Where do our OKRs belong?

people walking down the stairs

As teams evaluate implementing OKRs for the first time, one question is inevitable: “which tool should we use?” My answer is the same as Ken Norton’s answer to people who ask him which tools teams should use for roadmaps, wireframing, and yes, even OKRs (they’re disappointed with me, too):

People are often disappointed with my answers, which usually come down to “whatever your team already uses” and “Google Docs.”

First time OKR implementations rarely have an existing tool in place – the team’s trying to implement the framework from scratch, and often assume that if they pick a tool at the same time, it’ll help them get up to speed faster. But if you are looking to OKRs to solve a problem (“why can’t we align teams on a common set of goals?”), and you’re trying to deploy a tool at the same time, you can end up having two problems: you’re learning OKRs at the same time you’re learning a new tool.

Which is why I think Ken’s right: early on, keep it simple and go with what you know. If your team is already familiar with Google Docs, Niket has a good essay (including a Google Docs template) for capturing OKRs here; Notion users might find this template helpful; Coda users will learn a ton from this OKRs kit that the Coda team themselves shared. (See below for a note on OKR-specific tools.)

I have one addendum to Ken’s rule: whatever you choose, make sure everything’s in one place. One of the first portfolio companies I coached on implementing OKRs was excited to share their first draft OKRs for my review; the CEO and six direct reports came to our office, and everyone opened their laptops. (In hindsight, that was the first sign that something was amiss.)

The CEO went first, and shared his proposed company-level objectives. Then he unplugged from the display cable, passed the cable to his VP/Product, who proceeded to share the product team’s OKRs. The problem? The CEO was sharing a PowerPoint deck. The Product Team OKRs were in Excel. Marketing was in Google Slides. Engineering was in Asana. Seven presenters, seven places where the OKRs lived.

Gabriel Sherman has a fascinating, almost-too-good-to-be-true profile of mobster/chef David Ruggerio in the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair. The whole article is well worth your time (it seems inevitable this will be on a big screen before long), but as I was writing this post, I kept thinking about this nugget:

But [Le Chantilly] was still in bankruptcy. Ruggerio said he conspired with Moneypenny, who died in 2007, to rig the auction and buy the restaurant for $100,000. “The cellar alone had half a million dollars of wine in it,” Ruggerio said. The plan was simple, according to Ruggerio. Legally, Moneypenny needed to advertise the auction in a newspaper. So he advertised it in the Staten Island Pennysaver, where few buyers would see it. However, a day before the auction closed, Ruggerio learned a guy in the garment district offered $150,000. Ruggerio said he sent three “friends” to reason with the bidder. Ruggerio got the restaurant.

Technically, the ad for Le Chantilly’s bankruptcy auction was public. But few aspiring titans of nouvelle cuisine scoured the pages of the Staten Island Pennysaver looking for their next restaurant acquisition, so the “public” notice was effectively invisible.

That’s how I think about the anecdote above: when I asked the portfolio company’s leadership about where their OKRs lived, they lit up: they’d listened in our first meeting, and happily reported that every team’s OKRs were visible to everyone in the company. “Just like you said, Rick!” But were they findable? Usable? Not so much.

I remember the first week I joined Google in 2007: I got my laptop, my badge, and access to the corporate network. I was slack-jawed as I realized just how much of the inner workings of Google I had access to. By far the most useful was the access to the past quarters’ OKRs – across the entire company. I could click from year to year, quarter to quarter, team to team – all in one place. I got a sense of how Google thought about goals, how it carved up its work, how it graded itself on outcomes (successful, and less so). I saw how Google thought about itself, I learned what it meant to set goals at Google, and over time learned how to align my work with the work underway across the rest of the company.

That was possible because the OKRs lived in one place. If you make your teams hunt for the info – even if the info is, technically, public – you’re limiting the number of people in the company who will ever browse the work underway, or ever do the historical navigation I did when I joined Google. That defeats the purpose of making the OKRs public, and means you’ll miss out on the incremental value of OKRs over time as they create and capture institutional memory.

None of this is a knock on OKR-specific tools, by the way. I created a collection of OKR tools at Product Hunt a few years back, and have added to it as I learn of new entrants. I’ve heard from a number of very satisfied customers of how helpful those tools have been, so I have no doubt that they can – and do – add value. And when used well, they also solve the point of this post: ensuring that the organization’s OKRs are all in one place. (Let me know if I’m missing a tool on that list by mentioning it in the comments.)

4 responses to “Where do our OKRs belong?”

  1. When asked about which software tool to pick for introducing OKRs, the following picture helped me in the past:
    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.

  2. I agree that the process of figuring out how to build OKRs into an existing set of skills and familiar tools is the best way to get started. I visualize the startup journey like a train. There’s the engine-the core business model then the train cars are like the other slides of the pitch deck that cover all the big basics of the business. But the conductor (founder) can be standing in that engine room and have no idea how to start that engine and make it move. The first year of building and operationalizing OKRs across an org is when the engine starts pulling the cars. At least that’s been my personal experience as a founder 5 years into my startup journey with a few big enterprise customers and a team of 13. The era before Airtable and OKRs have been coined our “before times”

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