Should HR Enforce OKRs?

No, they shouldn’t. Here’s why—and a look at who should.

Hey folks, 

I’ve spent a couple of recent newsletters discussing the role of human resources departments in organizations using OKRs. I first looked at whether or not HR teams should use OKRs (they should), and then at how HR teams should incorporate OKRs into performance management (I don’t know for sure, but I have some ideas). This week, I want to discuss whether or not HR should be the ones enforcing OKRs…and if not, who should.

HR readers, I’m very curious to hear your take. What’s your experience been with OKRs? What have your leaders expected, and what have you learned about operating with the framework and your role within it?

And for those of you not in HR but working with OKRs, I’d love to know who holds you accountable for your OKRs. 

I know most people won’t, but would you hit reply and share your story with me? I’d love to hear from you. 

- Jeff

P.S. I just created a FREE, 5-day email course called The OKR Repair Kit. If you know someone who could use it, would you share this link with them please?

P.P.S. Happy Mother’s Day to all moms out there!

Article: Should HR Enforce OKRs?

I’m going to cut to the chase here. HR teams should not enforce OKRs. 

Great. Now that that’s settled…let’s talk about who should enforce OKRs, why it shouldn’t be HR, and what that enforcement should look like. 

Who should enforce OKRs

OKRs are a team-based, goal-setting framework focused on improving customer behavior. They work best when teams get to set their own OKRs. After all, each department has its own focus area, and each team within that department has its own expertise. While they have stakeholders outside of their team or department—and possibly other dependent teams or parties as well—it’s the individual teams themselves who have the best idea of what they can accomplish in their work and what their customers want and don’t want, what works and what doesn’t. They also have the best ability to learn which new ideas for their work can or can’t be effective because they have the means to test and learn from their customers the fastest. 

So, the people who should enforce OKRs are the people to whom each team or department reports—the supervisors who also have domain expertise, knowledge of the team’s work, and established relationships with them.

Why HR should NOT enforce OKRs

HR teams are not those people. For instance, HR teams aren’t fully aware of the nuances of a software developer’s job. They don’t have the experience negotiating intellectual property contracts that legal counsel does. Nor are they keeping track of daily ad performance and audience engagement on social media like the marketing and analytics teams do. So, they shouldn’t be the ones overseeing the engineering, legal, or marketing and analytics teams’ OKRs; that job should go to the head of the engineering, legal, and marketing and analytics teams’ departments. 

HR definitely does know about their job, though. And as I explained in a previous newsletter, they certainly should use OKRs. The head of HR should enforce the OKRs for the HR team—but not for more teams than that.

This idea that HR teams should be the ones enforcing OKRs org-wide doesn’t come from nowhere, however. People often make that assumption initially because we’re used to assessing teams’ and individuals’ performance based on whether or not they’ve achieved their goals. And assessing performance is part of HR’s job. Is this team member hitting their numbers? Are they delivering on the goals they’ve set? Are they helping the company achieve its growth targets? These are the questions HR often asks for performance reviews, and since OKRs are a goal-setting framework, it makes sense that people would initially make the parallel.

The thing is, OKRs aren’t your standard goal-setting framework that targets outputs. They target outcomes. And when you target outcomes, you don’t know what the outputs are that will get you to your end goals. For OKRs to work well, teams need to be able to test and pivot. And they shouldn’t be afraid of changing gears when the data shows that their current work isn’t working. But all that tends to fly in the face of standard performance management criteria. So, when organizations start using OKRs, they often forget—or at least they don’t realize right away—that their performance management criteria needs to change as does their approach to assessing and enforcing progress on teams’ goals.

So, if it’s the heads of departments and teams that do the enforcing, what does that enforcement look like?

What it means to “enforce” OKRs 

It comes back to the OKR cycle, which includes quarterly check-ins for each team on their work and OKR progress for that quarter with their supervisors. These check-ins require the humility to accept that a team may not hit a key result that cycle, in which case the leader—or, for the purposes of this article, the enforcer—needs to help the team decide how to proceed. They don’t tell them what to do and prescribe solutions, because that’s not a part of this process. They help them make decisions based on what the team has learned through their work and what they, the team, recommend as a result.

Enforcement is needed, just in the right way

All of this brings us to an important conclusion that shouldn’t be missed: Someone does need to enforce OKRs. You can’t just set em and forget em, otherwise what’s the point of setting them in the first place? For OKRs to work—and they can be quite powerful when done well—there needs to be accountability. Each team should have someone checking in regularly, reviewing the data from their work in that period, and helping them make decisions about where to take their work next based on the data. And when the team has stalled, is no longer learning enough from their current tests and experiments, and/or can’t figure out how to hit their OKR goals, that same person can help unstick the team and get them moving in a better direction. Ideally, that person has the domain expertise to more explicitly help the team get closer to their OKRs.

All of us need accountability when we’re working toward goals. It makes a whole lot more sense when the person holding us accountable knows the ins and outs of our work and keeps us on track with the process that allows us the best chance of achieving success.

What’s new on the blog

You’re Not Too Busy to Implement OKRs – I promise you’re not. You’re just not willing to stop the feature factory to figure out if you’re actually building the right things. The good news is, you don’t have to stop the entire factory. You can start small, see how implementing OKRs will impact your output, and go from there.

How I Use Storytelling to Influence Without Authority – We’re all at times in the position to influence others at work—whether we want to implement a new program or have a new idea and we need to sell it to our bosses or teams. Some people take an authoritative approach to do this, asserting their expertise or power. But that doesn’t usually help get people truly on board. What does? Telling a good story. How do you do that? I start by figuring out who I’m talking to and speaking their language. In other words, by focusing on my customer.


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