OKRs and KPIs: 6 counterintuitive tips for leaders

When was the last time you rethought metrics? Consider applying some fresh, even unconventional ideas about Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
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OKRs explained

Conventional thinking isn’t always bad, but it can lead to a bad result – missing out on new ways of doing things. This idea is particularly important to goal-setting and performance measurement in IT and business. A “same old, same old” approach to metrics will likely lead to the same old results. That’s good if you’re happy with the way things are; it’s less effective if you’re launching a brand-new initiative or driving significant change.

A "same old, same old" approach to metrics will likely lead to the same old results.

Trying new ways of thinking and problem-solving doesn’t mean tossing out things that already work well. This holds true in the specific context of setting goals, defining outcomes, and measuring results. In many organizations, these goals and outcomes are codified in the related (but different) practices of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

[ New to OKRs and KPIs, or simply want a refresher? Check out our primers: How to explain OKRs in plain English and OKRs vs. KPIs: What’s the difference? ]

When designing OKRs and KPIs, you can rely on approaches that have worked well for you in the past, but you should also consider less conventional – if not completely contrarian – ideas. OKRs lend themselves particularly well to unconventional thinking.

6 unconventional tips on setting OKRs and KPIs

Let’s look at six counterintuitive tips for success.

1. You can use OKRs to avoid outcomes

OKRs are widely considered a means of setting goals (objectives) that have specific outcomes (key results) attached to them. Naturally, people and organizations tend to focus on desirable outcomes, such as high customer satisfaction (as defined by specific key results.)

“What if you flipped the script?” asks Saahil Panikar, principal consultant at Project & Team. “Instead of identifying where you want to be, identify where you don’t want to be, and then set OKRs that are designed to avoid an outcome rather than create one.”

Here’s an example perfect for the current moment: As more and more organizations announce their plans for returning (or not returning) to the office in some form, they may risk losing talent if the corporate decision doesn’t sit well with some employees.

What if you developed an OKR designed to avoid this scenario?

“‘We don’t want to lose employees by forcing a return to the office when employees prefer the work-life balance of work from home’ leads to an OKR to increase the number of remote work positions available by 50 percent,” Panikar says.

Indeed, you could attach an OKR (or several) to an organizational shift to hybrid work, using it as a tool to help define the intrinsically flexible approach and identifying the results that will indicate its success.

 How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

2. It's OK to come up short of your OKRs

If you’re hitting 100 percent of your OKRs, you’re probably playing it too safe.

If you missed three out of every 10 questions on a high school math test, you’d typically go home with a “C-” grade – not exactly bragging rights. Thankfully, this is not high school. You can come up short of some of your OKRs and still be performing at a high level as an individual and as a team.

In fact, Beyond20 president Erika Flora says that if you’re hitting 100 percent of your OKRs, you’re probably playing it too safe.

“We’re not going to meet all of our OKRs, and that’s okay,” Flora says. “They’re meant to be stretch goals that push us, our teams, and our organizations out of our comfort zone. If we’re consistently meeting 70 percent of them, we’re doing well.”

If you hit every OKR, you and your team are also probably less likely to reflect on what’s working and what needs fine-tuning for the future. (The “fail fast” philosophy of learning and development in IT kind of depends on failing at least some of the time, right?)

“Regularly reviewing our OKRs gives us a chance to talk about what’s going well, what isn’t, and figure out how we’re going to change and improve going forward,” Flora says.

3. Treat OKRs and KPIs like meditation – a daily practice

It’s easy to view OKRs and KPIs as goals and metrics that you set once and check back on periodically, akin to traditional quarterly or annual performance reviews.

Gtmhub CMO Jeremy Epstein advocates a more immersive approach: Done right, OKRs and KPIs should guide everything you do. Success requires revisiting them daily.

“The first thing you should do every morning when you settle down to work is look at your OKRs and KPIs,” Epstein says. “It’s like business meditation, grounding you and keeping you focused on what’s important.”

Of course, this level of devotion to OKRs and KPIs has a prerequisite: You’d better be sure you’re developing strong OKRs and KPIs from the outset, and revisiting and revising them regularly as needed. It’s essentially a “work smarter” tactic that should eschew working more by ensuring you and your team only spend time on what actually matters.

“It all starts with preparing effective OKRs,” Epstein says. “The more time you spend developing the right OKRs and KPIs, the less time you’ll spend working.”

Where do KPIs work better than OKRs? Let's explore three more tips:

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.