KPIs or OKRs or The Biggest Mistake A Leader Can Make

Posted on Thursday 20 April 2023.

KPIs or OKRs

This is another part of my Confession of a CIO series. This is the part where we talk about well-known KPIs. And this is where I went wrong for a good portion of my career as either a leader up to CIO or as a Principle Consultant.

A friend and mentor, Dr. Cherry Vu, shared this image on KPIs:


I thought KPI meant Keep Person Over You Innocent. 

I used metrics to CMA (Cover My ****) or at least get another team or manager on the hook with me. It had nothing to do with keeping people, especially my teams, informed, interested, involved, or inspired. KPIs were a red card or a baseball bat. KPIs were a treat if you made them in terms of your bonus.

KPIs – KEY Performance Indicator

I have seen many indicators in my career that were considered to be crucial and yet fail the question test:

  • Key to who?
  • Why is it key to them?
  • If you miss it, what is the impact on staff, customers, and business?
  • Is the metric one that helps teams make a decision?
  • Is the metric one in which the organisation can work together to make things better and safer?

My favourite examples are found in SLAs (Service Level Agreements), such as:

Incidents resolved within a certain time:

  • Who agreed this time?
  • How was that time determined?
  • Is ten minutes over still ok?
  • What happens if the timeframe needs to be less to meet market forces?

The number of incidents:

  • A number is never an indicator. Is 62 a better number than 61? How does the team know if the number thus far is good, bad or great?
  • How would you escalate this? What would you want?

Time to respond:

  • To what? Every incident? Only certain types of incidents?
  • And why this timeframe?

You see, there is Performance in the above, and there is an Indicator, but where is the KEY?

Does your SLA have all of these KPIs?

My final question, then is which is the KEY one? Can you really have more than one KEY measure? Which one does the team respond to? Is that good or bad if they meet some but not all? Why? And if they miss some this month but others next month, what happens?

Tip #1: If it is KEY, there can only be one measure!

A well-constructed KPI helps teams:

Consider this leadership behaviour I learned from watching a Lean sensei:

She was walking around the Service Desk, and an analyst raised their hand. The sensei was coaching the Desk lead.

The lead asked the analyst how they could help, whereby the analyst indicated that their efforts to resolve an incident were not working. The support team was inundated with other problems, so no resolution or workaround was available.

The lead thanked the analyst and took ownership of the issue. This story was repeated many times during the day.

The Service Desk had a Key Indicator of Performance that would be missed.

The Service Desk understood why that KPI was important and knew when to escalate to management. The impacted staff and customers gave them a high NPS score.

Now, stop reading and reflect on what happens where you work!

Tip #2: Understood and agreed context underpins every KPI

Let’s talk about OKR. OKR or Outcomes of Objectives that are Key to a Desired Result.

I have added some words to the explanation of an OKR. Why? I find it difficult to separate the difference between an OKR and a KPI other than they use different words. The impact is the same.

There is an agreed KEY Indicator that should be used to help ensure a desired Performance or Result occurs. The tips provided thus far apply to both terms.

Lean IT

Let’s look at these two images.

We can see the link between vision or desire and actual work. What is also shown is that the team doing the work is the one that creates the Key measure that has been explained as being essential to the organisation. The image also supports the lean story whereby if the team has an issue, the problem is returned to the level above.

Here are some tips for KPIs or OKRs

Give the team a reason for the measure. How? The easiest way is by informing them of the context. Let them create the measure to meet the agreed and understood goal. Remember Dr. Cherry Vu’s definition of a KPI (How would you rewrite OKR?).

Leaders could use a story format such as the one below to help motivate the teams in their creation of indicators that matter:

  • Our service or product is designed to achieve these goals (state them)
  • We have observed that our product or service is instead behaving in this manner (state it and the impact)
  • We would like our service or product to behave as intended. How can you help us achieve this desire? (The team create what they will do and the measure to confirm they are on target and adds it to the story)
  • Thank the team for their effort.
  • Thank the team for escalating to you when they are stuck.
  • Celebrate the new attitude and behaviour as a different culture becomes your norm.

Final Thoughts

It is not easy. But KPIs and OKRs are team-driven measures, and the team is everyone involved top-down. My mistake was telling teams the KPI or OKR instead of helping them improve their work by allowing and trusting them to be inspired by achieving an organisational goal.

Don’t repeat my mistake!

If you have a confession to make or want to share your success story or experience working in the IT or ITSM industry, please get in touch with us at [email protected]. We’d love to share your story and help you connect with the SDI community!

Daniel Breston

Daniel Breston

Daniel Breston has been in IT for over 50 years. Now retired, he blogs and speaks about well-being in IT and is on the board of itSMFUK.



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