CTO.berlin Articles

OKRs Are A Minefield

In my latest startup, we ventured into the stormy waters of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) with a blend of optimism and strategic intent. However, what unfolded was a stark lesson in the perils of contradictory OKRs. Our ambitious OKRs, targeting both aggressive growth and stringent sustainability, unwittingly set us on a collision course. This wasn't just about misalignment; it was about outright contradiction. The story of our startup is not an isolated case; it's a vivid illustration of a broader truth: OKRs, when conflicting, can be a startup's undoing.

Our OKR Dilemma

Our two primary OKRs seemed logical in isolation but in practice, they pulled us in opposite directions. The first OKR aimed at "Boosting user base by 25% within the next quarter," driving us towards aggressive marketing and user acquisition strategies. In stark contrast, our second OKR was to "Slash operational costs by 20% in the same period," necessitating cost-cutting measures that inherently conflicted with the resource-intensive goals of the first OKR. This contradiction created a strategic gridlock, where progress on one front meant setbacks on the other.

Common Contradictory OKRs in Startups

This phenomenon isn't unique to our experience. Many startups fall into the trap of setting OKRs that inherently clash:
  • Rapid Innovation vs. Maintaining System Stability: One team may have an OKR to "Implement three innovative technologies this year," while another aims to "Ensure 99.9% system uptime." The push for innovation can destabilize existing systems, leading to a tug-of-war between progress and reliability.
  • Market Expansion vs. Focused Product Development: An OKR to "Expand into three new international markets" might clash with a product-focused OKR like "Deepen feature set for the existing user base." Resources get stretched thin, and the focus becomes diluted.
  • Short-term Revenue Growth vs. Long-term Product Quality: An OKR focused on "Increasing quarterly sales by 30%" can conflict with long-term product development goals, pushing teams to prioritize short-term gains over sustainable product quality and innovation.

Clashes with Agile Methodologies

If OKRs did not offer enough material for conflicts, let’s consider their potential clash with Agile methodologies. Agile and OKRs can coexist, but they require careful navigation to avoid conflicts:

The Feature Deployment Quandary

  • OKR: "Launch 10 new features in the next quarter."
  • Agile Conflict: Agile prioritizes iterative development and user feedback, potentially conflicting with a rush to launch multiple features.

The Market Expansion Conundrum

  • OKR: "Expand into three new international markets within six months."
  • Agile Conflict: Agile focuses on specific user stories, so broad market expansion can disrupt targeted development efforts.

The Architectural Overhaul Dilemma

  • OKR: "Revamp the product architecture for scalability within two quarters."
  • Agile Conflict: Large-scale changes can disrupt Agile's incremental approach, introducing significant risks and dependencies.

The Revenue-Driven Predicament

  • OKR: "Double revenue with a new premium model in the next quarter."
  • Agile Conflict: This commercial focus might overshadow Agile's user-centric development, leading to features that prioritize profit over user value.

Conclusion: Steering Clear of Contradictory OKRs

Implementing OKRs in a startup is fraught with potential pitfalls, the most dangerous being contradictory objectives. It’s a tightrope walk that demands strategic foresight and the flexibility to realign goals as the startup evolves. Contradictory OKRs are more than just a roadblock; they can derail a startup's journey, wasting precious time and resources.
OKRs should be crafted and reviewed with a lens that scrutinizes not just individual goals but also their interdependencies and potential conflicts with Agile methodologies. Only then can OKRs truly catalyze growth, driving startups toward their ambitious visions without the risk of self-sabotage.