OKR is a leadership exercise

Last week, we attended 2 events related to OKR. In GlintsTalk, Product Narrative shared about our learning points as OKR coaches (covered in our newsletter #18) and another speaker how his company had benefitted from OKR. In the second event Executive Briefing: Goal Setting, Practical Session using OKR, the speakers introduced OKR basics and facilitated a feedback session for the audience to experience coming up with their own OKR.

Apart from the OKR topic, both events shared another thing in common: Human Resources* (HR) as their main target audience.

*We use the term Human Resources (HR) here as it was referred to in the events. We acknowledge there’s an intention in the industry to shift from Human Resources to another name e.g. Human Capital (HC) or People Ops. We have also noticed the evolution of the respective title: Chief Happiness Officer, Chief of Human Capital, VP of People Operations.

Looking at the turnout and the attendants’ engagement level, we sensed that there is a healthy dose of interest in the industry to find proven ways to create and support company alignment. We’re glad to find the HR professionals were there to learn about OKR and perhaps evaluate whether it’s fitting for their organization.

Having said that, we thought we’d like to share the following points.

OKR is a leadership exercise. It should not be treated as a mere HR exercise.

In Measure What Matters, John Doerr’s examples of successful OKR implementation all have one thing in common: the leaders own it and make themselves accountable for it. From Chrome’s audacious goal to reach 111 million seven-day active users to Gates Foundation’s 2016 goal to eradicate malaria globally, the ownership that leads to successful OKR had always started from the very top.

If the leadership team relied upon HR to implement OKR but granted less than full support, it will most likely fail.

Full support here means doing the same things you, as leaders, had asked others to do. For example, if you had asked your employees to consistently do their OKR cadence, you should do the same with your cadence. Since each employee in your company makes his or her OKR publicly accessible, you should do the same.

Once you deviate from this expectation, especially because you thought you can do so because you’re the CEO (or as another C-level or high-rank individual), you’re essentially reducing your chance of success.

Successful OKR implementation is the top leadership’s responsibility, not HR’s.

Whether you will successfully adopt OKR is not a result of how good your HR can explain what OKR is or how it should be done. It is not about whether all of your employees have read Doerr’s book or other good materials about OKR. It depends on the leadership mindset: how your leaders set clear goals and measurable outcomes, and make each respective party do the same and be accountable for it. It is about the actions the leaders do to fulfill this responsibility.


We hope the HR professionals we saw in the crowd were there because their top leaders themselves already understood what OKR is and how it could benefit their organization. Not the other way around, in which their leaders had assigned HR to make OKR work as the prerequisite for their full support. The latter usually has a really slim chance, if at all, for success.


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