I was away last week at a conference where I wasn’t speaking or blogging or Instagramming.

Yes, really.

It was an unusual treat for me, as it was a rare opportunity where I could focus on professional development.

The event was the Global Member Meeting for Forrester’s Analyst Relations Council, a peer networking and edution group combined run by the market research firm.

A lot of the discussion on day one focused on OKRs, or the Objectives and Key Results framework. OKRs became wildly popular with startups, and it all sounds like a lot of management consultant speak; despite all of that, it’s a perfectly sensible way to set goals and track progress toward them.

If you haven’t had to deal with OKRs, the heart of the approach is that you set individual and team and corporate objectives, and then you list all the ways you’ll measure your progress. You may even describe what steps you’ll take to achieve those results. Then, you schedule check-ins, perhaps monthly or quarterly, to track that progress.

One concern, which I expressed during Q&A at the conference, is that it’s in most people’s self-interest to set low goals that can be readily achieved and surpassed. If you know your marketing team has never contributed less than 1,000 qualified leads per month to the pipeline, then a natural reaction is to have a key result listed as, “We’ll bring in 12,000 leads this year.” You had a great May thanks to some gangbusters PR, you achieved the key result in June, and you can take the rest of the year off. Mazel tov.

If you get where this is going, that defeats the purpose of OKRs. And that means there’s one element needed for OKRs to achieve their glorious corporate potential:

The freedom to fail.

You need to be able to say, “We contributed 12,000 qualified leads last year. With our budget increase and team upgrades, we should comfortably hit 18,000 this year. But I bet there are new elements of our marketing plan that are going to contribute in a big way, so let’s put down 24,000 for the year and then show our progress toward hitting 2,000 each month.”

That takes confidence. That takes pride in your work. But it also takes the freedom to fail.

You need to know that you’re not setting yourself up for failure by setting goals that exceed what’s expected of you.

Or, as I put it during Q&A, you need to ensure everyone isn’t putting all their energy into covering their ass.

I was going to write this essay about how there are two types of companies – those that give you the freedom to fail, and those that don’t.

As I started writing after I got home, that felt too simplistic.

I’ve worked with enough organizations and know what it’s like to be with those that are playing to win, and those that are trying not to lose.

Those are very different mindsets.

You can also have organizations where you know your peers and managers support each other, or you feel like folks are out for blood.

That all led to a diagram that looks like… this:

Here’s what happens in the four types of organizations:

A defensive and critical organization has their people hiding. No one wants to stick their neck out. Everyone’s trying to play it safe and avoid attention.

A defensive but supportive organization has their teams protecting their people but not stretching to achieve anything more than what they’re already doing. They become complacent.

An ambitious but critical organization has people reaching toward and past their limits, but they’re held back when they’re worried about the negative feedback when they fall short. A red flag here: Reaching becomes Fudging in the darker version of this chart. The more critical the org is, the more likely people will lie about their results, leading to the whole OKR process disintegrating.

An ambitious and supportive organization has people looking to contribute to each other’s success while knowing that they’ll live to see another day when missing some optimistic targets. They have the freedom to fail but the will to succeed.

In essence, the further down you go on the visual, the more you’re mired in fear. The further left you go, the more you’re focused on avoiding failure.

As you go up, you gain confidence, and as you go right, you’re thinking about success.

I’ve learned a lot from my current org that’s sitting in the top-right, but I’ve seen the opposite too. How companies approach OKRs is a good temperature check for how healthy the business is.

During what’s likely to be even more uncertain times ahead, with questions of the R-word looming, the likelihood of teams achieving their goals may change. Still, such times tend to bring out the best in great leaders and exacerbate the worst in others. In the year or two ahead, we’ll see who can chart that path to success while supporting teams by giving them the freedom to fail.


PS: To all those celebrating a new year in late September, Shana Tova and a sweet, fruitful year ahead to you and your loved ones.


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Director of Growth Marketing
Austin, TX
The Director of Growth Marketing will be accountable for developing, implementing, and reporting on all digital growth marketing strategies, primarily in support of South Congress Hotel, Hotel Ella, El Rey Court, and Waymore’s Guest House, with occasional support of other or forthcoming New Waterloo outlets as needed. The ideal candidate will be able to blend a sharp acumen of digital, paid, and growth marketing strategies while preserving the ubiquity and edge of our brand voices.

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Global Product Marketing Manager
United Kingdom
Via Nadine in the community
“We are looking for a Global Product Marketing Manager to join our driven and innovative team in Aylesbury. As Global Product Marketing Manager you will develop effective marketing strategies for our Test & Inspection division to communicate the features and benefits of our Nordson’s products to our customers and create demand for our products and services. You will perform market research on trending products and develop sales tools to communicate the vision and value of our products and to create unique selling points for all new products. In this role you will travel up to 25% globally.”

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Other job resources (see a full list here):

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