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What's all this fuss about OKRs?



A little late (two weeks have already passed), but I finally put down in words my personal OKRs for the year 2016. Better late than never. For the last two weeks, I have been doing things in a more free-wheeling manner than how I normally do things. Yes, I'm talking about my weekly planner. At least I like to think it's been in a free-wheeling manner, but I suspect it has just been a carry forward of how I was doing things towards the end of last year.

As I was looking back on these two weeks, something I'd read about somewhere (probably in HBR, that's why I don't remember the author) started re-surfacing in my head. The article was on how innovation (and priorities in general) are driven in organizations. The article goes on to make the point that priorities either come from the top (C-suite) or from the middle management. This much is obvious, as it can't come from anywhere else. But the interesting point was that, even in scenarios where the C-suite believes that the decisions are finally in their hands, it is actually not. It is in the hands of the middle management instead.

The example taken was that of approval of new projects. Either the CEO can decide that a certain new project will be taken up and it is then executed by middle management, or middle management proposes ideas and the CEO approves the one that aligns best with her ideas, or with the one that makes most logical sense. In both cases, the CEO has final say and can be easily fooled into thinking that she is driving decisions on new projects. But the two cases are quite different. Majority (if not all) of the middle managers propose ideas to the CEO that they think will get accepted, and not the ones that they really believe in or feel would benefit the company. This scenario is especially dangerous when the new projects are meant to be innovations that will help the company sustain in the long run and may not be immediately profitable. No middle manager is going to propose such an idea as her performance management is done at cycles far shorter than the time needed for that innovation to bear fruit, and the ideas that get proposed are ones that are in fact, not innovative.

I have now seen OKRs being made both ways, coming from the C-suite as a mandate and surfacing up from middle managers. And by the way, for those of you who don't know, OKR is an acronym for a very boring term (but equally effective) championed by Intel and Google that stands for Objectives and Key Results. I won't comment on which one worked well and which one didn't. Instead, I'll tell you my own experience of running my personal OKRs in both the ways.

All through last year, my weekly plans were created with certain targets in mind. Targets that had to be achieved in order to meet the larger Objectives (and Key Results) for the year. This was the equivalent of C-suite driven prioritization. I decided at the start of the year on the things I wanted to do by the end of the year and then my weekly plans (the equivalent of middle managers) were only about execution.

But in the last couple of weeks (while I was still finalizing my OKRs for 2016), the weekly planners were setting the agenda and there was nothing C-suite driven. I ended up prioritizing things that are easy to get done and things that had immediate impact without looking at it in the context of a larger picture (what this would lead to by the end of the year).

The process was OKRs in both the cases. They were still metric driven. But the selection of the metrics and the objectives need to be done in a certain context. And the context should only be long term bienestar (well-being) of the company (or me), and it can only happen when it is top-driven and not top-selected.

My score for 2015 was a 0.6, which means I just about did a good job. Just about. Either that or the goals were too ambitious. But they're never too ambitious.

Let's see how things pan out in 2016.

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