OKRs with Spreadsheets

Category: OKR University.

Recently, I had a chance to talk to one of our customers about his company’s experience with Objectives and Key Results(OKRs). This is a medium-size Tech company outside Silicon Valley. Their CMO identified “nimble-footed startups” as their primary threat and wanted his team to “stay sharp” and “execute well”. They decided to “try out” OKRs for a couple of quarters using excel sheets.

Here is the sequence that followed:

  • The department leaders briefed their teams about OKRs and gave them general guidance about defining their OKRs and aligning them with corporate and other departments.
  • Managers and Individual contributors attempted to define the OKRs in an excel template.
  • The template was difficult to enter for users and several errors cropped up.
  • People started maintaining multiple versions and were sharing the spreadsheets across by emails
  • Some people complained that their OKRs had been “overwritten” by others
  • Objectives and Key Results that had dependencies were especially difficult – For example, “Creating a great Marketing Analytics team” was an important OKR for the Marketing team, while HR did not have “ Hiring great Analytics talent” as their OKR – Both the departments were working with their own excel sheets, in different offices.
  • Alignment was just not possible – as the planning deadline grew nearer, people were just trying to “get over with” the “drafting OKRs exercise”. People had a hard time relating how their work impacted others and even their own department.
  • Managers and contributors started complaining about how the exercise was “laborious” and “sucking up a lot of their time”.
  • Managers who had to “report” their progress to the CMO had a particularly difficult time – They had to start preparing several weeks ahead of the meeting to collect the excel sheets from various teams, clean-up the data and create reports for the CMO, making the reports “outdated” by the time, the meeting happened.
  • The CMO’s experience was not great either – she had to wait for the review meetings to get a sense of the progress of various teams and had to rely on “custom reports” being prepared for the occasion. These reports did not have “drill through’ capabilities and were static. More importantly these reports were given once a month and hence there was no way to give early feedback to the teams.
  • When a survey was conducted about the OKR implementation about a quarter into the effort, words like “Miserable” and “Frustrating” were the most common responses.
  • The initial enthusiasm about OKRs was replaced with wariness and there was a danger of people associating their frustration with spreadsheets as “inadequacy of OKRs”
  • The primary objective of creating a ‘nimble execution team” was far from being achieved.
  • The CMO and the leaders decided to end their experiment with spreadsheets and adopt Profit.co as their OKR software for the third quarter.

As the above example illustrates, using spreadsheets for your OKR implementation is not a desirable experience for individual user

To summarize, the issues with spreadsheets are :

For Individual Contributors:

  • Cumbersome to enter data
  • Limited scope for aligning their OKRs with other departments and teams
  • Prone to making errors and duplicate entries
  • Limited visibility to OKRs of others
  • Lack of timely feedback from managers and other team members
  • Lack of easy integration with Task Management and Project Management tools (like Jira and Azure Devops), users have to re-enter data and productivity suffers

Overall, it can be a frustrating user experience.

CXO’sManagersIndividual Contributors
Getting the “True Picture” of the “state of business” difficult as reports are dated  
Lack of easy and uniform UI to create OKRs  
Lack of Prebuilt KPIs 
Alignements and dependencies are difficult to establish  
Getting early warning signs of problems will be difficult, with issues being hidden in spreadsheets.  
Lack of alerts and heatmaps can prevent early interventions in problems  
Scoring errors are rampant  
Grading OKRs is difficult  
Reporting and Reviews can be a chore and can be done only as monthly cadence.  
Maintaining the integrity of the weekly check-ins can be challenging.  
Employee Engagement activities like “Conversations, Feedback and Review” cannot be maintained inside spreadsheets.  
OKR Champions have limited capabilities for setting preferences, visibility, access control and even limited administration of users and departments.  
Cumbersome to enter data  
Limited scope for aligning their OKRs with other departments and teams  
Prone to making errors and duplicate entries  
Limited visibility to OKRs of others  
Lack of timely feedback from managers and other team members.  
Lack of easy integration with tools like Jira and Azure Devops, users have to re enter data and productivity can suffer.  
Overall, can be a frustrating user experience.  

For Managers and OKR Champions:

  • Scoring errors are rampant
  • Grading OKRs is difficult
  • Reporting and Reviews can be a chore and can be done only as monthly cadence.
  • Maintaining the integrity of the weekly check-ins can be challenging.
  • Maintaining the “Conversations, Feedback and Review” framework inside the spreadsheet cannot be done.
  • OKR champions have limited capabilities for setting preferences, visibility, access control and even limited administration of users and departments.

For the CXOs:

  • Getting the “True Picture” of the “state of business” at any given moment is not possible while executing OKRs with spreadsheets as the reports are “always dated”
  • Getting early warning signs of problems will be difficult, with probability of issues being hidden in spreadsheets, will be quite high.
  • Giving timely feedback and early interventions on problem areas is an issue and hence using spreadsheets can defeat the purpose of implementing OKRs.
  • When business needs demands, cancellation or modification of objectives, making changes while using spreadsheets is next to impossible.
Spreadsheets-Difficulty

Spreadsheets can still be used by small teams, particularly for Planning:

Spreadsheets have been used from the early days of computing for various applications like Simple lists, Budgets, Data storage, Data cleaning, Graphs and charts, Financial Modeling and Statistical Analysis. Spreadsheets can still be used by small teams (ten or less) for the limited purpose of planning their OKRs. They can define the corporate OKRs, a few departments (a simple hierarchy) and define OKRs and tasks, But even with a small team, they will still run into all the issues mentioned above, pretty soon.

Conclusion

The verdict is clear, using spreadsheets to implement OKRs does not serve the needs of a serious organization or any type of user – CXOs, Department heads, Managers or Individual contributors.

With high quality SaaS-based OKR software like Profit.co being available, there is really no reason for companies to get stuck with spreadsheets. Using a great intuitive OKR software can increase the enthusiasm of teams and help them stay productive and execute with focus and alignment. Instead of worrying about the problems associated with spreadsheets, team members can spend quality time on deciding stretch targets, innovative ways to achieve them, a great “Conversations, Feedback and Review framework” to improve employee engagement and focus on execution.

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