The first step is always the hardest

The first step is the hardest — making commitment to yourself, for yourself — Mary Kay Ash

Greeting resistance

When a company wants to adopt OKR practice, can you guess how many people in the company are excited?

The Sponsor—a leader who is responsible for the success of OKR implementation within the company—is one.

The rest, on the other hand, not so much.

The lack of excitement is usually caused by the perception that OKR is an unknown variable that threatens the status quo they’re familiar with. OKR has the potential to disrupt their rhythm at work. Adopting OKR means:

  1. There’s a chance they have to adjust their meetings
  2. They might actually have to collaborate with each other
  3. Their work (and achievement) might be more visible to their managers and other teams
  4. And, they might even need to adopt a new tool to record our progress at work.

On its own, each of these is enough reason not to be thrilled about OKR. When combined together, however, they almost always create resistance.

Keep in mind that this is based on our assessment, one that we make at the beginning of our clients’ engagement. The assessment is based on our observation: how they react when the Sponsor breaks the news of OKR adoption to them, the (long) silence that follows, the question they ask, etc.

The moment of truth comes when the first OKR cadence rolls in.

For the uninitiated, OKR cadence is a session where participants present their individual OKR and the progress they make. In the first cadence, specifically, the focus is on planning: each participant must determine the outcome they can deliver to support the team or company goals. These outcomes represent their individual OKR and it has to be written in a shared document before the session starts.

Unsurprisingly, some participants chose not to write their OKR. Zero. While explanation—although some call it an excuse—is given as to why that happens, the blank space confirms our assessment: they’re not thrilled to adopt OKR. Their lack of effort indicates just that.

If you’re interested to know what we did in that situation and how it all played out, click here.

Start small — as long as you start

We hope this doesn’t discourage you from adopting OKR or building a new positive habit in your personal or professional lives. Adopting OKR is an example of building a new habit in a team or organization.

Thus, the concept you’ll read next isn’t OKR specifics. It’s meant to be applicable to building organizational habits in general.

It’s almost always expected to encounter resistance at the beginning of OKR implementation. It’s not because of OKR as much as it is about doing something different, especially one they’re not familiar with.

But, you might be wondering: what can we do to overcome this resistance?

One alternative to answer that question is from a habit perspective. When we ask them to adopt OKR practice, we’re actually asking them to form a new habit. In the habit-formation process, the first step might be effortful. The first time going to the gym. The first time taking an online course. The first time doing laundry.

Thus, the trick is to start small. This is especially useful for people who are less enthusiastic about the new habit, including the benefits and other possibilities it may bring. The idea is to overcome their resistance by scaling down the habit.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear provides these examples:

  1. “Run a marathon” becomes “Walk ten thousand steps.”
  2. “Write a book” becomes “Write a thousand words.”
  3. “Get straight As” becomes “Study for three hours.”

How exactly does the scaling down exercise make a habit more attractive to us?

Clear provided his thoughtful assessment on this matter by drawing the connection between a new habit and activation energy. You need to exert a certain amount of energy just to start. The more difficult or complex the new habit is, the higher energy you need to start it.

Take a look at this diagram:

Credit: James Clear

A less difficult new habit requires less activation energy. Psychologically, it also feels less intimidating. Hence, you might be more motivated to start.

For example, starting a new habit of doing 1 pushup per day requires very little energy to get started. You might even say it's very easy to do considering you can accomplish it anytime and anywhere. In contrast, if someone asks you to build a habit of doing 100 pushups per day, you might think twice considering it's more complex (when can you slot in the time to do 100 pushups? Where are you going to do it? Etc.) and it requires higher activation energy. You'll need more motivation, energy, and grit to start a complex habit.

How does this apply to OKR?

In the context of OKR, how can we make it easier for them to start?

A. Focus on one element at a time

OKR consists of 2 elements: Objective and Key Results. Our first suggestion is to focus on one element at a time.

Which one to focus on first?

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. But, usually, we’d ask them to focus on the Key Results (KR) first for 2 reasons:

  • A KR represents the outcome of their responsibilities and most, if not all, individuals know what their responsibilities are. They just need help in writing it as a KR.
  • An Objective represents their aspiration or the impact they’d like to create after all their KRs are achieved. This requires more time to discover because oftentimes than not, they’d say it’s because their manager (or CEO) told them to. There’s little to no sense of agency.

B. A noun, not a verb

Some clients take in the first suggestion and run with it. And, they manage to do it well. For others, not so much. If anything, our suggestion is only seen as a start: it piques their interest but it doesn’t give enough clue for them to take action. They’d confess they’re still unsure on how to approach a KR: where to begin and whether there’s any formula they should follow. Essentially, they’d like to know whether it’s possible to scale down the (O)KR even further.

In that case, we’d tell them to try to write a KR in the form of a noun, instead of a verb. This advice—even though it may seem simple—can be the small push they need to gain another perspective of what a KR represents (i.e. an outcome) and how to construct it.

If you’re wondering how the difference between noun and verb can help people understand a KR better, this article might be of your interest.

We hope these tips can be useful to help you strategize your OKR adoption, especially if there’s resistance coming from your team members.


Latest POSTS