Why implementing individual goals is the wrong decision for top-performing teams
Organizations new to the OKR process can easily get mired in complexity by trying to do too much at once. For that reason and more, Koan recommends against implementing individual goals. Instead, focus on the company, departmental and team goals. Below we’ll dig into why individual OKRs are the wrong choice for high-performing teams.
Individual OKRs drive complexity without the corresponding value
Setting Objectives and Key Results can be an overwhelming process if not managed carefully. In particular, it’s easy to end up with too many goals. Even when you do manage to avoid the “too many goals” trap, there are still important questions to ask that can make the planning process complex:
Where do goals overlap? Are there opportunities to align efforts between similar goals? Do any of these goals conflict with one another?
Do we have the resources to get all this done? What do we need to cut?
Are these key results too easy to achieve, too hard?
Individual OKRs multiply the number of conversations that need to be had, and make sorting out conflicts or resourcing challenges is even more challenging.
Post-planning, individual OKRs create a heap more goals than we would have otherwise. Now the process of checking in on progress is more complex; partly due to the scale of the problem and partly because reviewing goals at the team level has a natural place in staff meetings while individual goals don’t have that same natural forum. Finally, there’s the pragmatic reality that meaningful initiatives are rarely driven by individuals. We succeed or fail as teams, and modeling our goals that way is much more natural.
One important note: naming an individual to lead each team goal (with a corresponding set of contributors) is a best practice and fosters accountability in a positive way, without all the downsides of Individual OKRs.
Individual OKRs can easily run counter to alignment
One of the primary values of OKRs is how they drive alignment throughout an organization. Individual OKRs can harm alignment in the following ways:
In extreme cases, individuals may decide to put accomplishing their personal goals ahead of team or company level objectives, especially when those goals are tied to compensation.
Individual goals discourage collaborative efforts. As a team, it’s pretty straightforward to decide to put aside some team goals in order to focus on other goals that are more important. That’s a much more challenging negotiation when individual OKRs are in the mix.
With individual OKRs, there’s simply too much stuff for everyone to keep straight in their heads. That means everyone will be more likely to work in a silo and not be paying attention to what’s happening in the team, as well as around the rest of the organization.
Some organizations choose to keep individual OKRs private to an employee and their manager, explicitly working against transparency and alignment. Private goals also make resourcing discussions much more difficult.
It’s too tempting to mix Individual OKRs with performance management
We all do our best work when we feel intrinsically motivated. Daniel Pink writes in his book Drive about what modern research has shown about increasing performance and satisfaction: that the “carrot and stick” approach fails and that the best way to manage employees is by fostering autonomy, mastery and purpose. OKRs can be an amazing tool to help unlock intrinsic motivation and help teams work with purpose. Unfortunately, linking Individual OKRs to performance management practices can cause the opposite:
When companies explicitly link goal attainment to compensation and promotions, those extrinsic rewards can actually hamper intrinsic motivation. Additionally, Individual OKRs often end up looking like a list of tasks for employees, robbing them of autonomy.
Individual goals tied to performance management discourage stretching for excellence. Instead, employees will negotiate to lower the bar since their compensation may be at risk.
Personal development goals have their place and can be an effective tool between a manager and an employee. However, it’s often awkward to write them as OKRs. Further, the weekly cadence you use for OKRs to run the team or business is very different vs. the quarterly or semi-annual check-ins that are appropriate for personal development goals.
Though every organization is different, practical experience and research bears out that Individual OKRs most often do more harm than good. You’ll get the most value out of forgoing them in favor of focusing on team, departmental and company goals.