A decision framework like Objective and Key Results (OKRs) can help us build a business that avoids risk and earns a profit, but it means we must challenge ourselves to make ethical decisions. We know that treating others well is good for business, but the question remains: How do we do this?

OKRs helps team members stretch their capacity to achieve great things.

There are many approaches and frameworks for helping businesses and design teams stay accountable for their work: Kanban, Key Performance Indicators, SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) Goals, Scrum, Lean Six Sigma and handful more corporate-sounding time management and collaboration tools. Objectives and Key Results stands out as an approach that complements these ways of working and it’s growing in popularity since being introduced during the early years at Google. It helps team members stretch their capacity to achieve great things. It was codified by Andy Grove at Intel when they shifted from memory to microprocessors in the 1970s. At Intel, it was passed on to John Doerr who worked alongside Grove and then Google. Today, the co-author of Lean UX, Jeff Gothelf, as well as design teacher and speaker, Christina Wodtke, are bringing Objectives and Key Results to software design.

OKRs are what they sound like. Deceptively simple to talk about, but a little foggy to understand if your team isn’t already using them.

OKRs are what they sound like. Deceptively simple to talk about, but a little foggy to understand if your team isn’t already using them. Wodtke emphasizes that setting objectives and measuring results is an opportunity to learn: “OKRs aren’t just about hitting targets but about learning what you are really capable of.”

Jared Spool, in his talk Beyond the UX Tipping Point reminds us that people prefer to “learn” rather than “fail” so a good starting point is to foster a culture of learning, where people feel safe to discover what works and what does not. Help people feel safe to speak up.

A good starting point is to foster a culture of learning.

OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) is a management methodology that connects the work of employees to the company’s overall strategic plan. Objectives are what you want to accomplish. They should be aligned and supported by the organization, plus aspirational. Key Results explain how you’ll get there. They should be measurable, limited in number and have a deadline.

Objective: Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade

Key result: Build a lunar module weighing under 40,000 pounds by December 1965

The type of objectives we can set to maintain an ethical business are the kinds that should inspire you to come to work. Most people that teach OKRs talk about things like “moon shots” and “getting out of bed in the morning” but really, it’s an opportunity to sit down with yourself and think about your purpose at work and how it relates to that of your business. It’s a conversation, a starting point for aligning with everyone else on your team. You write down your thoughts, they write down theirs and you compare notes. The key results you write are how you’ll know whether you’ve met your objective and it’s there that we begin to see how this tool can help us remain ethical in our business dealings.

Applying ethical thinking to OKRs

Imagine we have a key result of “15% conversion” alongside our objective of launching an app. What has this told us about the methods used to reach this key result? Nothing. We have a result that is context free, though motivating. Especially in the design of software, we must ensure that our decisions are coming from a place of accountability and action. If our 15% conversion comes from ads placed on fake news sites, we may have accomplished our objective by any means necessary, but we’ve had a negative impact on our community and society. Were we to attach a more nuanced metric to the objective “15% conversion through special events and meetups” then we can challenge ourselves to be responsible for the way we’ve accomplished our objective and key result.

The world today is built on an extractive economy. In the current conditions of digital industrialism, we’ve taken industrial age tools and enhanced these systems to optimize for profit by reducing risk. Unfortunately, humans are the most risky part of our economy. As we continue to build risk-averse systems, we build human-averse systems. We initially set out to improve the human condition by providing ourselves with easy access to food, shelter and community.

One way to correct the course of our economy is to ensure that any competitive gain for your company is to value the person producing the work.

One way to correct the course of our economy is to ensure that any competitive gain for your company is to value the person producing the work. Writing, photography and design continue to have unstable value, so we need to remain vigilant about how we respect this work and pay people that produce creative work.

Overall, it’s a tricky situation when trying to remain ethical in our business dealings unless we admit to our own unethical behavior.

Harvard Business Review has a considerable body of work on ethics in the workplace. In 2003, they published a paper looking at bias in the workplace that reminds managers the first step to preventing unethical behavior is to first recognize their own capacity for making unethical decisions. They begin with an example of a female consultant who was turned down for partner due to her gender. Judging someone’s work to be worse because they are not in the same group as you can have negative consequences for the team. Thus, judging a key result not by “15% conversion” but omitting the context of “15% conversion by a woman working in a predominantly male consultancy” helps shed some light on the issue. Though it seems bulky, it’s this context that needs to remain if we’re to make progress and change our economy to support people first.

Overall, it’s a tricky situation when trying to remain ethical in our business dealings unless we admit to our own unethical behavior.

The best advice when setting Objectives and Key Results for your business is to look for ways to prevent unethical behavior. The research from Harvard shows that it’s better to be vigilant against unethical behavior rather than trying to model ethical behavior for others. Without reflection on whether an action could be unethical, you may slip into believing what started as an ethical action will continue to be even when circumstances change. The 2008 housing crisis happened just this way.

Previously ethical dealings – selling mortgage bonds to governments and businesses that contained mortgages with stable repayments – moved into unethical dealings – selling mortgage bonds to governments and businesses that contained mortgages given to people unable to repay those mortgages. The underlying behavior “selling mortgage bonds to governments and businesses” never changed, but the context did as subprime mortgages became popular to put in these bond. As those mortgages became unstable, so did the finances of the governments and businesses that held those bonds.

The tongue-in-cheek film Waffle Street, begins with a mantra from a banker who contributed to the 2008 housing crisis:

What we do is legal,

therefore, it is not unethical.

If this was unethical,

it would be illegal.

It’s easy to convince yourself that what you are doing is right if you have no way of measuring your responsibility to society. We’re better at looking out for each other when we can challenge ourselves to prevent unethical business decisions.

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