OKRs Aren't Going to Fix Your Communication Issues

Talking with a startup a few days ago they asked for my opinions on OKRs. I have slightly mixed opinions on them overall and started to disclose some of those. Though in sharing some of this I had a few immediate realizations that might be broadly applicable. The crux of his question was, at what stage should we put them in place. I’ve seen a few companies try to put in some form of OKR, and most were met with pretty mixed results. The reason is that OKRs need to change something about your behavior otherwise why put them in place… either change something about the goals you would otherwise have or the methods at which you went about achieving them.

Stepping back a bit, my first question and a very focusing question on almost any situation to ask is “What problem are we trying to solve?” In our conversation he actually paused a bit. As he paused a bit longer it was clear that question had not been fully asked or answered.

The first and most common case I see with startups trying to put in place OKRs, v2moms, management by objectives is that the team is not aligned and focused on the same goals. But my follow-on question is consistently, have you communicated what you decided you goals were.

Startups tend to go through some distinct growing phases. The early stages all the founders are in a room together building out the product. When you get the first few engineers you expand out a little, but still in a single co-working conference room easily. Eventually you need a real office. At the real office stage you start to have an all hands where, this is probably gathered around a large lunch table at first. At all hands no one takes meeting minutes and sends out a recap, instead people take some notes and you assume everyone was present.

But, at about 20 people you have at least one person that misses the weekly team meeting and misses something key. In a 1:1 you catch it that it was talked about as a priority… but they weren’t there. This very subtle change I’ve seen linger all the way up to a 70/80 person org. I’ve observed management meetings where someone missed and a key member was entirely mis-aligned on what the goals were for months following.

That was a long detour, but the point is that explicit formal communication is a big change for early stage companies. Distributed teams tend to do this better than in person teams, but it is also not guaranteed.

OKRs present a heavy-weight answer to the problem. OKRs tend to require hours and maybe even days to determine what are the right goals and metrics. Even if they are quick, does the process of OKRs change how you structure your team and work significantly for the next few weeks/months. If not, could you much more easily get away with… wait for it… emailing out what the company says priorities are. Email out the meeting notes from your all hands meeting. Email out (gasp) a recap of what you discussed and are thinking about as a management team. Sure every manager could go and have a 1:1 and recap the points for 30 minutes with each of their employees. Or you could use this thing that we’ve had for a little while… email.