Originating in Management by Objectives (MBO), the first framework similar to OKRs came from the American car giants in the fifties and was modified for a more fast moving environment at Intel in the eighties.
With increased complexity in ever larger plants and organizations among these manufacturers, the old ways of very strong central control of the organisation wasn’t cutting it anymore. With MBOs, the CEO could give clear objectives to be followed but let more and more of the details of implementation be decided by middle management.
With often repetitive and highly rules based work in the factories, the ambitions of MBOs often stopped at the management level, even though Peter Drucker showed examples of work teams that increased their productivity by organising their own work processes going beyond the corporate manual.
That it all started in car manufacturing was however not by chance but neither by necessity. This was the industry that attracted the times best management thinkers while simultaneously it drove the expansion of some of the largest companies at the time. It can be imagined that this evolution in management, if started today, would instead be pioneered by Apple, Tesla and Google instead of General Motors and Ford.
As MBOs turned into OKRs when implemented at Intel where key results were added to the objectives by Andrew Grove, the framework took its first step into the fast moving world of technology.
In the same way, OKRs could have been a great fit for many kinds of organisations already then, but the frameworks flexibility and fast paced adaptment to a changing environment made it a perfect fit for the growing technology industry.
In the same way, OKRs were picked up by Google and other early internet ventures where it offered a solid foundation for common direction in the organisation while new organisations can skip the ‘change implementation’ phase and just choose a strong framework from the get go. OKRs are to be seen as a tool to create change and ‘move the needle’ on metrics as well, why they are a great fit for starting, growing and changing organisations. They have less to contribute in optimising processes to preserve the status quo.
In modern times with digitisation and other external preassures, most if not all organisations are however pressured by change. That means that even rock solid traditional organisations have a need for constant change to keep up with the times. When traditional supermarkets get challenged by home delivery firms, car manufacturers by autonomous driving firms and newspapers by social media, they all need to find ways to increase the pace of change in their organisations.
The consequence of this is that today OKRs can be found in most kinds of industries and sizes of organisations and the practicioners are only increasing in numbers.
It is actually organisations and not only companies that use OKRs today to reach their goals. With its simplicity and capacity to bring clarity to what is important, OKRs are today helping a great many volunteer and charity organisations to convert their passion and projects into measurable successes that can help in brining in new funding.
Simultaneously, companies with a strong tradition of being data driven have in many cases realised that they are weaker in connecting their metrics with their mission and vision, which is also something OKRs can help with.
It is hard to say exactly who and how many organisations work with OKRs today. We have several very high profile implementers such as Google, but we can also find thousands of success cases online and there are networks and communities in practically every corner of the world. There are several books about OKRs in most larger languages as well.
What makes it hard to measure the amount of OKR implementations out there is however that many organisations implement the framework and adapt it to their particular needs, being able to do so is a core strength to OKRs themselves. But it also means that we have thousands of variations of the framework and for an organisation it is many times wise to re-brand their way of OKRs not to put conflicting thoughts into team members’ heads about how goals are implemented in the organisation. If not, having employees with previous experience of OKRs might make for clashes in expectations on how goals are driven in the organisation.
But to answer our initial question with a few examples, we know that tech companies such as Spotify, LinkedIn, Airbnb and Twitter use OKRs, but have interesting case studies from organisations such as The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the retailer Sears and brewer Anheuser-Busch as well.
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