’s fine for OKRs to become one input into performance conversations but they shouldn’t dominate the conversation. It’s far better to ensure individuals have a robust, two-way relationship with their line managers and an open continual dialogue into ongoing challenges, opportunities for growth, and personal accomplishments.

Wrapping up

Eventually, you may encourage individuals to have OKRs, but not until the teams are regularly using OKRs as a way to explain exactly where they want to go, how they will measure when they’ve arrived, and as a way to have robust, difficult conversations with each other to ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction.

I hope this has been helpful, I’d love to hear from you if you’re using individual OKRs in your organisation and how that’s going. Feel free to contact me using the form below. Thanks for reading and sharing!

Tags:  OKRs performance teams 

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