Appeared in 2018, the book “Measure what Matters” is undoubtedly a foundational work in understanding the practice of using OKR as a way to align performance and improve innovation in an organisation. The book is very well written and documented and serves as an excellent tool for any manager or practitioner that approaches OKR for the first time. What is interesting is also the case studies, heavily based on interviews with key stakeholders at the various companies. Altogether, they help understand the fact that OKR is a framework that adapts to the company culture, and that can support building innovation in the teams. The book is then complemented by several resources available on the WhatMatters.comwebsite.
What is OKR? 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. They cannot substitute for sound judgement, strong leadership, or a creative workplace culture. But if those fundamentals are in place, OKRs can guide you to the mountaintop.John Doerr, Measure what Matters, page 7
Why is there a need to distinguish the two components? I genuinely think that the great asset of this methodology is precisely the clear distinction and dualism between the two parts.
- The Objective is WHAT needs to be achieved. No more, no less. A good objective is valid only if it is significant, concrete, action-oriented and (ideally) inspirational. When properly designed, they can drive action and avoid fuzzy execution.
- Key Results benchmark and monitor HOW we get to the objective. To be effective, KRs need to be specific and time-bound, aggressive yet realistic. Most of all, they need to be measurable and verifiable.
While conceptually simple, the framework demands “rigour, commitment, clear thinking and intentional communication“.
The entire concept originates from the work of Andy Grove at Intel, to which John Doerr is indebted, and the second chapter of the book is entirely dedicated to his legacy. In it, he also stresses the difference between OKR and typical MBOs objectives.
The book goes on by listing some “superpowers” that the OKRs methodology carries:
- Focus and Commit on Priorities: As the OKR is both the what and how it ensures that focus is consistently sought. By managing both a top-down and bottom-up alignment, commitment is secured across the board. Cadence can and should be aligned to the situation and the organisation culture, further strengthening the meaning the work does.
- Align and Connect for Teamwork: OKRs can break the issue with “wrong priorities”. In any organisation, at any given time, people are working on the wrong priorities. The methodology, by focusing on transparency, allows aligning all the people, exposing redundant efforts and unaligned activities. A healthy OKR environment strikes a balance between alignment and autonomy, common purpose and creative latitude. The transparency implicit in the model further aligns on a critical element: unacknowledged dependencies remain the number one issues in project deliveries. The cure for this is lateral-cross-functional connectivity, peer-to-peer and team-to-team.
- Track for Accountability: One of the underrated qualities of OKRs is that they can be tracked and revised and adapted as circumstances change. Measurement becomes a critical component for the real success of the methodology, especially when OKRs are linked to the organisation systems.
- Stretch for Amazing: the last superpower is the fact that OKRs can be used effectively to drive innovation. Google, in its practice, distinguish between operational, “committed” goals (which are expected t have a 100% achievement), and aspirational, or “stretch” goals, where instead the expectation is to reach 50-60% of success. This distinction makes a real difference and is a great lesson learned in driving teams to produce genuine innovations.
Chapter 15 introduces one other vital element in the implementation of an OKRs methodology, which John Doerr calls “CFR” and directly impacts the way HR should be working. In short, we need a new HR model for the new world of work he states. This transformational system of continuous performance management is heavily dependent on three elements:
- Conversations: intended as a constant process of “authentic, richly textured exchanges between manager and employee”, aimed at driving performance.
- Feedback: intended as a networked (i.e. not just top-down) communication mechanism to evaluate progress and guide future improvement.
- Recognition: intended as an expression of appreciation to the individuals who are performing and contributing.
Particularly on the last point, the author is clear that OKRs should be “divorced” from compensation and career, as this gets the pressure out of the model implementation. A great asset in terms of execution.
Overall I highly appreciated this chapter, with a renewed call for HR to take a leading role in designing and implementing a performance culture within the organisation. I genuinely think this is a crucial component in bringing back the Human aspect of our professions.
The last chapter briefly touches on the concept of culture as a critical enabler of OKRs. The transparency that the model injects, for example, requires a degree of trust that not all organisations necessarily have. And I’d add that the companies that have failed in implementing OKRs, often did so because of misalignment with the existing culture.
All in all, this is a great book, highly practical and focused on the actual implementation. The concept of OKRs itself is simple, after all, but requires strong discipline and intentional design to be successfully implemented.