Big or Small: piloting OKRs vs full org implementation

by Jenny Bowes | Mar 08, 2021

time icon 4 mins

You’ve decided OKRs are for your organisation. You know the benefits and you’re ready to get started, but which path should you take when it comes to implementing OKRs within your organisation? Whether you decide to run a pilot or go big bang, depends entirely on your organisation, the size, amount of teams and our capacity for change. Today we are joined by Koan – the dedicated OKR platform to talk you through the two options, and help you make an informed decision for your organisation. 

Is a pilot right for you / Pilot Implementation

Implementing OKRs across an organisation can seem daunting, especially if your organisation is a large one. So you may choose to run a pilot project before scaling out to additional parts of the business. When running a pilot you’ll choose a particular part of the organisation, and try OKRs on for size, learn from and then share the findings of the pilot before implementing an extended roll-out. 

Something that we at TBG and our friends over at Koan believe is the concept of test, learn and adapt, a process that is essential to OKR success. By implementing a pilot you allow yourself to learn from the positives and negatives of your first time working with OKRs, and then apply this learning to a wider organisational rollout. Ultimately allowing yourself time to iron out any creases before rolling out to more teams. 

Pilot Pros:

  • Test to see if OKRs are right for you
  • Figure out what works (and doesn’t) to share best practices
  • Could work well for a really specific cross-functional initiative
  • Can build out a playbook for the rest of the org to follow

Pilot Cons: 

  • Only includes a small part of an org
  • Not everyone gets to participate in learnings

Pilot options

Many organisations will choose to pilot the OKR framework before rolling it out to everyone. This ensures that the team piloting the OKR methodology is committed to the process, and it gives them the opportunity to work out issues and train the OKR champions across the company.

When piloting OKRs, three groups are natural candidates for pilot implementation: the executive team, an individual department, or a strategic initiative.

Pilot Option 1: Executive Level

This pilot option includes senior management at the executive level. Advantages with this pilot program is that key stakeholders from every department are involved from the start of the OKR program. Once they go through a few cycles, these leaders then establish cadence at the executive level and can disseminate that rhythm throughout the rest of the company. A potential disadvantage to this pilot option is that teams may not have enough information to report on progress effectively, as this option does not involve key contributors.

Pilot Option 2: Department Level

This pilot option begins with one particular department, commonly the product or engineering team, and involves all levels within that team. This piloting process more realistically simulates a company-wide OKR rollout because all levels of contributors are involved, enabling accurate reporting. Yet, the big risk with piloting OKRs at the department level is that it can reinforce silos. When starting with just one team, it causes a lack of cross-functional work due to the limitation of only one department. OKRs should be guided by strategic priorities and teams formed by drawing from different departments to work on them.

Pilot Option 3: Strategic Initiative 

This pilot option is focused on a specific strategic initiative  that helps progress the annual OKRs established by executives. This is oftentimes a product launch or tactical campaign and spans cross-functionally across several departments. OKRs are a great way to monitor progress towards a big goal and the benefit to this option is that it includes multiple functions across the organisations. The drawback to this approach is that if the initiative’s stakeholder group is very large it may be difficult to enable everyone on OKRs at the same time. In addition, it may be a challenge to adequately train new users of the OKR methodology cross-functionally. Drawbacks aside, this is an excellent approach.

Whichever pilot option you choose, it will help you discover best practices within your organisation and work out the kinks before involving the entire company. 

Big Bang as an alternative / Entire Organisation Implementation

As the name suggests, when choosing a big bang OKR implementation you roll out the framework to all of those within your organisation who will be working on OKRs in one go. This generally works better with smaller organisations as there are less layers to work through. However, some big organisations choose to go big bang to speed up the organisational wide rollout of OKRs. 

Big Bang Pros

  • Teamwork; everyone is in this together and on the same page
  • Aligned comms message across the entire organisation
  • Faster rollout to the entire company 

Big Bang Cons

  • Potentially challenging with larger organisations
  • OKRs aren’t easy, and many don’t get them right the first time
  • Loss of confidence in process if obstacles need to be overcome in the first implementation

What’s the best way 

This really depends on how you want to go about your OKR implementation as an organisation. You should take into account the complexities of your organisation, the capacity for change and consider any cultural implications when it comes to adapting to that change. 

TBG Founder and Head Giant Roger Longden discusses pilots and big bangs in Giant Talk S1 E3, if you haven’t heard the episode, Roger discusses in more detail the benefits of both implementation options. He discloses that the TBG team generally advocate a pilot for most of their clients’ especially when working with larger organisations

Research from the TBG and Koan 2020 Global OKR Report shows that organisations of 100 people or less have a much higher capacity for rapid change, and so had a preference towards opting for a big bang implementation. This being said it’s important to choose the option which is right for your organisation. 

Which path is right for you? 

Supporting your pilot 

Running a pilot allows you to understand the resources you’ll need to roll out your OKR implementation. From the teams and individuals to the software you’ll use to support you on your OKR journey. Use this time to test and try what works for your organisation. The team at Koan now offer a free tier option for their software, which allows you to really learn the ins and outs of the software, check-ins, confidence ratings and more before you roll out the implementation and software to wider teams. 

If you’re considering an OKR implementation and would like to boost your OKR skills, check out the OKR Coach Academy for OKR Coach Training courses which will help you lead an OKR implementation in your organisation.