Awarded Nobel Prize, Still Failed to Meet OKR
What Do Objectives and Key Results Measure?
“If I achieve such a victory again, I shall return to Epirus without any soldier.”
The best thing about a well-crafted OKR — Objectives and Key Results — is that it gives us an easy way to grade our completed work over the past quarter. Unfortunately, the grading shows only our compliance with our initial plan and does not indicate whether we helped our customers to perform their jobs-to-be-done more effectively.
American venture capitalist John Doerr kicked off the OKR hype in 2018 with his book Measure What Matters. There he described the method of setting “aggressive yet realistic” objectives, which are concretized by a few “measurable milestones” called key results. A generic formula assesses how successful our work is. Each key result gets a score between 0.0 and 1.0 depending on how many percent of the goal we have achieved. The objective’s score is then calculated as the average value of the attached key results’ scores. (An implicit assumption made by the OKR inventor was obviously that all key results are equally important. Another assumption might have been that our spent effort and the key result value have a linear relationship. However, those are topics for other blog posts.)
Ne ego si iterum eodem modo vicero, sine ullo milite Epirum revertar.
The Pyrrhic War’s most famous battle was fought at Asculum in present-day southeastern Italy. The battle occurred in 279 BC, only one year after the Romans were horrified at Heraclea by King Pyrrhos, his twenty elephants, and his large army. Pyrrhos won the battle of Asculum as well, but paid a high price, losing many army forces, including nearly all his friends and principal commanders. In OKR terms, however, the indisputable victory in Asculum might have awarded him a glorious OKR-grade of 1.0.
OKRs Come in Two Flavors: Committed and Aspirational
Committed OKRs are closely linked to the carrot and stick philosophy — especially the stick. If we score less than 1.0 in the OKR-formula, then we’re obliged to report whether it was “priority disagreement or resource allocation inability” that caused the failure. When events do not turn out as planned, we thus blame variation — known unknowns, which inevitably leads to sandbagging.
In both product development and software development, things happen that no one could have imagined in advance — unknown unknowns. The technology was not as good as we thought. The customers did not want what they said they wanted. Perhaps we came up with a better approach halfway through our work. To avoid the risk of writing failure reports, teams set expectations dishonestly low. As a countermeasure, when psychological safety is lacking, they figuratively fill sacks with sand. From the team’s side, it is a desperate act of psychological manipulation.
By definition, aspirational OKRs should have an expected score of 0.7 but are allowed to vary. Although the deductive nature of committed OKRs may only make them usable for recurring routine tasks, an aspirational OKR can describe a goal even when the road is not predetermined. So, aspirational OKRs are more suitable for product and software development. However, one may ask, in hindsight, why we quantify our score at all. When the road is not pre-marked, the target moves. For instance, we may work toward Goal A but halfway there, learn that Goal B helps our customers more effectively with their jobs-to-be-done. So, we work toward B instead. What do we gain from learning that our score toward Goal A is 0.5, now that we are striving for Goal B?
Henri Becquerel’s Embarrassing OKR Score
In 1896, Henri Becquerel’s objective was to learn whether uranium salts might absorb sunlight and reemit it as x-rays. Cloudy weather in Paris in late February made Henri put the uranium crystals and the photographic plates away in a drawer. Despite the lack of sunlight — or any light — in the drawer, the developed image was amazingly clear. This phenomenon was something different than an x-ray. In 1903, Henri Becquerel shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Marie and Pierre Curie for the discovery of spontaneous radioactivity.
Henri Becquerel may have earned a Nobel Prize, but his x-ray OKR would have scored close to 0.0. Whether the failure was due to priority disagreement or resource allocation inability remains unknown.
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