Adopting OKRs can sometimes begin with premature sense of clarity. After all, what’s more natural to leaders than to boldly shape a new vision of change? And if it just a format or a process the leader is looking to adopt, the perceived ambiguity is minimal. Yet too often these youthful naive expectations meet the harsh reality of how difficult focus and alignment really are.
The “OKR Wall”, somewhat similar to the “Runner’s Wall” when a group of leaders adopting OKRs learns enough to realize that behind the simple format, a ton of hard work and potential conflicts are involved. As a famous consulting firm puts it “The alignment IS the work”. It is often in those very moments that some true leaders are tested and other new leaders emerge. It is when the general knowledge (that seems so simple) is practically applied to a complex messy context (that is your organization) that only a true leader can overcome the inherent ambiguity.
This article is part of a larger series: Ten Most Important OKR Accelerators
This is precisely why OKRs ARE so effective: They push courageous leaders into the fog of ambiguity and guide them to victory. But OKRs are just tools. Leaders follow other leaders. And when the ambiguity is thick and dark, only the courage and confidence of others allows us to persist and persevere to the finish line.
Interestingly enough, there is a common pattern that organizations experience when adopting OKRs over 3-7 (sometimes even 10) years:
- Stage 1: Learning the new way by copying the old way
- Stage 2: Practice awakes insights and epiphanies to form better OKRs
- Stage 3: Changing from cascading down to collaborative OKRs for true vertical alignment
- Stage 4: Hitting the stride with OKRs and leaping walls
- Stage 5: Innovating & evolving pass the OKRs into org-specific practices
Most companies that abandon OKRs, do it between Stage 1 and 2 where initial excitement and buy-in fizzes out yet significant benefits are in stage 3 and 4 (sometimes not yet visible). That’s precisely where a trusted leader is needed to guide through and within the ambiguity and unknowns. Without this leader, most companies will remain at earlier stages or abandon altogether.
Unfortunately, some organizations hire and grow leaders that are risk adverse. In this scenario, OKR process is methodically documented (not experimented) and any ambiguity is placed on shoulders of “one throat to choke” person so others can comfortably sleep at night. And yes, even in these scenarios OKRs can provide value through focus and alignment.
Yet there is a better way: Embrace the unknown of how to adopt this approach and accept the “bumpy ride”. Allow for opportunities to learn and pivot as OKRs are adopted. And most importantly, trust your leaders that can see and have seen what’s at stage 3 and 4.
Of course having an experienced OKR consultant partnering and supporting the change leader can help you advance through these stages much faster.
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