“Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.” Unlocking OKRs as described by John Doerr

Recently I finished reading Measure What Matters by John Doerr. The book brings forth the idea of Objective and Key results or OKR’s. John defines OKR’s as a simple collaborative goal-setting protocol for companies, teams, and individuals. He also points out that OKR’s cannot substitute for sound judgment, strong leadership, and a creative workplace. But if these fundamentals are in place, OKRs can guide the organizations or individuals to the top. Through this blog, I want to provide my learning and perspective of this book.

Before diving too deep into the blog let me define OKRs…

Objectives describe what you want to achieve. And Key Results describe how you’ll achieve it.

OBJECTIVE is simply the WHAT is to be achieved. They are significant, concrete, actionable and inspirational.

KEY RESULTS benchmark and monitor the HOW to get to the objectives. Effective KR’s are time bound, aggressive but realistic, measurable and verifiable.

What are OKRs?

  • OKRs help breaks up big, audacious missions into actionable goals and milestones.
  • OKRs allow us to ask tough questions on what will make any program successful.
  • Objectives are the “what.” They’re the most important things you can accomplish in the next 30-90 days.
  • Key Results are the “how.” They are the benchmarks by which you’ll track progress toward completing your Objectives. There are usually 3-5 Key Results per Objective.

A 2009 Harvard study Goals Gone Wild which is a widely cited paper leads with a catalog of examples of “destructive goal pursuit”. Goals may cause systematic problems in organizations due to narrowed focus, unethical behavior, increased risk-taking, decreased cooperation, and decreased motivation. John points out that similar to goals, OKR’s may be executed well or badly. This book basically provides examples and situations to use ORK’s well.

Year over year studies has proven that the productivity of an organization is enhanced by well-defined and challenging goals. Gallup survey attests to the worldwide employee engagement crisis, were less than a third of the US workers are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and workplace.

John recalls his guru, Andy Grove as the father of the OKRs. Andy, a former CEO of Intel, used the foundational principles of MBO or Management by Objective. Outside of Intel other forward-thinking organizations of the 1960s, 70’s and 80’s use OKRs under different names. Hewlett-Packard (HP) called it “H-P Way”.

“In a meta analysis of seventy studies, high commitment to MBO’s led to productivity gains of 56% vs 6% where commitment was low”

The books notes that the biggest contribution of Andy was to apply manufacturing production principle to soft profession like administrative, professional and managerial ranks. He created an environment that values and emphasizes output.

“What”“What and How”
AnnualQuarterly or Monthly
Private and SiloedPublic and Transparent
Top-DownBottom-up or Sideways
Tied to CompensationMostly Divorced from Compensation
Risk AverseAggressive and Aspirational

What makes this book interesting and easy to read are the real-life examples that run in parallel with the theoretical concepts. For each OKR’s foundational concept, John gives a real-world example ranging from Nuna, Google, Myfitnesspal, Remind, Bono, Gates Foundation, etc.

As product managers, we are often confronted with situations where a decision is to be made among features and priorities. John clearly articulates in the words of Andy Grove that “the art of management” lies in the capacity to select from the many activities of seemingly comparable significance the one or two or that provide leverage well beyond the other and concentrate on them. If we focus on everything, we focus on nothing. As pointed out by Remind team, you can only do one big thing at a time really well, so you better know what that one thing is. The key is to never let your focus move away from your objectives and results.

As a manager, it is very important to be on the same page as the organization’s vision. According to Harvard Business Review companies with highly aligned employees are more than twice as likely to be top performers. As Johns says, “Transparency seeds Collaboration”. By keeping our OKRs public we allow others to help us which deepens work relationships.

This book will clearly help me in understanding the importance of aligning with corporate and cross-functional goals. This book provides a profound solution to the siloed working culture in organizations and how preconceived notions can dent the organizational priorities. This book will definitely help me become a better manager. We do not learn from experience….. we learn from reflecting on experience.

Another interesting concept in this book is around stretch OKRs. John calls them BHAG or Big Hairy Audacious Goals. They are also called stretch or aspirational OKRs. Aspirational OKRs push us to be audacious. They required teams to stretch well past the usual to make them happen. For this reason, they’re harder to accomplish, but they are useful because they push teams to think and act differently and get us outside our comfort zones.

The biggest take away for me was the answer to the question: What if your senior leadership doesn’t use them? Can you still use OKRs for getting things done?. The answer, no matter what your job title is you don’t need to ask for permission to use OKRs for yourself or your team.

Some Relevant details from the book

John defines four superpowers of OKR’s

  1. Focus and Commit to Priorities
    1. Set appropriate cadence for your OKR cycle. This could be quarterly OKRs (short term goals) and annual OKRs (long term goals)
    2. Less is More: Only commit to 3 to 5 OKRs per cycle. Too many can dilute focus and obscure process
    3. For each objectives settle on no more than five measurable, unambiguous, time-bound key results (KR)
  2. Align and Connect for Teamwork: Transparency seeds collaboration
    1. Incentivize employees by showing how their objectives related to the leader’s vision and companies top priorities.
    2. Connect with employees through various means such as all-hands meetings to explain why OKRs are important
    3. Encourage a healthy proportion of bottom-up OKR’s
    4. Smash detrimental silo’s by connecting teams with cross-functional OKRs
  3. Track for Accountability
    1. To build a culture of accountability, install continuous reassessment and honest and objective grading.
    2. To keep OKRs  timely and relevant, have the designated shepherd ride herd over regular check-ins and progress update.
    3. As conditional change feel free to revise, add or delete OKRs as appropriate
  4. Stretch for Amazing
    1. Differentiate between Committed and BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goals).
    2. Create an environment where individuals are free to fail without judgement


Nikhil Varshney

Nikhil Varshney is a product manager by profession and technologist by nature. Through this blog he wants to showcase disruption in the technology world. The idea is to break the concept into simple layman words to help everyone understand the basics

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