In the space of OKRs there is an unwritten rule: Once a team announces the introduction of OKRs they must face within five minutes the question of which software tool they will use.
This question is mostly glazed over in books like Measure What Matters or Radical Focus. For good reason: The biggest hurdle of introducing OKRs is almost never the OKR management tool, but rather understanding, socializing, and implementing OKRs as a tool itself. Techniques like pressure testing OKRs, outcomes vs. output or focusing on few but meaningful key results are a lot more important than the tool in the early stages, and it often takes a few quarters for a team to get good at OKRs and see results.
I used to be dismissive when I got the question of the management tool. My standard anecdote was:
Remember pickup basketball? You never worried about the person with brand new Jordans at the pickup game. But whoever was ready to play in whatever they were wearing? For sure they were going to be trouble.
I advised to use a simple shared document, spreadsheet or presentation, because ultimately OKRs are simple: Select a few objectives, find a small number of meaningful metrics to measure progress against those objectives, track progress. This should not be artificially complicated through a specialized digital tool.
For smaller teams that line of reasoning still holds true even as comfort with OKRs develops. Most OKR management tools are designed for larger teams. While well intentioned, they tend to distract in the beginning – not unlike productivity porn or tweaking a fancy IDE before learning how to code.
However, as a team grows and OKRs permeate the organization more people are getting involved. They all have their part in setting, tracking and reviewing OKRs. In that process multiple sets of OKRs emerge along the management hierarchy that need to align. Managing this through documents, spreadsheets and presentations starts to become unruly. I’ve been there. You start with a document to set OKRs, track them with a spreadsheet only to review them later with a presentation. And throughout the year you are endlessly cycling through those three artefacts. This is highly manual, error prone and massively annoying.
Once you reach a team size of a few dozen people, it is time to think about investing in software tools. None of them are perfect, but they do provide structure, control and visibility that help deal with growing complexity. Pragmatically, they help keep data consistent, avoid double entries, and help crush the general entropy that comes with growing teams. Ultimately, it’s an investment in a more inclusive and transparent culture.
Many thanks to Isaac Hepworth for many discussions about this topic, help with this post, and general encouragement.