About a couple of months back, on a flight from Bangalore to Ranchi, after the take-off formalities were completed, I took out my Kindle and began to read. After about 30 minutes of reading, I noticed a fellow passenger coming and sitting on the seat next to me.
Fellow Passenger — “I see you’ve been reading a book for quite some time? It’s rare to see people reading on flights these days. What’s the book about?”
I — “Hi. It’s a book about OKRs.”
FP — “Oh, is it the one by John Doerr?”
I — “Yes, Measure What Matters by John Doerr”
FP — “Oh, great, I read the book when I was trying to implement OKRs for my startup. Are you liking it?”
And thus, a conversation ensued on OKRs on a flight from Bangalore to Ranchi between two strangers. It’s a highly probable event when your flight is taking off from Bangalore. Remember the old joke — “when you throw a stone in Bangalore, chances are, it will hit a dog or a software engineer.”? The new one goes like — “… it will hit a startup founder or a product manager!”
Jokes aside, while there are several resources available to understand and dig through OKRs, there is no better way than to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. To be more precise, straight from the horse’s protégé’s mouth!
About the horse and his protégé?
Andy Grove. The OKR methodology was created by Andy Grove at Intel who was influenced by Peter Drucker’s MBOs (Management by Objectives). Andy became Intel’s President in 1979, CEO in 1987, and Chairman and CEO in 1997. A few lines from Andy Grove straight out from the book — Measure What Matters: OKRs — the Simple Idea That Drives 10x Growth is perhaps the most comprehensive explanation of OKRs you will ever read –
“Now, the two key phrases … are objectives and the key results. And they match the two purposes. The objective is the direction: “We want to dominate the mid-range microcomputer component business.” That’s an objective. That’s where we’re going to go. Key results for this quarter: “Win ten new designs for the 8085” is one key result. It’s a milestone. The two are not the same … The key result has to be measurable. But at the end you can look, and without any arguments: Did I do that or did I not do it? Yes? No? Simple. No judgments in it. Now, did we dominate the mid-range microcomputer business? That’s for us to argue in the years to come, but over the next quarter we’ll know whether we’ve won ten new designs or not.”
OKR expands to Objective and Key Results
Let’s try to understand this by an example most of us can relate to –
Objective: Get nominated for the best outgoing student award at the school.
Key Result 1: Score more than 90% in academics.
Key Result 2: Win the annual debate and quiz competitions.
Key Result 3: Win at least one medal in the annual sports event of the school.
At a first glance, it sounds simple. Objectives are the time-bound objectives that you or team set for yourselves, and Key Results are the time-bound results that will tell you if you have met those objectives. However, as you start to think about applying it to a product team or a company, it begins to get a little complicated. These complications may originate from changing priorities, lack of/ambiguous vision, lack of defined business goals, unwillingness to change, spoon-feeding from top leadership and so on.
John Doerr learnt OKRs from Andy Grove and went on to become its strongest proponent. John convinced Google in 1999 to adopt the OKR method to measure their progress. Interestingly, John also had a set of OKRs for his presentation to Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
One after another, John Doerr chronicles the stories of OKR adoption, struggle, and eventual success at several organisations. He hands a few chapters in the book to early OKR adopters and lets them tell their own story of using OKRs for their growth. You will find names you’ve heard about and people who you have admired at some point in your life — YouTube, Google Chrome, Gates Foundation, MyFitnessPal, Intuit and a few more. The author lives by the dictum — “Your user is your greatest brand ambassador” and lets people like Larry Page, Susan Wojcicki, Sundar Pichai, Bill Gates, Atticus Tysen do most of the talking about their journey with OKRs. When others are not talking, the author chips in with his own take on these stories, how he got people onboarded and helped them with OKRs, and attempts to further refine OKRs to make them easily understandable. The book gives a structure to your thoughts on OKR and is a great place to start your journey with OKRs.
Towards the end of the book, there is a touching tribute to “Coach” Bill Campbell who coached Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Jeff Bezos, and several other leaders from the Silicon Valley. It is a beautifully written dedication and a must read section of the book.
In ‘Measure What Matters’, understanding and articulating ‘what matters’ happens to be the more difficult part. Not knowing what matters can quickly put us on top of a pile of vanity metrics at the end of the quarter. While we may take off nice and easy with OKRs by our side, if we do not know our destination, there is a whole sky available to lose our way. I’m not sure if John Doerr had a set of OKRs while writing the book; nevertheless, I’m sure it is going to help the reader make substantial gains on their understanding of what matters and how to measure things that matter with OKRs.
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