Managing Misaligned OKRs to Prevent Churn and Increase Productivity

Yuri Niyazov

VP of Engineering at Academia.edu



"When I stepped in as the manager of a brand new team, a site reliability engineering team, I was given a set of OKRs to fulfill by my boss. He and I had a meeting where we sat down and rationally talked about process oriented items that we were going to follow as a team. It was very structured and formal. However, when I set foot on the floor the reality was quite different from what my boss projected. It turned out that the amount of technical debt and firefighting was sufficiently high and, therefore, needed to be addressed immediately in order to maintain the site. After having my team and I focus on these issues for a couple of months, we had made very little progress. I was faced with the dichotomy of acting upon what were my official expectations as discussed and laid out in the OKRs by my boss, and the reality of constantly putting out fires, the possibility of burning out my team and prospective new reports, and realization of having to devise a more long-term sustainable solution."

Actions taken

"I decided that the OKRs given to me were merely first draft suggestions for how to solve the problems my boss wanted me to solve, not strict orders. I recognized through conversations with my boss, that he wanted to establish longevity with this newly formed team. He wanted to make sure that the team continued to exist and that we prevented the churn of team members due to the uphill battle of consistent firefighting. Thus, I adopted my own vision of what a successful team looked like and came up with a different set of OKRs."

"Next, I knew that one of the least favorite parts of engineering was simply executing work without actually getting to decide what you got to work on. So I abdicated my order-making power and let the engineers on my team be the strategic planners of their own work. They were now responsible for prioritizing their work and could work on whatever they liked, as long as it was related to fixing site reliability items."

"Lastly, I determined that our team shouldn't be the only one in the company who should put out fires. For that reason, we distributed a lot of the responsibilities of the site reliability engineering team across the company. We trained other engineers across the company on infrastructure knowledge so that they, too, could contribute to the reliability of the site."

"As a result of these actions, at my next performance review with my boss, I explained how I reprioritized and established different OKRs to get measurable results. The results being the retention of team members, setting the right course for avoiding burn out, and higher efficiency to increase productivity. Additionally, we in fact ended up having requests for people to get transferred to our team, which reinforced the desired outcomes of my boss's objectives."

Lessons learned

  • "Understand what problem your boss is trying to solve when you are given a set of OKRs and be willing to take the risk of solving that problem in a different manner. When your boss gives you a strategic order, you are tactically responsible for how to execute it."
  • "Have a solid case of why you want to, or have already, solved the problem in a different way than prescribed to you. Identify the problem and sell it to your boss by demonstrating verifiable outcomes."
  • "As an engineering manager it is very easy to fall into the same mental mode as your boss. Be given explicit metrics to meet and you must concentrate on meeting those exclusive metrics. In fact, you were chosen as a manager for a reason and so, although it may be a risk, it has a much greater payoff if you follow the letter of your boss's spirit rather than his/her direct orders."

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Yuri Niyazov

VP of Engineering at Academia.edu

Leadership & StrategyEngineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementTeam & Project Management

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