When most companies start using the goal-setting framework Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), they likely start tracking their goals in spreadsheets or other manual processes. When you use Excel, Google Sheets, PowerPoint and other similar tools to track OKRs, you’ll quickly learn the limitations of these manual methods. What started as “just fine” is not good enough to scale, drive adoption or engagement, takes too much time, and becomes a burdensome process to manage. No one has the time and energy for that.
OKR adoption goes beyond the basics of capturing goals. At its best, the framework provides not only a way for entire companies to align day-to-day work to the company’s most important priorities, but also a cultural shift at the organization. OKRs enable a culture of transparency and the ability to say no to tasks and projects that aren’t going to move the business forward.
Manual OKR tracking can hinder all of the successful benefits the OKR methodology brings to an organization. Goals should be top of mind and integrated with day-to-day work. When you use an OKR software, this is easily accomplished by providing one central location where all work is documented.
When you are manually tracking OKRs, documenting progress of goals and rolling up reports is time consuming and leaves room for errors. It also makes managing the alignment, or multi-alignment, of goals both horizontally and vertically across teams nearly impossible, and dependencies can become lost between the lines.
Most companies start adopting OKRs through a proof-of-concept stage where they’re trying to validate the value of Objectives and Key Results. When doing this, they begin by rolling the goal-setting framework out in a small test group, consisting of one or several teams.
For this stage, spreadsheets seem to work just fine since it’s a confined sample with a small amount of data to manage. But when it’s time to take the next step and roll out OKRs company-wide, the sheer volume of data and documents being shared and updated on a weekly check-in cadence becomes an unmanageable process.
This can often lead to sporadic follow-up, and lack of follow-through on progress. In this scenario, OKRs become an add-on to complex workflows rather than becoming the foundation of strategic focus and direction.
OKRs are designed to improve cross-functional alignment, collaboration, and accountability. When managed in multiple documents, they become another place for employees to check and update, as opposed to automating updates with the systems they are already using.
Because these documents remain separate from workflows, employees may fail to make updates and cloud the “single source of truth” that OKRs aim to create. Since employee goals contribute to team and organizational goals, a lack of transparency prevents team members from seeing where they are in reaching broader objectives.
Managing OKRs this way is cumbersome at every level—leadership, operations, and human resources. Having to parse hundreds or even thousands of lines of data to decipher whether or not employees are up-to-date on progress, which goals are on track, behind, or even at risk is time consuming, and often becomes a struggle. By not having an easy way to visualize progress and accountability, it becomes harder to manage one-on-one coaching sessions between employees and their managers.
John Doerr, the man who helped bring OKRs to Google and the world, noted that “cascading makes an operation more coherent.” When a company develops top-level OKRs to guide the business over a specific period, goals need to be cascaded to different teams and employees to make these objectives a reality. Cascading goals using manual tracking methods is difficult, and requires employees to individually track and manage their goals in their respective areas. This in turn causes a lack of transparency—which is critical to the overall success of OKRs.
Again, this process may start as “just fine,” but let’s remember that one of the benefits of using OKRs is that they are flexible and iterative. They can be updated often and re-aligned when goals and objectives change.
Let’s think about a common scenario where a company-wide objective changes mid-quarter, and impacts teams and individual priorities, which requires a mass-update to be made on all separate spreadsheets. It’s an overwhelming thought, and an even more overwhelming task.
When goals are tracked manually, there is a lack of insight and transparency. Updates are done ad-hoc, and it becomes difficult for teams to understand how their work aligns with other teams— knowing where progress stands towards achieving those goals, and how broader business objectives are being met.
To manage OKRs at scale, and to gain the full agile benefits, it requires smarter processes that go beyond manual tracking. Having a simple and efficient way to manage the company hierarchy, to support team structures, alignment, and multi-alignment—even dependencies becomes critical.
The manual tracking of OKRs creates an island that disconnects goals from the tools and apps that the workforce uses daily. When goals live outside teams or individuals purview, it’s difficult for contributors to hold themselves accountable. Because of this, strategic focus may be lost in the day-to-day distraction of competing priorities, detracting away from the work that matters most.
If teams struggle to parse through information manually, it can result in a lack of insight into annual and quarterly progress. The loss of these insights does nothing to boost employee morale or engagement and leads to lower adoption and contribution throughout the OKR process.
If you’re in the process of searching for a better OKR template, or workarounds to enable a more straightforward manual tracking process—or just starting with OKRs, it’s never the wrong time to consider a dedicated OKR tool.
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