OKR Software is a scam!

by Bart den Haak | September 20, 2020

Dear Manager,

You don’t need dedicated OKR Software, so don’t fall into this trap. Organising your goals into Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is supposed to be simple. Very simple, that’s why it works. If you make OKRs too complicated by having too many, or when you have too many layers in your organisation, you might think you need software to “manage” all these goals. Don’t “manage” OKRs; trust your teams instead to do the right thing.

There hasn’t been a month without businesses contacting me about their “OKR Software Solution”. Some of them are startups; others are established players in the field. They all want me to review and evaluate their products. Although it’s often hard for them to hear, I always tell them, companies don’t need dedicated software to “manage” OKRs. It’s a gimmick, a toy for managers to get a perceived idea of control, alignment and overview. There are things you simply cannot fix with software. I’m a software developer by heart, so I would be the first to automate something to make people’s lives easier. With OKR software, it’s the other way around. People don’t like to use it, don’t want to use it, and it’s a waste of money.

Painting of Sigmar Polke. Gangster, 1988, Reiner Speck Collection. Painting of Sigmar Polke. Gangster, 1988, Reiner Speck Collection.

Why OKR Software is money down the drain

The main reason why companies end up with hundreds of OKRs across their organisation is because they have been using OKRs the wrong way. By that, I mean, the majority of OKR users I have come across use OKRs as some sort of (high-level) project/initiative management tool. To manage their business as usual. Maybe because they have been set on the wrong path by the Measure What Matters book by John Doerr. The book uses a Google classification of OKRs, a division of OKRs into two “buckets”: Committed Objectives and Aspirational Objectives. Suddenly, people start to believe that having eight operational OKRs at the company level is just fine. Eight times three to four KRs, and you will end up with 32 KRs and hundreds of downstream OKRs that might “potentially” contribute to one of the 32 KRs. There goes your ability to execute, no wonder you need software to manage all this.

The so-called Committed Objectives are nothing more than operational, business as usual, goals. But John Doerr also wrote very clearly: “…the relative weighting of these two baskets is a cultural question. It will vary from one organisation to the next and from quarter to quarter”. Yes, your company shouldn’t always be in the highest mode of innovation and acceleration. Sometimes being modest in your goals is perfectly okay. Sometimes only a small change will do the job of executing your strategy. That doesn’t mean your whole organisation should use hundreds of operational OKRs to replace your initiative or project management processes. A single OKR that focuses on improving elements of your daily operation is fine, but just because you can manage all your operational goals with OKRs, doesn’t mean you should. And just because you can manage your projects and initiatives with OKRs, doesn’t mean you should do that either.

The more OKRs you need to “manage”, the more complex it will get. When you have many OKRs, selecting dedicated OKR software looks like a natural thing to do, but in fact it will make your goal-setting process even more complicated. This is what the OKR software scam is all about. The OKR software vendors benefit significantly from the fact that you have hundreds of goals entering their system, but who will enter all these goals? That’s right, your employees, and before you know it, your OKR software system will become the next time-keeping system. Just like time-keeping, people will hate to enter their goals and track their progress in that system. People will lose interest, set and forget goals, and become demotivated. Eventually, they will blame OKRs for that. I’ve seen this scenario so many times over the past decade. Ultimately, your OKR initiative will die, and your company hasn’t moved forward.

Brain overload

I’ve encountered so many companies where the managers complain that nobody fills in their OKRs on time (sounds similar to timesheets, right?). It’s because nobody cares about setting operational or activity-based goals. What would be the incentive for people to fill them in? They don’t get rewarded for their effort, and compensation is detached from OKRs (I hope). Frankly, your employees don’t care about your operational goals. Most of them don’t like using KPIs, measures and metrics. So how do you get people involved in your strategy? How do you engage people in developing metrics and OKRs for your success? Well, you need to engage them early in the process and develop OKRs that people care about. It starts by answering “why OKRs are important” to your business.

Even when you set the right goals, with the right OKRs, people are still overloaded with tools they need to use and maintain: timesheet systems, bug report systems, kanban/scrum board card, wiki pages, shared folders, etc. OKR software vendors would love to add another tool to this ever-growing list of software we use daily. For what reason? Why should I, an employee, care to put my goals in a software system if I can simply put my OKRs on a sheet of paper, whiteboard, or wiki page? You aren’t solving the employee’s problem of being “disconnected from the strategy”, rather you are trying to fix a manager’s problem: a lack of control, alignment and overview. If this is the case, you can say goodbye to peace of mind, and farewell to a successful OKR implementation. On the other hand, if you have one or two OKRs at the company level, and only one OKR at the department or team level, you keep things simple. People love clarity and simplicity. Only then can everyone successfully focus on what matters most.

Let’s examine some of the typical arguments people have for using OKR software.

Photo by camilo jimenez Photo by camilo jimenez

Argument 1: OKR Software helps to keep overview

A manager could argue that: “We want people to see one OKRs relationship with other OKRs”. My response would be: If your goal structure is that difficult and complex, you might want to revisit. I know an international company with a 20k headcount managing their OKRs on a single Word document shared on a Microsoft Sharepoint drive. How much overview do you want? You want an overview of all the goals in your organisation? Great, but really why? You mean teams should see the goals of other teams, so they don’t conflict with each other? Why bother? Do you really believe a team will look into a software system to find out what another team is doing? Did they ever have the time to read the [ANY DOCUMENT] the other team wrote? Why do you believe it will be different now?

