The Single Biggest Myth about MBOs and OKRs

I’m a big believer in written quarterly goals.

The old way to do this was to adopt “management by objective” (MBO) and to write down a set of MBOs for each quarter for each team member.  Most folks would do this either in Word, or if they liked weightings and scores as part of calculating an MBO bonus, Excel.  Over time, larger enterprises adopted HR performance management software to help with managing and tracking those MBOs.  When writing individual objectives, you were advised that they be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound).

Despite best intentions, over time MBOs developed a bad rap for several reasons:

  • People would make too many of them, often drowning in long lists of MBOs
  • Few people could write them well, so would-be SMART objectives ended SQUISH (soft, qualitative, unintelligible, imprecise, slang, and hazy) instead.
  • They were often hard-linked to compensation, encouraging system-gaming

The objective / key result (OKR) system is a more modern take on objective setting popularized by, among others, Google and venture capitalist John Doerr.  OKRs fix some of the key problems with MBOs.

  • A strong guideline to have no more than about 5 OKRs per person to avoid the drowning-in-MBOs problem.
  • Adding a tiny bit of structure (the key results) helps enormously with producing objectives that are specific and measurable.
  • A realistic and intelligently calibrated scoring system whereby 70% is considered a “good” grade.  The defeats a lot of the system gaming.

But, regardless of which system you’re using, you can still hear the following myth from some managers and HR professionals:

“Oh, wait.  The objectives shouldn’t list things in your core job.  They should be the things on top of your core job.”  Sometimes followed by, “who’d want to pay you a bonus just for doing your core job?”

This is just plain wrong.

Let’s make it clear via an example.  Say you’re a first-line technical support person whose job is to answer 20 cases per day.  To ensure you’re not just closing out cases willy-nilly, your company performs a post-case customer satisfaction (CSAT) survey and wants you to maintain a post-case CSAT rating of 4.5 out of 5.0.  In addition, the company wants you to do 6 hours of skills training and write 4 knowledge-base articles per month.

If you live by the myth that says written objectives should be above and beyond your core job then this person should have two quarterly objectives:

  • Write 4 knowledge-base articles per month.
  • Attend 6 hours of skills training per month.

This is simply insanity.  You are going to the trouble of tracking written objectives, but overlooking 90%+ of what this person actually does.  This person needs to have 3 quarterly objectives:

  • Close 100 cases per week with a 4.5+ CSAT rating
  • Write 4 knowledge-base articles per month
  • Attending 6 hours of skills training per month

And if we’re tying these to a bonus, most of the weight needs to be on the first one.

While I know I’ve argued this via reductio ad absurdum, I think it’s the right way to look at it.  If you’re going to track written objectives — by either MBO or OKR — then you should think about you the  entire job scope, be inclusive, and weight them appropriately.

 

One response to “The Single Biggest Myth about MBOs and OKRs

  1. Thoughtful as always! I’d love to hear some thoughts on successful for OKRs for someone whose job is less easily defined, such as a product manager or engineering manager. It’s something I’ve struggled with, particularly questions like, can you separate the performance of the product manager from the product, or the engineering manager from the team. Or should you even attempt to do so?

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