Forget OKR’s, look at your NYR’s

People want to grow. Teams want to improve. Companies want to do better.

We’ll define metrics and aim to grow those. We’ll write down ambitious goals that should act as a beacon.

There is something rewarding about setting up these targets. It feels like real work. I’ve left many of those meetings with a feeling of accomplishment.

Unfortunately, there is a big gap between promising and following up. The human brain gets a dopamine reward just by proclaiming intentions. Saying you’re going to run a marathon feels more rewarding than training for one.

Most organizations that set up KPI’s and OKR’s really produce that other Three-Letter Acronym: the New Year’s Resolution (NYR).

We see a problem, we discuss a solution and promise to stick to it. And then it dies down. It’s a pattern I see all the time.

Retrospectives are a great source of NYR’s on a team level. We’ll list our top 5 points to improve, hang them next to the Kanban board and then get so lost in the sprint goals that we don’t do anything about them. Next retro, we’ll discuss them again.

The same thing happens on a strategic level. We’ll see a few red flags during our steering committee meeting. We’ll vow to pay close attention to them and go on with our busy agendas. Nothing gets done.

So what can we do to improve?


Pick your battles. One at a time if you can. You’ll be tempted to address multiple problems at once. If history has shown you that your organisation is bad at sticking to its resolutions, limit the number of items you work on. Often it really is better to pick just one.

Implementation over goals

The dopamine reward for expressing lofty goals is real. Don’t fall for it. Instead of setting goals, define an implementation. Planning a weekly training in your agenda works better than signing up for that marathon. Hold yourself accountable for sticking to the implementation, not the goal.


Picking an actionable focus point is one thing, but you have to make sure to follow up. Put it on top of the agenda. Make it the first User Story of the following sprint. Give it priority. Publicly record when you’ve hit and missed your resolutions. Build the habit.

NYR’s are a fun way to drown your organisation in mediocrity. It’s a peculiar attribute of human nature to have words outweigh actions. And as usual: when it’s bad in people, it’s worse in teams.

Once you see the pattern, you can break it.