You don’t need that much overview if you only have a single OKR at company level and single OKRs at team level. If your organization is large, only the context will shift. Now the team will not directly influence the Company KRs, but they will impact the country or division KRs. Again, with a single OKR. Does the executive suite then need to know about all the team goals? Of course not; as long as they see their OKR moving in the right direction, everything should be fine. If not, you evaluate, review and repeat. That is the power of OKRs. To learn about your organisation and to improve. Having an overview of all the OKRs floating around in your organisation doesn’t contribute to that purpose.

Argument 2: OKR software helps with alignment

I often hear the argument that OKR software will help with alignment. Yes, a successful OKR implementation should increase alignment between teams and organisations. One reason for this is, you could remove some of the direct reporting lines when you develop a shared OKR. A single OKR that is shared across departments will accelerate alignment. Or you could set a single OKR at division level only, so that all the teams within this division need to work together on this common goal. However, if you keep your organisation structure as is and ask teams to enter their OKRs in a software system, you won’t then magically get alignment. All you get are isolated OKRs, sitting safely in their silos. You still need to put a lot of effort into getting organisational alignment. OKRs can help here, but it still requires strong leadership skills to get alignment in place. OKRs won’t fix this for you overnight, let alone dedicated OKR software that lets you keep your organisation’s structure intact. 

Argument 3: Use software to control your OKRs

Should you use software to control OKRs? You don’t manage or control goals – you set and achieve them. Neither are OKRs a tool to control people (although you could misuse OKRs for that purpose). If you are a CEO of a company, why do you even care what kind of goals your downstream departments or teams set? You don’t trust the teams? Well, that’s a whole other story. Maybe, you need to change your role as a manager to that of a coach. What if you coach people to set better goals? What if you can help people to understand your business better? You don’t have time for that? That, again, is a different problem. You shouldn’t control people. Not with OKRs, and not with OKR software. Build trust instead.

What tools should you use instead?

Of course, you want to write down and communicate about your OKRs, to create transparency in your organization and to collaborate with other people on them. What tools do work? Here are some solutions I recommend you use.

Offline OKR Tools
When everybody is in the same room or office, collaboration and communication is much easier. In these conditions you can use the following tools:

  • Whiteboard, markers, flip-over. It’s about the discussions.
  • Pen and paper (or sticky notes).
  • Print them on paper and hang them on the coffee machine, water cooler, walls etc. Make sure you update the metrics on a weekly basis. This might be some work, but it’s worth it, trust me.

Online OKR Tools (for remote teams, COVID-19 proof)

  • Email. Send a weekly update to everybody in your team. Put your manager in CC.
  • Evernote, Google Keep, or other note taking apps.
  • Mural, Miro, Google Jamboard, or other whiteboard tool
  • Google Docs (Sheets or Docs). See my free OKR template here.
  • Google Data Studio, Data Dog or Similar data dashboard tools. This will integrate your analytics (KPIs) automatically.
  • Word document or Powerpoint on a shared drive (e.g. Sharepoint, Dropbox, Google Drive). Companies with 20.000+ employees also use this solution, and it works perfectly.
  • Wiki Page. Just one. Or one per team. You can hyperlink to each other.
  • Intranet page. Many big companies have one. Just publish your OKRs there.
  • Microsoft Teams, Slack
  • Build your own (Google did). If you have a developer, it should take him or her one day to create.

To conclude

I wrote this post out of frustration, and to challenge the notion that software always provides a solution, when in fact it may be neither ideal nor necessary. I hope this article will be a wake-up call for many organisations who need to rethink how they use OKRs and OKR software in particular. If you are still certain you need OKR software, here are some final points for consideration:

Making an exception, when might you decide to get OKR software?

  • If you are purchasing another software tool (e.g. hiring, HR, continuous performance review tooling, etc), you might find you get the OKR piece for free. But you should only buy the tool for its primary function (which is not OKR).
  • The organisation doesn’t like the current collaboration tooling, and the OKR software plus all of its features will be way better than what you currently have.

But remember

  • People could feel that the tool is like a time-keeping sheet and lose interest in updating it. Make sure you have the correct organisational behavior in place to make the best use of the tool. Make sure it integrates well with your existing collaboration suite to avoid yet-other-tool fatigue.
  • As of date, none of the OKR software integrates well with your existing KPI dashboards or analytics systems. You need to enter all data manually, every single week.
  • EU based enterprise companies usually don’t want to put their sensitive strategic information into a cloud tool that hosts their data in the USA or elsewhere. (The other way around also applies). Make sure you have a contract in place regarding the safety of your data.

Recap

When you install OKRs in your organisation, beware of some common pitfalls:

  • Don’t start with OKR software straight away.
  • Keep OKRs simple, starting with just one or a few. Don’t squeeze all your operation goals into OKRs.
  • When you do need software for the sake of online collaboration, use simple existing tools.
  • Don’t manage your organisation with OKRs; instead, trust your teams to move the needle on your company OKRs.

Allowing goals to become fragmented into endless subgoals only dilutes focus and scatters efforts. Goals/OKRs should be a rallying point, drawing people together and forward.

In my upcoming book, I will explain more on how to use OKRs in practice. Sign up for my newsletter and get the latest updates.

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