More than a decade of grousing about product management

OKRs, a management cop-out

man teaching woman in front of monitor
Photo by Jonathan Borba on

OKRs: A management cop-out? Short-term focus, political career climbing, and neglecting legacy business.

The Dude now works for an Objective, Key Results (OKR) organization. It is both new, yet not new, more of a formalization and codification of how things have been done.

In some ways it is cool. There are tools, the team(s) are engaged, and progress does happen.

In fact, it is an effective way to make a small-ish business unit behave more nimbly, and set short term goals that can be met with a common focus.

However, the Dude, as you have come to expect, has some criticisms.

To start with, the Dude’s organization has about 650 people (and a bit north of 100K total employees in the whole company). The group we merged with who brought in the OKR discipline had about 80 people before the re-org.

With those facts in mind, here are the Dude’s observations:

  • The OKR’s trade long term strategy for short, transactional activities that motivate the organization
  • The OKR’s provide a way for political career ladder climbers to pick and choose their expenditure of capital to best ride the wave up
  • The OKR’s indirectly, and the leadership of cronies directly, are starving large swaths of the org of oxygen
  • If your domain isn’t “sexy” enough to be covered by the main OKR’s (and we have like 80 of them), then you are out of luck. You just “run the business”

OKR’s replace Strategic Planning

The one thing the Dude is beginning to hate about the OKR leadership is that OKR’s have formally replaced strategic planning.

Sure, classic strategic planning, the weeks every summer spent crafting a plan, looking at the longer horizon, figuring out what we are going to be when we grow up often seemed like an exercise in futility, to butt up against reality at the first crisis.

But, its value was the executive team communicating what they expected the business to do. It was a roadmap, and a recipe to (sort of) follow. In that sense, it gave us a couple levels down something we could use as a dowsing rod in the pursuit of division or corporate goals.

But OKR’s are different. Sure, the objectives can be big enough to last more than a quarter, but the idea that it had to have the key results that are short horizon. Or dozens of key results. Each spinning off a team to work on.

Efficient? The Dude will grant that, it is a focusing exercise, that can direct a lot of attention on important facets of a problem or goal.

But they lack the longer term vision. The “Where are we going” course setting. In essence, the OKRs are Agile for business. There is the “now” and the “next”, but the future? Who the fuck cares about that?

When you are a startup, this works, when you are in a crisis, this works – usually, but as a long term planning stratagem? It leaves you (or, more importantly, the organization) wanting.

The Dude supposes that OKRs and traditional 3-5 year horizon strategic planning can co-exist, and they probably do, quite well, if you use OKRs to plot the course against your plan.

But if you ditch the heavy lift of the longer horizon strategic plan, replace it with OKRs, you have just built an organization that lives in the here and now.


Ladder Climbing and OKRs

A savvy employee can survey the field of OKR’s and sub KRs and pick those that will feather their cap. And there always are high visibility, high rewards sub objectives that can be rocket fuel for an ambitious person’s career.

While this cherry picking of projects isn’t rife, it does happen, and the patterns emerge.

The best of the cherry pickers is cunning, they “lead” an effort for a KR, but groom someone else to step in (almost always with subterfuge) so that when the opportunity to jump to another high reward team appears, they hand the reins to their protege and then never look back.

Yes, it is skeevy, but it is effective, and you can climb the ladder without ever having to actually deliver any result except the appearance of being effective.

Crafty, and in a way something to stand back and admire.

(The Dude often gets left holding the bag of the shit that goes wrong, so he is more than a little peeved by this pattern of behavior)

Senior Management realizes that their OKRs encourage this behavior, but instead of attempting to curtail it, they actually encourage it. It is almost as if they want a rising crowd of toadying acolytes. Weird.

OKRs starving the beast

In a small organization, with limited resources, there is little doubt that OKRs are focusing exercises, ensuring that the hive mind is moving in the right direction.

In a large organization, it can also be a net positive, a way to foster or incubate innovative efforts, and encourage experimentation and exploration.

The problem is what to do with the “legacy” business? You know, all that work, product development that isn’t sexy, that actually PAYS YOUR SALARIES?

Yeah, that gets starved of resources. Updates dwindle, revenues decline. New, OKR driven programs take longer than projected to ramp up, or their revenue growth is a fraction of what you are losing in your main line businesses.

This is the biggest failure. Unless you carve out some fraction of your resource pool to toss at this “run the business”, that not a priority enough to justify an OKR, your business is going to suffer. And suffer bad.

Clearly not a reason to not use OKRs as a focusing exercise, but senior leadership needs to balance the “new and exciting” with the “old and mundane” to prevent tanking revenue, and thus reducing the resources to do more “new and exciting” things.

This is a death spiral. And the Dude is seeing some desperation in the OKR teams to pull in the ramps, to increase revenue, to accelerate business growth with the new. Admirable, but unless we are like Apple, where people line up around the block to buy the new iPhone on launch day, not likely to have the quick effect desired.

OKRs are not for everything

What if your niche in the org is not big enough visibility, or if it is well defined, understood, and just operates?

Do you invent OKRs to play the game, forcing some petty bullshit metrics to play nicely with others?

Or, do you just do your job, and drive value over and over to the organization without drama or fuss?

Sadly, the latter choice is the path to irrelevance, and the temptation to perturb the system is great, so you try to play the OKR game. But leadership will likely not give one iota of a damn. Your business isn’t sexy, it isn’t hip, and growth in a stable state is monotonous, in the low (but consistent) single digits.

It is hard to not feel left out, but the Dude takes pride in keeping the lights on, providing free cash flow for the exec’s “pets” to play with, and to pay his mortgage.


It is probably that you are taking away from this post that the Dude is anti-OKR. That is not true, OKR’s are the modern incarnation of a longstanding management philosophy that was called “management by objective.” OKR’s are presented as a fait accompli, a miracle team motivation methodologies, and while it has brought some new terminology, and tools to foster cross-functional collaboration and cooperation, they are not miracles.

In larger organizations they can be an awkward fit, especially for organization wide OKRs that expand towards the absurd (an objective with 20+ key results is not really a mere objective)

The Dude is a believer, but he merely considers OKRs a tool in the tool box. Not the only tool, and not universally applicable.

As always, YMMV. Catch you in the bar for the post work cocktail!

Written by

A crusty veteran from the product management trenches. Plenty of salty language, references to cannabis, and a connoisseur of White Russian cocktails

View all articles
Leave a reply

Written by pmdude