The Internal Debate Around Implementing OKRs and Making a Big Change

Weighing concerns about change with aspirations for your work

Sponsored by

Hey folks, 

Q2 is now in gear. I managed to get away with my family for a quick vacation last week, which helped kick off the new quarter with a bit of a breather. Though I got right back to it this week with Jeff Patton, teaching our in-person scrum product ownership course in Barcelona. It was a jam-packed couple of days, and we had a blast (we think the attendees did too 🤞🏻). 

Now, it’s all eyes on OKRs. I hear from a lot of people the concerns they have around OKRs, and how much they wonder about whether or not it’s actually worth it to implement a whole new way of working. I understand the concerns for sure. In this newsletter, I talk about where those fears come from, and how the OKRs can actually bridge the gap between people’s concerns with big change and their aspirations for greater success and value delivery. 

Let’s get to it.

- Jeff

Article: The Internal Debate Around Implementing OKRs and Making a Big Change

People have a lot of concerns when they think about starting to work with any new process or system, and that certainly holds true with OKRs. Starting something new—especially something that could bring about significant change in an organization—kicks fear into high gear. But there are obviously reasons a lot of teams and organizations use OKRs.

So, how do you decide if making the change is worth it for your organization? 

Look at your concerns about the change compared against your aspirations for your work and how using OKRs could, or could not, help you achieve those aspirations. In fact, let me do it for you…

The concerns

If you think about it from a leader’s perspective, leaders fear the risk involved with company-wide change. They think about all the steps and people in the system that they’ll have to get on board—managers who will have to be re-trained to a new way of working, followed by their team members, and departments and teams that may resist or even revolt. Some of this is because change is inherently risky. Some of the fear, though, is due to a lack of understanding of the value that implementing OKRs brings. They hear that everyone is doing it, so it feels like the bandwagon is pulling them in that direction…but they don’t really know why they should.

Looking at it from the team’s perspective, the directive to implement OKRs can sound like leaders just following the latest trend or the new obsession. It feels like another box to tick, or tool to add to the toolbox. Ultimately, they think nothing material is going to change. We tried this before with Agile, and it was a mess. Why rebrand goals as OKRs just to be “in vogue”? 

Beyond that, people and organizations have bigger concerns about how much time they expect implementing a new framework top to bottom will take. The overwhelming question behind all of these concerns is, Is it really worth it?

The aspirations

At the same time that folks have concerns about making a big change to OKRs, they also have deep desires for their work.

Leaders want their teams and results to improve. They want to get to market faster. They want their teams to be able to respond to changes in the market more efficiently and effectively. They want to get to know their customers better—and be able to keep knowing their customers better and better over time. And they want to reduce waste; the less time and resources they can spend on things that don’t work, the better. 

Teams also have distinct desires. They want to work on solutions for customers that are actually useful to them—they don’t want to waste time or resources just as much as their leaders don’t want them to. They want to feel like they’re making a difference, and that they’re valued for the skills they bring to the organization.

The question that tugs from these aspirations is…

Can OKRs actually help us deliver value and do meaningful work?

Well, yeah. They can. In pretty massive ways—and in a lot less time than people often think.

Here are the top-line bullet points: 

  • OKRs focus your work entirely on your customers by making outcomes—customer behavior change that drives value (for you and for them)—your goals.

  • OKRs require that you collect and analyze feedback from your customers and do customer research so that you keep the pulse of what they want and need all the time. That means not only collecting data on the things you’re already doing and in the places you can consistently track, but also running experiments with possible solutions and products so that you can test their value first.

  • As a result, you only work on the things that prove, through data and feedback, to be meaningful to your customers and you can change gears as soon as the feedback tells you those things aren’t doing what you need them to do. All of which means that people’s work really makes a difference and they don’t spend excess time on things that don’t.

  • Because you’re monitoring the efficacy of your work and the reactions and behaviors of your customers consistently with OKRs, they also allow you to bring valuable products to market faster. 

These are big-ticket items. That OKRs can help teams and orgs deliver on all these fronts is a pretty compelling case to implement the change. But there’s one more key point to address.

You don’t have to change everything everywhere all at once

Like I said at the top, change is hard. Big change is risky. That is true even when changing to a framework like OKRs, which proves its value pretty fast. I get that. But another beautiful thing about OKRs is that you don’t have to implement this new way of working at scale right away. OKRs rely on running experiments to test your solutions and ideas, so implementing OKRs is distinctly well-suited to be an experiment itself. Start small with one team, then a few; rack up some wins, and prove the model first—before making a bigger, organization-wide change. You can start seeing value quickly without having to wait for your entire organization to learn the ropes.

Just as your customer’s problems and needs change, so will your organization’s problems and needs regarding OKRs change as you scale their use. That’s OK. You’ll discover those problems and needs as you get there. Until then, you can start making real, meaningful changes right away and see real, meaningful changes in your team’s and organization’s success.

Still don’t believe me? Read the new book. I think you’ll believe me then.

What’s new on the blog

Why Is It So Hard to Admit There’s Uncertainty in Our Work? â€“ Certainty is comfortable. Uncertainty is reality. Why can't we admit that and deal with it head on? Because we see uncertainty as incompetence, or because we still manage teams as if we’re all manufacturers? Technology keeps improving, helping us sense and respond to changes in our market more quickly, yet leaders continue to expect prescriptive certainty from the get-go. It’s both risky and foolish—and demoralizing to our teams who know better. More on why and how to embrace uncertainty on the blog.

The Mysterious Case of Executive Buy-In for OKRs â€“ Experiencing some executive pushback to OKRs? You’re not alone. Teams ask how to get executive buy-in for OKRs all the time, which I think is odd because OKRs aren’t some specialized thing for one specific team or discipline. They’re an org-wide approach to setting goals and aligning work. They should, and often do, originate from executives. In this blog post, I look at the reasons for executives’ hesitation as well as what teams can do to soften their resistance.


or to participate.