OKRs, explained through Squid Game

Ins and outs of the OKR framework, through the lens of Squid Game. In case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t watched the show, be warned of the spoilers ahead!

OKRs, explained through Squid Game

Short for Objectives and Key Results, the OKR goal-setting framework is used on both an individual and team level to drive performance in an organization. It is harnessed to allow teams and individuals to set specific and ambitious goals that yield quantifiable results. It is an effective framework practised by corporate giants worldwide, such as Google, Spotify, Uber, Airbnb, Twitter and more.

We will be examining the ins and outs of the OKR framework, through the lens of the viral Netflix series, Squid Game. In case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t watched the show, be warned of the spoilers ahead!

How are OKRs created?

The key to writing an effective OKR is to be qualitative with your ‘O’s and quantitative with your ‘KR’s. OKRs typically follow a formula — an objective, with 3 to 5 key results that will support that objective. When written in a statement, it follows this format:

I will (Objective) as measured by (Key Results).

An Objective is a goal to be achieved. They should spur you into action by being concrete and inspirational. Keep your objective short and sweet to ward off confusion and ineffective execution.

For example: I will pay off my debts and provide for my aging mother.

On the other hand, Key Results are extremely specific, quantifiable and have a time limit bound to them. They are attainable yet aggressive benchmarks that indicate the progress toward the objective.

For example:

  1. Ask ex-wife’s family for money
  2. Stay alive in every activity over the entire course of the games
  3. Form a team that I can trust in the game, both to partake in games with and watch my back

Yes, that is my imagined OKR of the smiley, simple-minded protagonist Seong Gi-Hun. I have to admit, it’s my opinion that the concept of main character immunity is the only reason Seong Gi-Hun stayed alive. After all, the show must go on.

How to manage multiple OKRs

When setting multiple OKRs, it is important to ensure that all of them align with each other. Seong Gi-Hun is a great example of a character with multiple, contradicting OKRs. This led him to almost fail in meeting one objective: To not become a murderer.

Gi-Hun manipulated Oh Il-nam, a sweet old man with dementia that everybody had come to love, in order to win a game that would guarantee only his survival. It was only a twist of fate (or plot) that kept Il-nam alive, but we all know that Gi-Hun had every intention to throw his OKR out of the window.

A mistake made by many is pursuing OKRs that no longer serve them. As things change and new information is brought to light, some OKRs might reveal themselves to be contradictory. Don’t be afraid to give it a 0, and replace it with one that is more aligned with your growth trajectory.

The different OKRs of the Squid Game characters

OKRs are typically driven by an organization-wide goal. Amongst the Squid Game participants, the goal was to increase the jackpot. This main organizational goal trickled down to individual goals for the players.

In the series, success is tied to survival. Like Gi-Hun, the OKRs of the players follow the overarching goal of surviving to winning the prize money. However, the objective of survival isn’t qualitative enough to encompass their individual OKRs.

The players survived in their personal ways. Gi-Hun’s priority was his code of conduct, while others who purely sought to win relied on mind games, brute force and even dirty tricks. This resulted in a range of different strategic OKRs.

Let’s take a look at some characters with clear OKRs.

Archetypal gangster, Jang Deok-su

Objective: Return the money I lost in Sri Lanka to get back into the good graces of my mob boss

Key result: Form a group of men and become their leader

Key result: Kill 80 opponents in the middle of the night

Key result: Go for extra rounds of food so I am well-fed and stronger

Embezzler, Cho Sang-woo

Objective: Get myself out of embezzlement lawsuit

Key result: Betray Ali by tricking him out of all 10 marbles

Key result: Kill my biggest threat, Sae-byeok, in cold blood

Key result; Defeat Gi-hun in the final showdown

Woman scorned, Han Mi-nyeo

Initial OKR: Provide for my newborn baby and pay off debts

Key result: Join Deok-su’s gang for protection

OKR after being scorned: To take Deok-su down at all costs

Key result: Murder-suicide with Deok-su

North Korean defector (and crowd favourite), Kang Sae-byeok

Objective: Pay for my parents to be brought into South Korea

Key result: Steal X₩ from people to fund my parent’s defection

Key result: Sneak a switchblade into the arena for self-defense

Key result: Gather clues before every game to have an advantage

Policeman, Hwang Jun-ho

Objective: Find his brother, Hwang In-ho and report the games to the authorities

Key result: Track Gi-hun and make it into the game before it begins

Key result: Get hold of the highest-ranking triangle mask

Key result: Escape and send evidence over before I am captured

Frontman, Hwang In-ho

Objective: Keep the games running smoothly, while making it entertaining and sensational

Key result: Kill anyone who takes off their mask, or is a potential threat to the secrecy of the game

Key result: Set the stage for a fight to break out amongst players at night

Key result: Organizing a phenomenal viewing for the VIPs where their every wish is fulfilled

Types of OKRs

There are 3 main types of OKRs: Committed OKRs, Aspirational OKRs and Learning OKRs.

