A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a potential client about OKRs. They started talking about “initiatives.” In fact, they talked about “initiatives” as a standard part of OKRs, one of those moments when self-doubt set in. I started wondering “What do they mean?” And more worryingly, “How do I not know about initiatives?”
When I did some digging it turns out that one, or possibly more, OKR consultancies talk about “initiatives” as a third level of OKR. For these consultants there is a hierarchy, Objective at the top, Key results below that and then initiatives as the “things you will do to deliver the key results and therefore the objective.”
In one way, I like the thinking. I agree that “what we will do” is not part of the objective and it’s not the key results. (A common mistake with OKRs, one I made myself years back, is seeing them as the to-do list.) So I can see why they label the things to do as another level. At the same time, I see two problems.
First is the hierarchical decomposition. Again, the idea that an initiative builds towards one key result which builds towards one objective. Once you start viewing key results as acceptance criteria which describe the post-objective world, this breaks down – the key results become cross-cutting. If your key result is “Customer receives their order within 48 hours”, for an objective of “Satisfied customers”, there is probably not just one thing to do. That goal may cut across lots of other pieces of work.
Is an initiative big or small?
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the word “initiative” is already widely used and means different things to different people, creating a recipe for confusion.
Specifically, although the #NoProjects community never standardised on the word, it is widely used as an alternative to “project” to describe a stream of work, an endeavour, a mission, a programme, or an ongoing effort. So for many of us, an initiative is not a small piece of work sitting below key results, but rather a big stream of work sitting above objectives.
This also hints at the reason why “initiative” was never agreed on. For many of us “initiative” has overtones of “beginning” – indeed my Apple dictionary uses words like “originate”, “before” and “fresh” when defining “initiative.” (In Dungeons and Dragons players roll “initiative” at the start of a fight to see who goes first).
So what do you think? Am I too sensitive? Have I missed something critical? – let me know in the comments or drop me a mail.
Still, there is most definitely a need to decide what actions are needed to deliver OKRs. When and how to do that will be in future posts, stay tuned. In the meantime, if you use the word initiative make sure you clearly tell people what you mean by the work.