Measure what matters – OKRs in action – leadership book review

Through this book and its companion website, the author wants to make known a long-held passion of his that has not only changed his life but also the way hundreds of companies approach management and goal-setting. The book gives detailed information about how a lot of companies ranging from small startups to big corporations (like Intel and YouTube) managed to scale, improve revenue or achieve ambitious goals by using a more effective approach of goal setting called OKR that improves the process of planning, progress tracking and keeping accountability.

Although the book is oriented on explaining how OKRs can be used at a company level, the same principles can also be applied on a personal level for those seeking to implement a great goal tracking system in their day-to-day life. This review will cover this aspect in detail along with presenting a great free OKR app for personal use.

Besides describing the OKR principles and how they can be applied, John Doerr reveals how he got introduced to this concept while working at Intel under the mentorship of Andy Grove and he also gives a lot of valuable information about his personal experience of introducing OKRs to different types of companies.

What are OKRs?

OKR is short for Objectives and Key Results. It is a collaborative goal-setting protocol for companies, teams and individuals. OKRs are not a silver bullet, and can not substitute for sound judgment, strong leadership or a creative workspace culture. But, as the author John Doerr says, if those fundamentals are in place, OKRs can guide you to the mountaintop.

Each Key Result can be considered an objective for another team/employee along the line

An Objective is simply WHAT is to be achieved, no more and no less. By definition, objectives are significant, concrete, action oriented, and ideally inspirational. When properly designed and deployed, they’re a vaccine against fuzzy thinking and fuzzy execution.

It’s not a key result unless it has a number

Marissa Mayer – information technology executive

Key Results benchmark and monitor HOW we get to the objective. Effective KRs are specific and time-bound, aggressive yet realistic. Most of all, they are measurable and verifiable. You either meet a key result’s requirements or you don’t; there is no gray area, no room for doubt.

I. Implementing OKRs at a company-level

Hundreds of companies of all types and sizes are committing to structured goal setting, because OKRs can be considered Swiss Army knives, suited to any environment. Their broadest adoption is in tech, where agility and teamwork are absolute imperatives (eg: AOL, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Oracle, Slack, Spotify, Twitter), but the system has also been adopted by household names far beyond Silicon Valley to companies like Disney, Samsung, BMW and Exxon.

Compared to other management systems, OKRs have some distinct advantages (or as the author John Doerr puts it, superpowers):

Superpower #1 – Focus and Commit to Priorities

High-performance organizations home in on work that’s important and are equally clear on what doesn’t matter. OKRs impel leaders to make hard choices and by dispelling confusion they can bring the focus needed to win.

The beauty of this superpower: Everyone knows what needs to be achieved, why their work is important and how big of an impact they can make. Clear goals will greatly increase the motivation to succeed.

Superpower #2 – Align and Connect for Teamwork

With OKR transparency, everyone’s goals – from the CEO down- are openly shared. Individuals link their objectives to the company’s game plan, identify cross-dependencies and coordinate with other teams, bringing meaning to work.

The beauty of this superpower: All the progress inside a company is transparent. Everyone can see where everyone is with their progress and that have made the percentage of completed goals increase dramatically. Also, the task allocation and overall progress tracking has become easier to grasp since a KR of a manager can become an Objective for a direct employee, thus creating a goal tree that show exactly the weak links that need to be improved.

Superpower #3 – Track for Accountability and Stretch for Amazing

OKRs are driven by data. They are animated by periodic check-ins, objective grading and continuous reassessment – all in a spirit of no-judgment accountability. Also, they motivate us to excel by doing more than we thought possible.

The beauty of this superpower: There is one key factor that will make the employees happier and more productive than anything else: a sense of growth. There is no better feeling than the certainty of evolving and no worse feeling than the fear of stagnation and lagging behind. The OKR philosophy states that (yearly) performance reviews for salary updates should be decoupled from the more frequent (quarterly) reviews for both-way feedback regarding ways of improving skills and achieving more goals. The former meetings may help the employees to find true passion in their work.

A short history of management theory

The early-twentieth-century forefathers of management theory, notably Frederik Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford, were the first to measure output systematically and analyze how to get more of it. They held the belief that the most efficient and profitable organization was authoritarian. There were those who gave orders and those who took orders and executed them without question.

At the end of the 19th century, Winslow Taylor set out to increase the distinction between mental (planning work) and manual labor (executing work). Detailed plans, specifying the job and how it was to be done, were to be formulated by management and communicated to the workers. He summed up his efficiency techniques in his 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management which, in 2001, Fellows of the Academy of Management voted the most influential management book of the twentieth century. Even though he made his fortune by patenting steel-process improvements, he was most proud of his work as a pioneer in the scientific management.

Henry Ford improved the way work was done at the beginning of the 20th century by introducing the concept of the Assembly Line, where each worker specialized on one particular task of the manufacturing process. This was a revolutionary concept at the time and it increased productivity by a huge margin.