Committed OKRs are essential for success — by hook or by crook, they have to be achieved. It is top priority. A committed OKR in Squid Game is staying alive, and this was applied across all the players. Well. almost. Rest in peace Hoyeon.

Aspirational OKRs push you past the limits of your comfort zone. While they might be harder to accomplish, they encourage you to innovate.

In-ho, the frontman of Squid Game, has many aspirational OKRs set for him by the actual masterminds of the game. He is constantly being pushed to outdo the past year’s games, and has to come up with entertaining ways to kill the players for the spectating billionaires.

He went to great lengths that were definitely outside his comfort zone to fulfil his Key Results, which included shooting his brother off a cliff.

Lasly, Learning OKRs help you explore or experiment, based on a hypothesis. The key to fulfilling a Learning OKR is to gain information and intelligence that allow you to move forward, and support your other set of OKRs.

During the game of ppopgi, commonly known as the Dalgona or honeycomb game, Gi-hun discovered that the most efficient way to win was to melt the honeycomb by licking it. His revelation spread throughout the players and they began copying his methods.

While they weren’t working as a team, the players committed OKRs were all the same — to survive. This highlights the importance of Learning OKRs in a team setting in order to support the organization-wide goal, which brings me to my next point.

Individual vs Team OKRs in Squid Game

According to the Harvard Business Review, OKRs should be set on a team level, not individual.

But in the workplace, the OKR methodology is meant to build a stronger team. The logic behind this is: sharing objectives and quantifiable metrics can increase coordination of activities and alignment of stakeholders within a team. Looking at OKRs from a team-level perspective is essential to prevent team members from becoming too individualistic in their efforts.

Individual OKRs can be used to select team members with similar objectives for certain projects. Team members with aligning OKRs will naturally seek each other out to work on a project together. A team with similar OKRs is more likely to be on the same page, allowing members to work in tandem smoothly.

This is also how teams were selected in the game. Before the tug-of-war game, those with the common objective of using brute strength to succeed, like Jang Deok-Su and his gang, banded together. Similarly, those who prioritized emotions, like the married couple, chose to stick by each other.

You won’t always be fortunate enough to have teammates with the same OKRs as you. In a team setting, individual OKRs need to take a backseat. Success (aka survival) cannot be measured by individuals alone. Individual OKRs go out of the window and are redefined on a team level. Performance is not tied to achieving individual key results, but rather the extent of which the individual players could support the team’s objective and key results.

Gi-hun’s team is a great example of fulfilling a team OKR. Despite having some differences in goals, they conquered a much stronger team. Gi-hun’s faith in his team led and lifted the team’s spirits, Il-nam’s wisdom gave them a stellar strategy, Sangwoo’s cunning brought the element of surprise and Ali’s steadfastness anchored the team from the back.

How Oh Il-nam managed his team’s OKRs successfully

OKRs are also a method for team managers to create alignment, track progress and provide encouragement and support around measurable goals.

In the context of Squid Game, the “manager” is actually Oh Il-nam. Yes, the lovable old man is the mastermind behind the game. He actually joins his “team” of players, on the ground. While his intention was to participate in the games, he acted as a team manager too.

Il-nam coached the players to meet both their personal and team OKRs. In the game of tug-of-war, he inspired the team with his strategy and encouraged them to win the game. He constantly checks in with his team members and provides them with support. He even gives Gi-hun a stake in the decision-making, an important aspect of OKR, by allowing the protagonist to take him out of the game during the marble game.

Love him or hate him, Il-nam would’ve made a stellar team manager.

The importance of OKRs

Within a company, OKRs create result-oriented workers. Besides quantifiable growth, there are also benefits to getting employees to set OKRs from a human resource perspective, which include:

  • Unify workers in their definition of success
  • Create a sense of ownership in workers
  • Increase job satisfaction
  • Enforce organization-wide transparency
  • Build effective communication

The workers in the arena were labelled by numbers and given directions solely based on a strict system of hierarchy — circle, square and triangle at the top. They had no individuality, let alone their personal set of OKRs. This led to the development of the secret black market organ ring, formed by the circles and squares. The workers involved were harvesting organs from players that were still, but barely alive, with the aid of a doctor who was also a player. This flagrant disregard for the rules of the game could’ve been attributed to the lack of ownership they had in their work.

For employees of such an important organization, their work was mindless killing, cleaning and other housekeeping duties. As they felt nothing for their jobs, their definition of success probably did not align with the organization. This pushed them to seek out something that was more beneficial to them, even if it puts the organization at stake.

However, one of the workers did have OKRs set for him. The swoon-worthy recruiter, Gong Yoo, had the objective of recruiting as many people as possible for the games. He achieved this by seeking out those in debt and incentivizing them with money to play a game.

It is seen that Gong Yoo continues to recruit people for the next round of the games — an indicator that he is loyal to his organization. He is motivated to do his job, does it well, and looks good while doing it. That’s the power of OKRs.