Common Challenges and Best Practices to Make Sure OKRs are Used Effectively
When you’re starting to use OKRs for the first time, mistakes are common, and it typically takes 2 or 3 quarters to feel comfortable and fully see the benefits of the OKR methodology.
OKRs are a cultural change and require commitment, patience, and time to develop new habits. With our new partner, OKR Advisors, we’ve compiled a list of some of the most common stumbling blocks that we see among our customers, as well as ways to minimize or avoid them when you work to implement OKRs in your organization.
Pitfall 1: Set it and forget it.
Many organizations will set up OKRs and then return back to what they were doing before. It’s easy to underestimate the scope of this change, and as a result, not follow a change leadership approach for implementing OKRs that’s rooted in behavioral and cultural change. OKRs are all about transparency, and hiding them away makes it impossible to build accountability or alignment.
Best Practice 1: Review OKRs regularly.
OKRs are a major change to operations and require a cultural shift. Teams should be tracking the progress of key results on a weekly basis and developing regular OKR reviewing habits as a team to foster cross-functional discussions that are focused on how to best achieve the intended result. Otherwise, at the end of the quarter, you’ll likely be way off track.
Pitfall 2: Failing to designate an OKR Champion.
Invariably when OKRs are rolled out to the company there is a learning curve and barriers can arise. It is the job of the senior team to help knock down those barriers. In addition, senior leaders should identify and work with an OKR Champion to support the successful rollout.
Best Practice 2: Leadership support and an OKR Champion.
An effective OKR program requires executive leadership support and a champion. You can have a team that’s made up of various roles, but the OKR champion is essential for holding everyone accountable for the completion of OKRs. An OKR Champion is similar to Blackbelts in Lean 6 Sigma and their support can be critical to the successful implementation of the methodology.
Pitfall 3: Not creating an OKR Playbook.
If those required to use OKRs don’t understand how they work, it can lead to increased overhead and some confusion. There are multiple ways of interpreting and applying OKRs, and people may have a lot of questions about how they will be used in the organization. In addition, OKRs are all about transparency, and hiding them away makes it impossible to build accountability or alignment.
Best Practice 3: Document and share the process.
In order to make sure that everyone is on the same page across the organization, we encourage you to develop a playbook. It’s also important to share OKRs publicly, so everyone on the team has visibility and understands how they’re being implemented.
Pitfall 4: Not communicating the value of OKRs.
The leadership team and employees often are told that the company is implementing OKRs without much context or explanation, and as a result, there is not adequate buy-in to the “why OKRs” question, which can create confusion and increase friction towards adoption. The why OKRs question translated means “what will OKRs do to improve our company”. Often, OKRs can be perceived as just one more thing to do, or a fad to add to already full employee plates.
Best Practice 4: Focus on the benefits for the team.
Focus on the benefits for the team. Everyone wants to know that the things they’re doing drive a larger impact and that they matter to the overall organization. Teams that work with purpose work better. Reminding your teams that you trust them, and then codifying that in how you work towards your goals, gives them that motivation.
Pitfall 5: Not training or engaging employees.
When teams have a lack of clarity and direction, it tends to lead to underwhelming results and frustration from everyone involved. Rolling out OKRs too quickly or broadly without adequate buy-in from the organization or without adequate training is often the greatest culprit for poor OKR implementation and why there are so many missed attempts at adopting the methodology. As part of gaining buy-in, training on OKRs as a methodology is helpful, providing background into the “whys and hows” OKRs will be implemented specifically in your company.
Best Practice 5: Educate and include everyone.
Educating and including everyone on OKRs will be essential to its success within the organization. Prior to the start of the first OKR cycle, it will be important to conduct training across various levels of the company, including OKR writing workshops and OKRs for team leads. As the OKR process grows, maintaining transparency and including everyone in weekly updates will keep teams aligned and help to anticipate any issues or blockers.
Pitfall 6: Having too many OKRs.
Although OKRs are designed to identify no more than 3 to 5 priorities, leaders can attempt to tackle way too much leading to many more Objectives. Lack of prioritization of the critical few priorities that drive breakthrough performance can lead to delays and slower execution. Some organizations attempt to capture all of their work and projects in OKRs rather than using it for its intended use as a goal setting and prioritization system.
Best Practice 6: When it comes to OKRs, less is more.
Organizations, teams, and people that split time between too many objectives are necessarily less focused on the ones that really matter. We encourage our customers to have 2-4 Objectives and 3-5 Key Results per objective.
Pitfall 7: Focusing on tasks, not outcomes.
Most companies are used to project plans for deliverables. This is critical for execution, but with goal-setting, a shift is required to move from tasks and projects to outcomes. There’s a tendency to skip from an outcome to the specific steps you expect will be needed to achieve it.
Best Practice 7: Prioritize goals over projects.
OKRs are not tasks. Knowing what outcomes you want to achieve leads to the projects required to achieve them. Don’t overspecify. A watertight plan at the start of the process will choke out creativity and innovation as new information becomes available down the line. Although projects are connected to OKRs, and support the completion of them, they are typically tracked in a separate system from OKRs.
Pitfall 8: OKRs are too easy or unrealistic.
OKRs are designed to stretch the organization, yet oftentimes, they are achievable through “business as usual” processes, indicating they probably aren’t hard enough. Other times, OKRs can feel impossible, indicating they are unrealistic and too difficult. Employees know absurdity when they see it, and goals set too far over the horizon won’t fool (or motivate) anyone.
Best Practice 8:Balance aspirational and commit goals.
It’s important to strike a balance between aspirational and commit goals. While no OKRs should be easy, balancing the two will challenge employees but also make sure they feel like they are contributing to the broader goals of the organization.
Pitfall 9: Setting only top-down objectives.
It's tempting to cascade OKRs down through the organization. But if all your goals fit together into a pretty parent/child tree, teams almost by definition aren’t thinking creatively, taking risks, or showing initiative. It hinders alignment and collective buy-in across the organization, too.
Best Practice 9: Teams create their own OKRs that align to the overall company strategy.
Invite teams at every level define their OKRs before bringing the organization together to understand and challenge their alignment with your overarching vision. Ultimately, you want to create a process where teams feel empowered to create their OKRs and then challenge teams across the business to ensure they’re focused on the right priorities at the right time. This process encourages creative thinking and informed risk-taking, all to push your business forward.
Pitfall 10: Not learning from each cycle.
Commonly, teams don’t review the previous quarter’s OKR results and just move ahead to the next quarter. This is a missed opportunity to dig into growth opportunities and take time to see all of the progress that has been made as a team.
Best Practice 10: Retrospectives to learn and grow.
Holdretrospectives at the end of the quarter to review what went well and what didn’t. The process of closing out OKRs should be a team effort -- everyone worked together to deliver the results, and everyone should come together to see the results. Turning the process of closing your team’s OKRs into more of a ceremony can make it into a milestone moment.
Remember, OKRs take time and effort to implement successfully into your organization. Anticipating these common pitfalls will help you minimize the stumbling blocks along the way. If you need help with your OKR methodology, consider using one of our valued partners, like OKR Advisors, to help keep you on track. And if you’re looking for a tool to help manage your OKRs, Koan will help make the process much easier.