This is a reprint from a Jan 31, 2022 post on the Team Trailhead blog site from our Senior Advisor, T. Brad Harris, PhD.
Forks are great. Sometimes.
During one of our weekly People Leader Accelerator meetings, a participant shared a beautifully simple reflection on the importance of avoiding “I like forks!” thinking. The idea became a recurring theme in the cohort and was later colloquially referred to as the #NoForks principle in our Slack channel and other communications (truthfully, #NoForks is a misnomer, but more on that in the last paragraph).
Some background before we dive into the #NoForks principle: In People Leader Accelerator, we talk [a lot] about the importance of embracing “it depends” thinking, matching content with context, and being wary of bright shiny objects disguised as best practices (we’ve written more about this here). In short, we’re trying to promote critical thinking more than oversimplified frameworks.
The point of the #NoForks principle is that if we’re not careful, we can become so affixed to particular tools, frameworks, or best practices that we lose sight of our specific situation and end up toiling away in disastrous futility. In essence, we get so fascinated with forks (e.g., they were so great for those waffles!) that we end up trying to use them even when they don’t make sense (e.g., soup). I concede the idea is remarkably intuitive, but you’d be surprised at how pervasive the “I Like Forks” problem is in startup contexts. In the madness of rapid growth, we (humans) fall into traps of assuming whatever we did the last time we faced a problem will work again; or, alternatively, we just try to blindly follow whatever trendy practice we heard about from our friend at a more mature company.
The PLA participant that penned the “I Like Forks” problem was inspired by a specific metaphorical fork that rapidly growing startups often fall in love with: the practice of using OKRs to guide performance (OKRs, or objectives and key responsibilities, were originally made famous by former intel CEO Andy Grove; see here and here). They convince themselves that OKRs are not just a tool, but THE tool for focusing their employees’ efforts. But here’s the stabbing truth (sorry): While OKRs may be an ideal practice for some companies, they may not be right for YOUR COMPANY RIGHT NOW.
So, what makes otherwise smart people fall in love with forks? One is FOMO. When you’re in a crazy situation (e.g., hypergrowth), you don’t want to be the moron that isn’t doing what all the other big unicorns are doing. Adding to this, leaders are often facing a lot of real pressure from VCs, employees, and their own social networks to know the “right answer”! Unfortunately, OKRs work best in larger, more mature companies that look quite differently than most early-to-mid stage startups (case in point: by the time Grove’s practice of using OKRs at Intel became popular the company had over 10,00 employees!). Another more subtle reason we develop an irrational affinity for OKRs is that at some point in a company’s growth (say, 100 employees), founders and early team members start to feel like they’re losing control and OKRs provide them with a useful vehicle for more oversight.
The problem is that without adequate, stability, and infrastructure, implementing OKRs can cause your company to spend more time setting overly specific targets and sorting out alignment issues than actually executing the strategy—a devastating misallocation of your employees’ time, talent, and energy. Goals and priorities simply change too quickly when your company is still trying to dial in the right product-market fit. If you’re not ready for OKRs, try a lighter approach instead: Focus first on developing and articulating a few crystal clear company-level priorities (and maybe some department-level priorities if you’re big enough), then work relentlessly with managers to create practices that emphasize frequent feedback and meaningful consequences (this is discussed more in our Scaling for Success book; my business partner and co-author Andrew Bartlow also discusses this on various podcasts, including around the 32:00 of this one).
Just because the goal-setting/performance management process is lighter doesn’t mean it is necessarily easier, mind you. Without the [false] security of individual- and team-level goals, the impetus for aligning employees falls more squarely on managers, some of which are first timers lacking in experience and confidence. Here, I believe the best medicine is creating an expectation for regular one-on-ones between managers and subordinates. In fact, one-on-ones will not only help your managers provide regular feedback and share strategic information with employees, but will also provide managers with access to important bottom-up sources of information and, in many cases, foster trusting and supportive relationships between managers and subordinates.
The #NoForks principle is hardly just about OKRs, though. The real lesson here is to think carefully about your situation and not to be too prideful to go back to the kitchen to find the right utensil(s). Maybe your situation demands another tool (e.g., a spoon); maybe you’ve got a hybrid situation and you need a combination of tools (e.g., a fork and a knife); or maybe your firm is small enough with such a singular goal that you aren’t ready for formalized or sophisticated tools at all (the chicken nugget/finger food situation). The tool is only as good as the job in front of it.
Finally, despite the catchy name, I must caution that the #NoForks principle is not really meant to be anti-fork (remember, the original idea was just to avoid “I like forks” thinking). In this vein, your situation is constantly changing during high growth and what didn’t work at one stage may become quite useful down the line. In the case of the PLA participant mentioned above, her company eventually reached a stage where implementing OKRs made a lot more sense and, thanks in part to her implementation efforts, really helped to drive value. So don’t throw away your forks altogether, just don’t fall in love with them, either!