Pros and Cons of Piloting OKRs: A Delicate Balancing Act

OKR Pilots: A balancing act. Pros: early adopters, best practices, lower risk. Cons: limited representation, collaboration challenges, triviality. Learn and adapt.

Ah, the age-old question: To pilot or not to pilot? Many organizations contemplate dipping their toes into the world of OKRs through pilot projects. After completing numerous OKR projects ourselves, we find ourselves pondering whether these pilots truly enhance long-term success. While the jury is still out on that, we've compiled a list of pros and cons for OKR projects that we'd like to share with you. Mind you, these are in no particular order, but we've numbered them for easier reference (because who doesn't love numbers?).

Let's start with the pros, the shining knights of the pilot kingdom:

  1. Embrace the "early adopters" within your organization.
  2. Cultivate your very own set of OKR best practices.
  3. Test the waters on a smaller scale, learning what works and what doesn't without diving into the deep end of risk.
  4. Gain easier permission for those pint-sized pilot projects.
  5. Establish a "beachhead" (à la Geoffrey Moore) to anchor your OKR efforts.
  6. Generate success stories from pilots to ignite internal excitement and build momentum.
  7. Set an example for others by modeling the behavior you wish to see replicated.
  8. Garner support from multiple stakeholders within the organization.
  9. Unleash the power of focus and watch it work its magic.
  10. Target specific benefits tailored to your organization's needs.
  11. Allow ideas to fail gracefully within the safe confines of a pilot.
  12. Embrace the agility of smaller endeavors, enabling quick course corrections.

But alas, where there is light, there must also be shadows. Behold, the cons emerge:

  1. The pilot area may not be representative of the entire organization, rendering the results meaningless.
  2. OKRs thrive on becoming the lingua franca of the organization, fostering seamless communication between departments. Without an organization-wide pilot, this crucial benefit remains untapped.
  3. Pilots, by their very nature, can leave key influencers feeling excluded and unsupportive.
  4. Opting for a pilot instead of a grand rollout may signal lower managerial commitment.
  5. The power bestowed upon a small pilot team can potentially derail the entire project.
  6. Pilot participants may be unaware of the broader organizational benefits tied to OKRs, thus missing out on their true significance.
  7. Pilots can stifle collaboration, while OKRs thrive on it. They shift the focus from achieving results to judging the program, turning collaborators into mere observers and critics.
  8. Pilots discourage persistence, robbing projects of the determined drive that propels them to success. High stakes often inspire greater effort, but pilots strip away that urgency.
  9. Narrowly focused pilots often fail to fully encompass the multifaceted nature of OKRs, limiting their effectiveness.
  10. Pilots often fixate on low-hanging fruit, neglecting the tougher issues that persist year after year.
  11. Pilots convey the message "This too shall pass." Employees who have witnessed failed pilots and abandoned initiatives have learned that business-as-usual prevails. Management's commitment wavers, and life returns to normal.
  12. Pilots may come across as trivial endeavors that fail to convince skeptics.
  13. Pilots fail to establish sustainable habits. While they may generate enthusiasm and temporary change, habits aren't formed in the short duration of a pilot.
  14. Pilots are often conducted during slow periods, providing limited insights into their true potential. What works in a lull may not hold up under real pressures and demands.
  15. Pilots enable the abdication of responsibility, subtly downplaying their importance.

Now, before you swear off piloting OKRs altogether, remember that these "cons" can all be mitigated...if you are aware of them!

Piloting OKRs: The "P" word may deflate importance, but it's still worth it. Learn, adapt, and avoid pitfalls by:

  • Identifying specific learning needs
  • Focusing on results, not just pilot status
  • Staying objective amidst tweaks
  • Targeting real priorities in a real setting
  • Gathering necessary resources for success.

Brett Knowles

Brett Knowles is a thought leader in the Strategy Execution space for high-tech organizations. His client work has been published in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fortune, and many other business publications.

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