Ally.io
March 16, 2021

Why you can’t scale an OKR program using spreadsheets

Jessica Baum
Jessica Baum
Director of Product Marketing at Ally.io

When companies start using objectives and key results (OKRs), they begin like most, using manual tracking methods such as Excel, Google Sheets, PowerPoint, and other manual processes. By using these types of practices for their OKR program, goals are created, updated manually, and shared through email, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and other communication channels.

The reason these manual methods become the starting point for most early OKR adopters is due to how quickly a team can pull together a list of goals, and begin tracking and documenting. Unfortunately, as organizations start to dive into the true nature of the OKR methodology and understand that adoption of the framework goes beyond the basics of capturing goals, teams,  managers, and senior leadership begin to struggle. They realize 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. In this blog, we discuss why manual OKR tracking just doesn’t cut it when you start to scale your program.

What is the problem with manual OKR tracking in spreadsheets?

Manual OKR tracking practices hinder many, if not all, of the successful benefits the OKR method brings to an organization.

1. Goals are siloed and not integrated into the daily workflow where teams and individuals are performing their day-to-day work.

2. Employees are less engaged, and tracking progress becomes difficult–especially when a company doesn’t have the benefit  of automating gentle reminders to request weekly check-ins.

3. Tracking progress and rolling up reports is time-consuming, manual and leaves room for errors.

4. Managing the alignment, or multi-alignment of goals both horizontally and vertically across teams is near impossible.

5. Dependencies can become lost between the lines.

Key points: 

  • Managing multiple spreadsheets is unwieldy and impractical 
  • It’s nearly impossible to ensure participation and compliance
  • Spending more time managing a cumbersome process that should be easy 
  • Cascading objectives and rolling up progress is cumbersome 
  • OKRs are agile, and manual tracking isn’t

Managing multiple spreadsheets is unwieldy and impractical 

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 inundating process.

Often, this can 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.

It’s nearly impossible to ensure participation and compliance

OKRs are designed to improve cross-functional alignment, collaboration, and accountability. When managed in different 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. 

Spending more time managing a cumbersome process that should be easy 

Managing OKRs in a multitude of documents 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. 

Cascading objectives and rolling up progress is cumbersome 

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 realigned 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 even more overwhelming task.

OKRs are agile, and manual tracking isn’t

One of the key benefits of using the OKR method is to adopt agile strategy planning and execution. This requires goals to be at the forefront of individuals’ day-to-day work, requires company-wide transparency, collaboration, and on-going progress check-ins. The framework, when adopted, successfully enables organizations and  teams to move together in one cohesive direction to achieve broader company goals.

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. 

Conclusion: Why OKR tracking with spreadsheets just doesn’t work

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. Strategic focus may also 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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