Half a century later, Peter Drucker – professor, journalist, historian – took a wreking ball to the Taylor-Ford model. He conceived a new management ideal, results-driven yet humanistic. A corporation, he wrote, should be a community built on trust and respect for the workers – not just a profit machine. Furthermore, he urged that subordinates be consulted on company goals. Instead of traditional crisis management, he proposed a balance of long and short range planning, informed by data and enriched by regular conversations among colleagues.

A manager’s first role is the relationship with people, the development of mutual confidence, the creation of a community

– Peter Drucker

By the 1960s, management by objectives – or MBOs, as the process was known – had been adopted by a number of forward-thinking companies. Eventually, though, the limitations of MBOs caught up with them. At many companies, goals were centrally planned and sluggishly trickled down the hierarchy or became stagnant for lack of the required updating. Most deadly of all, MBOs were commonly tied to salaries and bonuses. If risk taking was penalized, why chance it? By the 1990s, the system was failing from vouge and Even Drucker said that MBOs were “just another tool” and “not the great cure for management inefficency”.

Here is a comparison between the classic approach of goal management named (MBO – Peter Drucker‘s Management By Objectives) and the original Intel OKRs (supported by Andy Grove)

MBOsIntel OKRs
“What” “What” and “How”
AnnualQuarterly or Monthly
Private and SiloedPublic and Transparent
Top-downBottom-up or Sideways (~50 %)
Tied To CompensationMostly Divorced from Compensation
Risk AverseAggressive and Aspirational

The “OKR incarnated”

Andy Grove was one of the founders and the CEO of Intel, helping transform the company into the world’s largest manufacturer of semiconductors.[3]

As a result of his work at Intel, along with his books and professional articles, Grove had a considerable influence on electronics manufacturing industries worldwide. He has been called the “guy who drove the growth phase” of Silicon Valley. In 1997, Time magazine chose him as “Man of the Year”, for being “the person most responsible for the amazing growth in the power and the innovative potential of microchips. One source notes that by his accomplishments at Intel alone, he “merits a place alongside the great business leaders of the 20th century.

As a manager he always wanted to find new ways in which the employees could find meaning in their work by discovering their best position inside a company, the one that emphasized their strongest qualities. Wanting to get productivity to another level, he came up with the OKR philosophy by improving the MBOs concept which was the management go-to at the time.

He was also called the “OKR incarnated” since he promoted a revolutionary way of organizing and tracking company goals that brought a lot of success to Intel and a lot of other big companies. He was also the mentor of John Doerr who brought his management process to other companies he was part of.

II. Implementing OKRs at a personal level

Any person that aspires to improve his or her life knows that it all starts with self-improvement. Managing our day to day activities is a lot similar to managing a micro-company. We have a budget for our material expenses, for our energy expenditure and we have a limited amount of time we need to split between things we love doing and things that we need to do in order for us to evolve to the next level. As Tony Robbins says, in business or on a personal level, you either evolve or you die.

Examples of things we can do in our free time in order to make progress in life are: working on a passion project, doing some physical exercises, reading the right books or meditating. Having good habits it’s great, but there is a catch to it: we need to track the progress to see how are we evolving and how committed we are. And we have a great tool to do just that:

Progressive Goals – the free app for personal OKRs

How many hours of cardio exercises did you have last month? How much stronger did you become in the last weeks following your journeys to the gym? How much time did you invest into meditating? How many books have you read this year? And most importantly, what have you learned from all that? How did doing all those things helped you progress in your carrier, relationships or health?

I happen to know the answer to all those questions, and that helped me a lot towards my self-help journey. Progressive Goals is an excellent way to keep track of all your goals in a very neat way. You can define ANY type of goal, enter what you want to track (the key results) and what is your target is, group the goal by the area of life you want to improve and that’s it! Now you can have a lifetime journal of your progress for your goals for free.

Graph data can be grouped by time (month, year) or Key Result.

The Percentages tab tells you how much of the goal is ready in order for you to have an estimation for the goal achieving day.
The table view – very neat way to keep the progress history.

And that is not all: Every time I make progress towards my goals I can add a note with what I think I can improve the next time. Each time I read a book I have the best ideas linked to it. Each time I add a new PR I write down what my next target will be. Each time I meditate I write down how good my session was, what was mostly on my mind and what was keeping me from having a great experience. Having notes taken each time I try to make progress will help me to better my strategy, adjust the course and achieve my goal faster.

The app comes in both desktop and mobile versions.

All Goals Grouped By Custom Defined Goals – Mobile version
See the progress in a Grid – Mobile Version

In summary, “Measure What Matters” by John Doerr we can considered a good management book emphasizing a newer and more productive way of tracking goals that was successfully implemented by many companies but that can also used by us in our day-to-day life in order to become more productive and have a journal of our progress.

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