Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) presents a common dilemma for many teams: the misconception that a higher quantity of OKRs equates to enhanced progress. This belief often leads to what can be described as an “OKR glut,” where the accumulation of too many objectives undermines effectiveness rather than bolstering it. My journey as a product strategy and discovery coach has repeatedly highlighted the adverse effects of OKR surplus.

The effectiveness of OKRs is not proportional to their quantity. Instead, a minimalist approach is more beneficial, with the ideal number of OKRs per team being surprisingly limited to one to three. Beyond this threshold, the focus becomes fragmented, and the path to progress cluttered.

The Genesis of Excessive OKRs

The root cause of OKR proliferation is often a fundamental misinterpretation of their purpose. OKRs are not merely tasks to be completed; they are strategic markers that guide your team toward realizing your product vision. Misalignment or misinterpretation of OKRs transforms them from achievable goals into lofty, unreachable ideals.

The setting of OKRs often unfolds in brainstorming sessions that, despite good intentions, lead to an overflow of objectives that may only be tangentially related to the team’s core mission or, in some cases, entirely off-mark. This issue signals a deeper problem: a lack of strategic focus.

The Pitfall of Prioritization

Prioritization is frequently touted as a remedy for an excess of OKRs. However, prioritizing a flawed set of objectives is akin to treating the symptoms rather than the disease. True prioritization requires an intimate understanding of the team’s strategic challenges, which is often absent.

Having too many OKRs isn’t a sign that your team needs better prioritization; it’s a sign that your team lacks a clear, cohesive strategy. This is a diagnosis problem, not a prioritization problem. Just as a doctor diagnoses an illness before prescribing treatment, a team must diagnose its strategic needs before setting OKRs.

The Essence of the Problem: Strategic Misalignment

The fundamental issue with OKR misuse lies in a misunderstanding: OKRs are meant to facilitate strategy execution, not act as a stand-in for strategy. A solid product strategy clearly defines your competitive landscape and your strategy for success. Without this strategic foundation, OKR setting is likely to falter.

Steering Clear of Common Missteps

A prevalent error is conflating OKRs with specific plans or initiatives. This conflation detracts from the strategic intent of OKRs, leading to a cluttered objective landscape that deviates from the overarching product strategy.

The ‘Business as Usual’ OKR Misconception

OKRs should be reserved for strategic endeavors that significantly move the business or product forward. They are not meant to catalog routine operations. While daily operations are crucial, they should not dominate your OKR list.

Crafting Strategic OKRs

For teams struggling to align their OKRs with a clear strategy, the ‘Kernel of Strategy’ framework by Richard Rumelt offers a practical solution. This method ensures that OKRs are strategic and limited in number, facilitating manageability and focus.

Implementing the Framework

Rumelt’s framework involves pinpointing a challenge, diagnosing it, formulating a guiding policy, and undertaking coherent actions. This structured approach aids in bridging the gap between strategy formulation and OKR setting.

Overcoming the ‘Just a Delivery Team’ Mindset

Teams that perceive themselves as mere executors can still formulate strategic OKRs by focusing on unique challenges and opportunities within their sphere. Shifting this perspective enables the creation of meaningful OKRs that align with broader organizational objectives while addressing specific team-level challenges.

Assessing the Adequate Number of OKRs

Adhering to a range of one to three OKRs per team helps ensure that each objective is impactful and manageable. This guideline is designed to maintain strategic clarity and operational efficiency, preventing the dilution of focus and resources.

In Summary

The adage “less is more” is particularly apt when it comes to OKR setting. An overabundance of objectives can obscure strategic vision and impede progress. By understanding and avoiding common traps, teams can ensure their OKRs remain aligned with their product strategy, thereby maximizing their effectiveness and advancing their most critical goals.

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