OWKRs (not a typo)

Pictured: the Great Auk penguin (inspired by the O’Reilly “Effective AWK Programming” book cover)

Goals are a core organizational practice in many organizations and therefore the topic of several blog posts in this publication. From “Goals: connecting strategy and execution”, through “Why setting ambitious goals backfires” and “Goals gone wild”, to “How we align our goals”. 

The challenge with goals is captured beautifully when we look at them through the framework outlined by Donald Sull in the first piece above for the 4 different uses for goals: 

  1. Improve individual performance
  2. Drive strategic alignment
  3. Foster organizational agility
  4. Enable members of a networked organization to self-organize their activities 

#1, in particular, is rife with pitfalls and tends to draw most of the heat when a case against goals is made. Yet if we think about goals less as a target to be hit and more as an intent to align on — it’s clear that they play a critical role in supporting #2. 

More on this here

Abandoning goals altogether is probably a no-go. So how can we shift the way we set and articulate goals to be more supportive of that?

Much as been written about OKRs, the most popular goals structure in use today, and in recent years more nuanced pieces addressed some of the common pitfalls in how phrases and set. For example, avoiding the “OKR cascade”. However, none, that I know of, have suggested any changes to the OKR structure. Which is what I’m intending to do today. 

If we intend to use OKRs primarily as an alignment mechanism, the structural gap becomes clear: the “objective” describes the goal that we’re working towards, but it doesn’t connect it to the broader strategy. It doesn’t help answer the most meaningful question that a conversation should be centered around: 

Why is this goal the best thing you could do to advance our strategy?  

It is in answering this question that the biggest assumptions and interpretations are being made and the risk of meaningful misalignment is highest. Yet, we leave the answer to that question implicit, hoping that all parties involved are skilled enough to uncover it on their own. 

No more. Introducing: OWKRs. 

A small, but meaningful tweak to the traditional OKR structure: 

  • Objective
  • Why? (new) — a short (2–3 sentences) explanation of why this goal is the best thing that you could do to advance the strategy. 
  • Key Results 

My hypothesis is that making the “Why?” explicit in the structure will shift the focus of the O(W)KR setting conversation to discussing the underlying assumptions in selecting the objective and catching any critical misalignments sooner. 

And as a bonus point, OWKR is an anagram for “work”… 🙂 

OWKRs (not a typo)

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