On the Gift of OKR for Company Culture

Published on March 21, 2024, filed under (RSS feed for all categories).

I’m a huge fan of objectives and key results (OKR). I’ve been using them since 2008, when I started working for Google and where I learned the ropes; I have worked with them personally; and I used (or introduced) them at every company I worked for since.

Why I like OKR so much may be surprising though. Maybe not for you, certainly not for everyone; but I’ve met plenty of people over time who didn’t appreciate about OKR what I appreciate about them. (In the end, some people don’t appreciate OKR at all!)

But what is it that I appreciate? It’s their guiding and reinforcing impact on company culture. Assuming they’re used more or less appropriately, this happens in three ways:

1. Aspiration

First, it’s the general aspiration that OKR come with. Doing good work, aiming a little higher. Stretch goals. (Consistently reaching “100%” as a red flag.)

Growth. Quality. Process.

Aspiration needs to be kept in a healthy spot. It needs to be managed. But that’s culture—it relies on efforts to balance and manage.

2. Candor

Then, OKR require to be candid. Not only about the goals and its parts, that is, objectives and key results. But also about the outcome.

Were we really ambitious. Did we really put everything behind it. Did we really accomplish all we had in mind—letter and spirit.

This gets even more important when OKR hadn’t been written well—which, in my experience, happens all the time, on all levels.

Candor is key for OKR. They’re the beauty of OKR. Sit around the table, sit in front of the light-emitting rectangle, confess. Then, learn. Similar to RCAs/PMAs/COEs. Culture that blamelessly aims to grow.

3. Accountability

Furthermore, OKR want to be owned. By the team. By the individual. By the contributors. By the leads. By the stakeholders.

OKR cannot not be owned. OKR support ownership. Ownership supports responsibility. Responsibility supports accountability.

Did we work on this. Did we invest in this. Did we do enough on this.

If yes, very nice. If no, what are we going to learn, what are we going to change.

❧ As culture is being shaped by our conduct, and OKR require a certain (googley?) conduct, they must influence culture. If they do so in a positive way, they must also be a positive tool. But enough of this dramatic poetry, about the gift of OKR for our companies’ cultures.

One of the greatest books on OKR is Christina Wodtke’s Introduction to OKRs (2016). The book isn’t only great, it’s also short and free—dBooks seems to have the originally O’Reilly-provided PDF.

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google and as an engineering manager for companies like Miro, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma.

With my current move to Spain, I’m open to a new remote frontend leadership position. Feel free to review and refer my CV or LinkedIn profile.

I love trying things, not only in web development, but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.