Management By OKRs

John Doerr is a smart and wildly successful businessman, a billionaire and tech leader. An engineer who went to Rice University and then to Harvard for an MBA, Doerr joined Intel just as the microcomputer industry was taking off. He was one of the company’s most successful salespeople. Doerr’s impact and success was much more than being in the right place at the right time. He moved from Intel to a fledgling venture capital fund where his many skills could truly flourish. Much of the IT growth in Silicon Valley for many years can be traced back to funding, guidance and support by John Doerr.

In 2018, Doerr shared his management philosophy in a short accessible book called Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs. It’s an easy read in three sections: Doerr’s personal history and account, with a focus on the amazing growth of Google; a cluster of stories of other start-ups, with the voices of founders given prominence; and a series of forms, templates and questions for organizations that want to adopt Doerr’s advice. The middle section about different businesses is intriguing, but the other two parts the book are where the rubber hits the road.

OKRs are Objectives and Key Results. Objectives are what an organization, unit or individual wants to achieve. Key Results are how one goes about it making them happen. Objectives are most effective when they are short and easily communicated. Transformative objectives are audacious and aspirational. Key results are measurable and can be tracked over time. Doerr developed OKRs under the tutelage of Andy Grove at Intel. Grove was another business genius, and through the book, it is possible to see how certain types of out-of-the-box thinking fueled growth in the tech industry.

Google adopted OKRs from its very early days, thanks to Doerr’s guidance. The company’s founders attribute much of Google’s unbelievable growth and impact to OKRs embedded at all levels in the organization. The four key “big-picture” OKRs are 1) focusing and committing to priorities; 2) aligning and connecting for teamwork; 3) tracking for accountability; and 4) stretching for amazing. Doerr explains how these were adopted and implemented at Google and other businesses (along with Bono and his charity), and then examines how they affect other operations. Performance evaluations can become CFRs (conversation, feedback, recognition), and cultures can embrace change and continuous improvement – if a business buys into OKRs at all levels.

Doerr’s enthusiasm and prostelytization are powerful, even at times overwhelming the harder questions that Measure What Matters addresses. He elides what must have been fascinating challenges as organizations, especially Google, wrestled with change. There’s no denying, though, OKRs importance to many businesses. The templates and hands-on recommendations at the end of the book, too, give the reader a concrete sense of how OKRs might drive improvement. First and foremost, they are about prioritization and intentionality. They are the framework of any successful group action. And they are very difficult to maintain over time in a changing organization in a changing environment.

OKRs can play a helpful role in higher education. Intentionality is essential for institutional effectiveness. The greater that priorities are understood throughout at a college, for instance, the greater the likelihood that everyone at the institution will be working towards the same goal. At the same time, Measuring What Matters highlights the value of innovative thinking and practice. These do not readily emerge in established academia. Isomorphic pressures and regulatory expectations are one reason. Another may be that talent drawn to shaking things in education may find more a more receptive environment in education/technology, as opposed to working within traditional institutions.

President Eisenhower, perhaps one of the country’s most successful generals, once said that “in preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” OKRs, I believe, would sit well with Ike.

David Potash

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