July 11, 2022
One of the things about Silicon Valley culture is the obsession around the technology that gets created and the idea of the engineer as the hero of the story. You see the same kind of thing with other professions — like with finance executives in New York, celebrities in Hollywood, or firefighters and police officers in different areas across the US.
When these proverbial heroes become the leaders of a company, as many engineers do in Silicon Valley, it’s natural that they take their work culture with them. Oftentimes at the early stages of software companies, you end up working with a bunch of other engineers, so the engineering culture fits perfectly for everyone. As the company grows and people are brought on to fill more diverse roles, you need to adapt the culture to fit the increasing number of non-engineers that join your team. OKRs illustrate this need perfectly.
As we may all know by now, Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is a system for setting goals that involve mapping out exactly where you want to go with your team, department, or organization and then figuring out how exactly you’ll get there. You usually set quarterly goals, which are often ambitious by design.
If you’re an engineer or used to working with OKRs, the idea seems simple — set lofty goals, achieve some nonzero percentage of them, celebrate, and repeat. Engineers can walk into a meeting and be ecstatic about sharing the fact that they were able to burn through 70% of the backlog they said they would. In fact, they usually say something like, “Holy shit. I can’t believe we managed. That was amazing!”
This is partially due to the nature of OKRs, but also because in engineering culture, every resource is always overloaded. There are way more things to do than can really get done — there’s always too much demand, never enough capacity, and nothing is ever 100% finished because the backlog is actually infinite. So as a product person or an engineering person, you just live with the fact that to achieve something you’re just gonna chip away at it a little bit at a time, break it down into epics and stories and set goals for how far you want to get, but then be okay with not quite getting that far. You can be happy with how far you came because you set this big, hairy, audacious goal, and got way more of it accomplished than you actually anticipated.
Spoiler alert: they don’t. Humans have been conditioned since childhood to set goals in order to achieve them, not come semi-close to achieving them. Think about how you felt when you brought home a test or report card with a 70% score on it, or how you feel about it now if your child does. If you’re lucky you’d get commended for your effort, but at minimum, there would be some encouragement to improve your scores the next time around.
This same mindset follows adults into meetings at work. If you set inflated goals for your sales, marketing, legal, ops, or finance departments and they aren’t able to achieve them, they will show up to performance reviews and default to apologizing for their poor performance instead of being happy with how close they got. They’re used to aiming for near 100% or more, so any significant deviation from the goal equates to failure in their minds. Long term, this strategy is not good for the morale of your employees or the future of your organization.
It’s important to realize that the things that have worked in the past for you or work for certain departments don’t always work for everyone. In this case, OKRs probably only work for a specific subset of people. There’s nothing wrong with adopting this framework if it actually works for everyone involved, but first, you need to determine if it does.
Call it whatever you want, but all performance management frameworks essentially look the same. You set a goal, figure out what to measure against it, regularly measure those things, and then at some point in the future decide whether it’s complete or needs to be adjusted — then just rinse and repeat. We do believe in SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) goals, but beyond that it’s really just about having some high level goals and then breaking them down into smaller goals for each department. We tried OKRs last year and everyone hated it, so we’re focusing on keeping it simple.
The answer to the question of whether or not OKRs are going to work for you really comes down to a few simple things — what kind of place you want to work and how you feel about success and achieving goals. We want to try to meet employees where they’re at. Engineering culture isn’t always the right culture. OKRs work great for engineers, but we’re going to run the rest of the company the way they taught you in school: set goals, and then go achieve them. If this environment sounds refreshing to you, come join us!