15 OKR experts explain why companies fail first-time implementation

15 OKR experts explain why companies fail first-time implementation

Why do so many companies fail at OKRs on their first attempt? Hear from Christina Wodtke, Paul Niven, Allan Kelly, Brad Dunn and more.

In most cases, the implementation of OKRs in business can be met with hesitation from employees, middle managers or even CEOs. In some cases, companies will say “OKRs don’t work” or “OKRs did nothing for our business”, without acknowledging that they are making common mistakes and never fully invested in OKRs in the first place. 

In this instalment of our ten-part expert blog series, we asked 15 authors, influencers, and coaches what the most common oversights and blunders are during first-time OKR adoption. Each answer includes some brilliant insight to help you avoid making these common, but fatal, OKR mistakes!

  • High-level complexity at the first attempt
  • Initial roll-out being company wide
  • Understanding the difficulty of writing effective OKRs
  • Lack of explanation of OKRs and investment in them
  • The inability to look beyond traditional methods of working
  • Changing management mindset is key in making OKRs work
  • Executive, employee and C-level sponsorship of OKRs

Read all of the full-length answers from 15 OKR experts below:

Christina Wodtke

Christina Wodtke, Radical Focus Author, OKR Expert, Consultant & Stanford Lecturer

Too often companies attempt to deploy OKRs at every level. The degree of complexity that that sets up almost completely ensures failure. I always recommend that the company start with 1 high-performing team who volunteers to try out OKRs. Often managers find this counterintuitive. They hope that OKRs will fix problem teams, but OKRs are much more of a vitamin than they are a medicine. If you can start with a high-performing team and have them use OKRs for one quarter, the same intelligence that they bring to their work, they will bring to figuring out how to use OKRs within your culture. If they are successful, you not only have a template for how to deploy OKRs but you also have a team that you can point at and say that's how to do it.

Paul Niven

Paul Niven, Global OKR Coach & OKR Author

Based on the conversations I have with organisations from across the globe, I would suggest the biggest reason companies fail with OKR adoption the first time around is underestimating the challenge of writing effective, technically-proficient OKRs. Everyone assumes goal setting (and hence OKRs) is easy, but writing good goals is difficult, requiring care and precision. I’ve had many conversations with CEOs who expect OKRs to deliver focus and prioritisation, only to be disappointed upon discovering a list of vague goals or glorified to-do lists masquerading as OKRs. Again, writing effective OKRs isn’t easy, and that challenge should be acknowledged at the outset of an implementation.

Allan Kelly

Allan Kelly, Agile OKR Coach & OKR Author

A recurring story I keep coming across is “Thou should use OKRs.” I experienced it myself and thought it was a one off but I’ve now heard it several times. Companies don’t seem to invest in explaining OKRs and setting expectations. Instead OKRs are seen as tools which people can pick up and just use with little or no explanation or training. For most legacy companies, OKRs are a big cultural change and deserve a big conversation. Are you targeting a 70% success rate? Or do leadership expect 100%? Is the organisation prepared for the inevitable failures? Do managers see OKRs simply as a way of instructing teams what to do or as a way to empower teams? The cynical might say companies are trying OKRs “on the cheap” and not investing in supporting teams.

Bart Den Haak

Bart Den Haak, Consultant & OKR Author

By far the biggest reason why OKRs fail is due to a command-and-control organisational model (often associated with Taylorism), rather than a mission-command model. In a command-and-control model, leaders dictate the rules by providing teams with solutions to implement (also known as the feature factory), rather than inspiring teams to work towards certain outcomes by allowing them to solve problems. Even modern so-called (large scale) Agile frameworks like SAFe and Scrum will maintain this status quo. Leaders need to obtain a growth mindset and go beyond these traditional heavyweight processes and replace it with trust in people. You can read more about this in my upcoming book: Moving the Needle With Lean OKRs.

Brad Dunn

Brad Dunn, Chief Product Officer & OKR Author

I wrote a whole book about this very topic as people kept asking me but I think it comes down to a few very simple factors. First, companies struggle to say no to things. It’s easy to set OKRs but when it comes to a hard choice, and the OKRs encourage you to ignore something that now sounds really important, this is where people lose faith on the ground. When people realise the OKRs aren't taken seriously when the chips are down, enthusiasm falls away. The second reason is people over complicate it when they start. My advice is start small, don’t set too many, and make sure everyone from the CEO down knows you’re going to really give it a go.

Richard Russell

Richard Russell, OKR & Leadership Coach

False expectations. Some managers expect that if they follow the OKR rules, they will get 10x results. So they put a lot of effort into learning rules, writing OKRs and setting up systems. The real benefits come from a change in management mindset - specifically how decisions are made and how teams are led. OKRs are a framework to help managers change their mindsets and empower their teams while maintaining alignment.

