Managing Objectives: Using OKR Management with Koan [Interview]


I have been recently browsing through the latest OKR and goal-setting software solutions out there after watching this video by Rick Klau, a partner from the Google Ventures Startup Lab. This type of method is meant to support transparent leadership and efficient management of achieving goals, by enabling everyone to connect and contribute.

As the method is not licensed in a way that would restrict software developer to build their own version of it, OKR solutions are widely spread. Only a few of those vary from the original design and offer value-add beyond methodology.

Finding the right solutions is not easy

But I don’t want to sound too negative about it all either. Many generic and rather stale solutions make it easier to spot the interesting ones after all. More by accident than as a research result, I stumbled overa n OKR solution called Koan.

It looks very fresh, useful and fun to use. How could I miss that in the first place? I think one reason at least is because they are an OKR tool that doesn’t brand itself as such. The term “OKR” shows up almost nowhere on their websites. Why is that?

I think the Team at Koan are trying out a really interesting strategy. They only offer the solution to a particular problem and not sticking a methodology label on it to drive marketing only via that one channel. They are looking to support organizations to better structure their vision, to help them find actionable steps to achieve their goals. We talked with Matt Tucker, CEO, and co-founder of Koan, and asked the questions we were most curious about in regards to Koan and managing OKRs.

How did Koan start? What was the idea behind it?

Matt Tucker

Arend Naylor, the other founder of Koan, had a simple but important insight, which was that the way managers and leaders work with their teams is *still* done almost entirely manually and that teams rarely embrace the learnings of the last many years of research about how to perform well. By analogy: if you’re in sales, engineering, design, etc. there are great software tools to help you do your job. Unfortunately, the same thing isn’t true for people managers… there’s just no good existing software tool. Instead, we sit in painfully long meetings, get too many emails and suffer through messy spreadsheets to track our goals.

We believe there is a huge opportunity to do these processes better and that software can unlock the value in the data being collected. Our hope is to make a big positive impact on people’s work lives by helping teams achieve their priorities and goals while driving a positive culture of accountability and feedback.

Koan is certainly no task tracker, no time tracker, and certainly no project management software. How would you label it, if you had to?

Koan is meant to help teams with the “bigger picture” — your top priorities, goals, and knowing if you’re making progress every week. Task and issue tracking tools are great, but it’s often hard to see the forest through the trees. The reflection mechanic in Koan gathers that data in an easy way, plus offers teams a natural way to gather feedback on how to continually improve.

I’ve seen similar interesting solutions such as Koan before, but many fail when staff is not actively using “the new tool.” What are your recommendations to introduce Koan and to keep team members motivated to use it?

Deciding to use a new tool or to start a new behavior can be challenging. We think about solving that problem in two ways: first, lowering the friction to make Koan really easy to adopt and use, and second to make sure everyone on the team gets as much value from the product as possible (and definitely more value than the effort they put in).

Want to read more about OKR? Things article might also be interesting for you: How to Master “High Output Management”

Teams are already spending a lot of time collecting data about the status of key projects and goals, often via email or meetings. Our simple pitch is that we’ll help you collect that same data in the same amount of time or less, but deliver a lot more value. We also deeply integrate with Slack so that you can use Koan where you’re already doing work.

For individual team members, Koan is valuable because it’s a simple way to know everything that’s (transparency) and because it’s a great way to get feedback on the work you’re doing from other members of the team, plus your manager. For managers, Koan offers a single place to see the team’s progress, an easy way to provide coaching, and the best place to track and achieve goals.

Are you thinking about creating a Koan for smartphones at the moment?

Absolutely! We support a mobile-web version of the product today and have native iOS and Android clients in our roadmap.

The website mentions a possible integration with Slack. Are you also planning to integrate with other collaboration solutions?

The Slack integration is a great way to integrate Koan into your team workflow. We also provide a Goal Metrics API for integrating with 3rd party data sources. Our next integration targets are issue tracking tools like JIRA and Trello to make it really easy to pull in the work that you’re accomplishing.

How many of the teams that start in the free plan, scale up and actively seek to subscribe to a paid option?

The free version of the tool is a great way to validate that Koan works for your team. We’re seeing many of our free users decide to switch to a paid version with all the additional features and larger team size after a few weeks.

You offer a special startup discount for companies that are no older than two years. Does their subscription expire at some point after they might not be considered startup any longer?

It’s never too early to put in place good behaviors around goals and how you work together as a team. We love supporting other startups via special pricing. Small startups pay just $10/month and then graduate to our normal pricing as they achieve success and grow.

Scaling? Also interesting: How to Upscale Like a Boss

What future functions and features are you planning for Koan?

Right now we’re working hard to make Koan the single best tool for setting and tracking OKRs / goals. We’re excited about solving that problem for teams of every size (from startups through large multi-national organizations).

Everybody can look up the meaning of “koan,” but what does the term mean for you personally?

A koan is a question or riddle that a Zen master poses to a student. Through self-introspection of the koan, the student uncovers a deeper truth.

The general analogy resonated strongly —  when managing and leading teams, one of the most important behaviors is asking great questions. Regular reflection on what’s going well, what’s not and how to improve is one of the best ways teams can get better.

Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer our questions. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with our readers?

Clearing defining your team’s top priorities through objectives and then making success measurable through key results with metrics is an amazing way to drive a positive team culture and to achieve more than you thought possible. We hope teams that want a better way to set and achieve their goals will try out Koan.

So, this is how our interview with Matt from Koan ended. What do you think about it? I discovered a lot of nice features when I tried it out. You’re not going to be billed and you don’t need to register with a credit card either so it’s absolutely risk-free to try this out and take Koan for a spin.

It’s also worth mentioning that they support more than one taxonomy, so if you already have terms other than the terms used in OKR methodology you can simply use a different taxonomy set and won’t need to have people learn new vocabulary for the things they are already familiar with. A nice feature that I have not found anywhere else.

If you happen to try Koan out, make sure to drop us a note about it and feel invited to share your thoughts with us below in the comments. Many thanks!

Photo credit: The feature image has been done by Rawpixel.
Editorial notice: The interview has been edited for clarity.

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Christopher Isak
Christopher Isak
Hi there and thanks for reading my article! I'm Chris the founder of TechAcute. I write about technology news and share experiences from my life in the enterprise world. Drop by on Twitter and say 'hi' sometime. ;)
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