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  • Writer's pictureJoe Ottinger

OKR Pitfalls, Failures, and Restarts

How to identify and remedy the most common OKR implementation pitfalls.

Over the last several years, we have worked with dozens of companies on OKR implementations that have failed to achieve the goals set out by their leaders. In almost all cases, the causes of failure were not due to poor software or systems, but instead difficulties implementing the large-scale change to operations associated with the use of OKRs.

Our role has been to come in and help the leaders reset and restart their OKR process. We want to share what we have learned from this process.

Tell-tale signs OKRs are not working

When implementing OKRs, there are at least two large signals to look for that indicate OKRs aren’t working: OKRs are not being used regularly and the feeling OKRs are more trouble than they are worth.

1. OKRs are Not Being Used Regularly

Commonly, OKRs are set quarterly with leaders and managers intending to use them regularly to align and measure progress on key priorities. Due to the intense pressure of immediate and important business priorities, however, OKRs in practice are frequently not updated or revisited until the end of the quarter. At that time, there is a mad rush to update the OKR management system and review how the quarter went.

2. OKRs Feel Like More Trouble Than They are Worth

The second sign OKRs aren’t working is the feeling that it just takes too much time to create, track, update, and grade OKRs for the company, department, and their own team’s goals. It seems like a lot of overhead without the intended business benefits.

Failure Statements

What we hear when OKRs are not working well within an organization:

“Too Much Overhead”

“Another Reporting System”

“We Don’t Need It”

“All Our Work is Captured in OKRs”

“Senior Leaders Don’t Use, Why Should I?”

“We Lack the Discipline to Prioritize”

“OKRs are Our Primary Measure of Performance”

The end result?"We tried OKRs and gave up"

Success Statements

Contrast this with what we hear when OKRs work well:

“Our Senior Team Uses and Advocates OKRs”

“OKRs are Part of Our Strategy to Mature our Organization's Capability to Execute at Scale”

“Leaders See OKR Adoption as a Learning Journey. They are Patient and Committed to Success Over Time”

“Leadership Makes an Effort to Commit and Support People Through Adoption”

“Leaders Encourage and Support Tough Conversations”

“Our Organization Values and Invests in Data, Metrics, and Measures”

The end result? "We wouldn't be where we are without OKRs."

So What are the Pitfalls and Remedies for Poor OKR Implementations?

Below is a list of the top behavior patterns that lead to suboptimal results related to goal setting with OKRs. However, if we were to boil it down to just one key thing, it would be that OKRs are rolled out too quickly to departments and teams before they are mastered by senior leadership.

When OKRs are rolled out too quickly, the negative impacts discussed above are compounded, especially overhead. It’s like asking someone to swim a medley relay when all your teammates have been taught is how to float! It’s bad enough if one person doesn’t understand, but it exacerbates the problem when the whole team is unsure.

Top 10 OKR Implementation Pitfalls

  1. Lack of Clear Guiding Principles for Implementation

  2. Lack of a Clear Strategy and/or Too Many Strategic Priorities

  3. Not Using a Change Leadership Approach for Implementing OKRs

  4. Lack of Senior Leadership Sponsorship and Usage of OKRs

  5. Rolling Out OKRs Too Quickly

  6. Lack of Trained OKR Champions to Support Successful Implementation

  7. Lack of Adequate OKR Training Throughout the Company

  8. Lack of Regular Use, Review, and Learning (the "Set and Forget" OKR Pitfall)

  9. Attempting to Capture All Work and Projects in OKRs

  10. OKR Overhead Outweighs OKR Benefits

Restarting - or Better Yet Doing It Right The First Time

There is a saying in design thinking that, “sometimes you need to go slow first to go fast.” The idea is that when you step back and think about a problem and architect the best solution, the result is accelerated outcomes. So, what does that mean for implementing OKRs?

Our best practice recommendation is to start by working with the senior team and one level down on company OKRs first before cascading them further. The benefits of approaching OKRs this way are many.

First, by aligning the top leadership levels on the most important company priorities, you will likely get the greatest benefits with the least amount of overhead.

Most seasoned department heads already have a way of executing within their functional areas. Although they could use a goal-setting methodology that is shared by all employees within their functional area to achieve even greater results, this is likely secondary to rapidly achieving the overall company priorities.

In truth, most company priorities that are leapfrogs forward require cross-company collaboration. Therefore, by focusing on company priorities first, you will achieve horizontal alignment and, in most cases, the greatest benefits.

Second, like any significant change within a company, there is a learning curve. Back to the swimming analogy—you don’t learn to swim a medley well overnight. It takes practice. The same is true with OKRs.

By helping senior leadership master OKRs first, there is the greatest leverage when cascaded out to the rest of the organization. Also, because there are fewer people in the top leadership levels, the overhead on the organization is minimized.

Finally, having significant experience helping companies with change leadership, there is a process and structure to implementing large scale change in an organization. The process involves creating a climate for change, engaging and enabling the organization, and then sustaining and institutionalizing the change.

The structure involves creating OKR change champions that partner with senior leadership. If you attack the implementation of OKRs by “just getting started,” you significantly increase the chance of failure. However, by applying a change leadership approach, you greatly reduce this risk.


About The Author

Joe Ottinger is a co-founder of OKR Advisors, a training and management consulting firm helping companies achieve the promise of business agility now. Prior to OKR Advisors, Joe was a co-founder of Kotter International along with Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter. Joe has published books and articles about innovation, change, and leadership, which have appeared in Forbes, Chief Executive Magazine, The Financial Times, Worth Magazine, and Stanford's Center for Social Innovation.


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