Nikhil Maini, OKR International Trainer & Founder

Nikhil Maini

When discussing this question with Nikhil, it was clear that there are a large number of fatal mistakes being made by organisations big and small. Due to this, Nikhil gave us a list of the most common mistakes he has seen over the last five years. Nikhil’s top 6 mistakes being made on the first implementation of OKRs include:

  1. Thinking that because OKRs are simple to understand, they might be simple to implement
  2. Letting the software dictate practices rather than the other way around
  3. Not training people correctly on OKRs, before beginning
  4. Setting too many OKRs (The OKR Ham) for the first time and not being OK with failure
  5. Poor leadership role modelling on OKR Rituals and poor discipline and rigour on cadence reviews
  6. Being penny-wise and not getting an expert to guide you through the process

Omid Akhavan, OKR Coach

Omid Akhavan

Omid, like Nikhil, explained that in his experience, first time OKR adoption ends in failure for many reasons, including:

  1. Not securing executive sponsorship, focusing on tool/technology instead of people/process/culture 
  2. Letting the HR department drive it, use it for performance evaluation 
  3. Implementing OKRs in the entire company rather than doing a pilot first 
  4. Trying to make the 1st cycle of OKRs a perfect cycle 
  5. Trying to implement based on books and articles and not getting external help (training & coaching)
  6. And finally, simply implementing OKRs just because famous companies have done so, etc
Maeleine Silva

Madeleine Silva, OKR Coach & Trainer 

Madeleine was another who gave several suggestions for OKR implementation failure. There are many reasons, including:

  • Starting without establishing deployment parameters (Understanding the strategy, defining the level, defining the cycle, putting a number on the amount of OKRs, and the metrics you use to score)
  • Lack of sponsorship from employees or management 
  • Not taking into account the company's culture when implementing OKRs
Paul Barker

Paul Barker, OKR & Strategy Coach 

There is no “right way” to implement OKRs - there is just “right for you”. Most teams read a book filled with success stories and decide to implement OKRs “because Google uses it”. Google uses it yes, but they’ve developed it over many years, and ingrained it into their culture. When teams set out to implement OKRs, they should ensure they have a reason for the journey - and then a commitment should be made to not only implement, but also iterate. Change the methodology until you find the “right for you” approach.

Gerri Vereen

Gerri Vereen, Executive & OKR Coach 

Gerri was clear when discussing her thoughts on the reason for OKR failure during first-time adoption. “When the company hasn’t clearly defined and/or communicated their “Why”, and “Why Now”, for the OKR implementation.”

Khalil Medina

Khalil Medina, CEO & OKR Coach

Khalil, much like Gerri above, knew his answer to this question straight away, suggesting, like some of the answers above, that “Not having the right people in the right seats” has been, in his experience, the main reason for OKR adoption failure. The processes, software etc can all be in place, but if you have the wrong people in the wrong seats, it can be futile. 

Carsten Ley

Carsten Ley, OKR Goal-Setting Coach 

Like Khalil and Gerri, Carsten was clear on why he thinks most companies fail their first try at OKR implementation. “Missing change management and training towards agility, alignment and transparency.”

Kenneth Paul Lewis, OKR Coach

Kenneth Paul Lewis

When organisations treat OKRs as a plug-and-play framework, they fail. Most companies ignore the basic tenets of change management and expect that the process will take care of itself. This assumption, quickly exposes cracks in an organisation’s culture; especially their ability to do the following:

  • Fail-fast and refine: When companies look for that perfect implementation and perfect OKR goals, it rapidly shows their impatience with errors. And in OKRs failure is expected and it's managed. The first few quarters should be more about getting used to the process than focussing on results
  • Not evolving to an optimal cadence: Organisation's need to be flexible at arriving at the most suited frequency for OKR setting, check-ins, cadence reviews and retrospectives
  • Leadership skills: Organisations who have people who don't want to let go of their power-control management practices will find it difficult to follow critical OKR principles such as transparency, psychological safety, experimentation, autonomous decision making, inclusion and bottom-up contribution
  • Resist rolling back to previous methods: When organisations find OKR methodologies too alien and sudden, they tend to default back to their old ways of setting goals. This old wine in a new bottle, then makes people believe that the old non-OKR practice was better (without having fully experienced OKRs)
  • Collaborate effectively: Most previous goal setting methods took into consideration existing organisational structures that are mostly siloed. However OKRs need teams to show up not only to achieve their own goals, but have shared goals that collectively ladder up to the organisation’s goal 
Saba Ghafari

Saba Ghafari, OKR Coach & Organisational Development Professional 

Wrong goal setting. They may set input instead of outcome as a KR or expect a very ambitious outcome for one round which may not be realistic. Having OKRS for all levels and every individual in the first round. OKRS should have leaders’ support and everyone should be involved. So, for the very first round I do not suggest companies to have OKRS for every individual, instead they can have it for each team, involving everyone and practicing it together to get better each round.

Interested in more OKR expert analysis and insight? You can see all 10 blogs from our first expert-led OKR blog series here.

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