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There’s a lot of talk about “Individual OKRs” on the internet. Some companies that have adopted OKR are discussing whether or not to “go down to the individual level”. You can ignore all these discussions, ‘cause Individual OKRs just aren’t a thing. I’ll explain why.
There are two types of Objectives: those that provide direction, and those that need to be executed.
Directional Objectives put a dot on the horizon so that everyone understands where to go. These Objectives have a time span of at least one year. If they were shorter term, like quarterly, the ride would be erratic. Try to ride a bike while looking only 2 meters ahead of you, and you’ll understand what I mean.
Your strategy, your 3-5 year Objectives, as well as your annual Objectives for 2022, are all directional Objectives. No one works on them directly, their aim is to provide direction to the organization. Because of this, people often call these “company OKRs” or OKRs on the “company level”.
Executable Objectives should be aligned with directional Objectives. They push you in the right direction. They drive the progress on your directional Objectives. These are the Objectives that people in your organization will actually be working on.
Because people need to work on them directly, they must be short-term (ie, max quarterly). If they were longer than a quarter, you’d be making it unnecessarily hard for your people to work on them. For example, a 5-year strategic Objective doesn’t really help you decide what to focus on today or this week.
People often refer to executable OKRs as team or individual OKRs.
Why Individual OKRs aren’t a thing
Once you’ve figured out what the right executable Objectives to focus on are, you need to be sure that everything is being done to achieve them. To guarantee this, you need to do two simple things:
- Make someone responsible (ie, assign a lead).
- Keep that person accountable (eg, review progress in a 1on1).
Only one person can be responsible. As the saying goes: if multiple people are responsible, no one is. When multiple people are responsible, things become chaotic. In other words: there can only be one lead for an Objective.
Even though there can only be one lead for an OKR, that doesn’t mean that the lead is the only person working on it. In most cases, the lead will need the help of several others to complete Initiatives that will (hopefully) drive progress for the OKR. The people that work on those Initiatives are the contributors.
It’s possible, of course, that one person achieves the OKR all by themselves. This often happens in smaller organizations. If it happens in larger organizations, it can only have two causes:
- The organization is using OKR for people performance management (a terrible mistake — OKR is about the organization, not about an individual employee).
- The OKRs are tasks and/or so small in scope, that every employee ends up leading one to three (which creates a huge and unnecessary administrative burden, and is also why Spotify and many others abandoned them).
A final note on contributors
Contributors are your most important asset. These are the people that actually put in all the work to achieve an OKR.
A group of contributors will naturally form itself around an OKR. The OKR itself, will make clear who is needed to achieve it. When your contributors all come from one team, you have a functional OKR. When contributors come from different teams, the OKR can be called cross-functional.