All of the authors that we’ve looked at in our book review series have achieved a certain level of success, but Doerr is on the next level. On top of being a “legendary venture capitalist”, Doerr’s expertise has been sought out by over 50 different companies ranging from international technology giants to non-profits and charitable organisations.
Doerr also walks the walk. In fact, the whole ideas of OKRs was tried and tested back in 1999, when he invested nearly £12 million in a startup and introduced the founders to OKRs – Objectives and Key Results. Under Doerr’s guidance, the company grew from 40 employees to over 70,000 and a current valuation of around $740 billion. You’ve probably heard of that company: it’s called Google.
That’s why the foreword is written by Larry Page, who says, “I wish I had had this book nineteen years ago, when we founded Google.” Google is now heading for its 21st birthday, which means that the book is only a couple of years old, and indeed it still feels as fresh now as it would have done on the day it was published. (Check out the latest price on Amazon HERE)
In Measure What Matters, Doerr introduces the concept of OKRs and shares some practical tips on how best to implement them across your business to help to improve it. And so, without further ado, let’s dive on in and see what John Doerr has to offer us.
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Ideas are easy. Execution is everything. Doerr learned this in the 1980s, when he was working for tech giants and heading teams of hundreds of people. “The practice that moulded me at Intel,” Doerr says, “and saved me at Sun – that still inspires me today – is called for OKRs, short for Objectives and Key Results. It’s a collaborative goal-setting protocol for companies, teams and individuals. Now, OKRs are not a silver bullet. They can’t 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.”
The good news is that if you’ve been following our review series for a while, you should have been able to make progress on those already, and if not then you can always revisit our archives. It should be noted, though, that Doerr means what he says. This is some advanced stuff, and it might not be applicable to everyone.
To help readers to wrap their heads around the concept, Doerr provides a few examples and explanations. An objective is simply what is to be achieved and should be significant, concrete, action-oriented and (ideally) inspirational. Key results benchmark and monitor how we achieve that objective and should be specific, time-bound, aggressive yet realistic. If you’re familiar with the SMART model then you’ll be off to a good start.
When Doerr was pitching the model to Google, he used the pitch itself as an example, explaining that the objective was to build a planning model for the company and the key results were:
After introducing the concept of OKRs, Doerr dedicates a chapter to the history of OKRs, including some fascinating stories on some of the forefathers of the idea that help to give it some additional context but which you don’t necessarily need to derive value from the book. From here on out, the majority of the book is dedicated to case studies and examples that are designed to help you to further wrap your head around the concept.
We start with Operation Crush, the name that Intel used when it was fighting for its survival against more established competitors. “At a 2013 panel discussion hosted by the Computer History Museum,” Doerr explains, “Crush veterans recalled the importance of structured goal setting at Intel – and how objectives and key results were used ‘down into the trenches’. The OKRs for Operation Crush [which are shown below] were classics of the genre: time bound and unambiguous, with every what and how in place. Best of all, they worked.”
Intel’s Corporate Objective: Establish the 8086 as the highest performance 16-bit microprocessor family, as measured by:
Key results (Q2 1980):
One of the interesting things about Doerr’s book is that he shares a few of the superpowers that focussing on OKRs can give to you. The first is the ability to identify priorities and to focus on them. “For sound decision making, esprit de corps and superior performance, top-line goals must be clearly understood through the organisation,” Doerr explains. “Leaders must get across the why as well as the what. Their people need more than milestones for motivation. They are thirsting for meaning, to understand how their goals relate to the mission.”
Doerr illustrates this with the story of Remind, an app which is designed to allow teachers, students and parents to communicate safely and securely via text. “We started OKRs when our company had fourteen people,” explains Brett Kopf of Remind. “Within two years, we’d grown to sixty. We couldn’t all meet around a table anymore to hash out the next quarter’s priorities. OKRs helped enormously by helping people to focus on what could move the company to the next level. In my view, you can only do one thing at a time really well, and so you better know what that one thing is.”
Remind’s Corporate Objective: Support company hiring, as measured by:
Research shows that public goals are more likely to be attained than goals held in private. At the same time, alignment is rare, with studies suggesting only 7% of employees “fully understand their company’s business strategies and what’s expected of them in order to help achieve the common goals.” Doerr says that the answer lies in focused, transparent OKRS, which “knit together each individual’s work to team efforts, departmental projects and the overall mission.”
Doerr says that OKRs aren’t islands, explaining, “To the contrary, they create networks – vertical, horizontal, diagonal – to connect an organisation’s most vital work. When employees align with a company’s top-line goals, their impact is amplified. They stop duplicated efforts or working counterproductively against the grain. As brothers Mike and Albert Lee discovered while building MyFitnessPal, the world’s leading health and fitness app, strong alignment is critical to the day-to-day progress that kindles the next big leap.”
MyFitnessPal’s Corporate Objective: Help more people around the world.
Doerr says that one of the most underrated virtues of OKRs is that they can be tracked, reviewed and adapted as needed. Unlike traditional business goals, which are often set in stone and quickly forgotten, OKRs are living, breathing organisms that follow a three phase life cycle: the setup, midlife tracking and the wrapup.
To illustrate this in action, he points to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Former CEO Patti Stonesifer said, “OKRs allowed us to be ambitious and disciplined at the same time. When measurable key results revealed a lack of progress or showed that an objective was unachievable, we reallocated the capital. If the goal was to eliminate Guinea worm disease, a very ambitious top-line goal, it was important to know whether the dollars and resources were making progress against it. With OKRS, we could set both quarterly and annual beats for substantial key results against such a huge objective.”
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Corporate Objective: Global eradication of malaria by 2040.
The goal of OKRs is to push companies and their employees outside of their comfort zone. Doerr illustrates this perfectly by pointing to Jim Collins’ concept of “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” in his book, Good to Great. “A BHAG is a huge and daunting goal,” Collins says. “Like a big mountain to climb. It’s clear, compelling and people ‘get it’ right away. A BHAG serves as a unifying focal point of effort, galvanizing people and creating team spirit as people strive toward a finish like. Like the 1960s NASA moon mission, a BHAG captures the imagination and grabs people in the gut.”
Every single person in your organisation is responsible for stretching for amazing, although it’s senior management that will ultimately dictate whether it’s a success. Going back to NASA, this is reminiscent of the apocryphal story of when John F. Kennedy visited NASA and asked a janitor what his job was. The janitor replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”
Doerr’s example of stretching in action is Google Chrome. American scientist Astro Teller said, “If you want your car to get fifty miles per gallon, fine. You can retool your car a little bit. But if I tell you it has to run on a gallon of gas for five hundred miles, you have to start over.” It’s this ambitious take on goals that propelled Google Chrome to become one of the fastest web browsers on the market. And of course, they had precedent via the words of company founder Larry Page, who said, “If you set a crazy, ambitious goal and miss it, you’ll still achieve something remarkable.”
This dedication to OKRs holds true across Google, which is perhaps unsurprising given Doerr’s history with the company. He finishes this section with a chapter dedicated to YouTube, which adopted the system from its parent company.
YouTube’s Corporate Objective: Reach 1 billion hours of watch time per day (by 2016), with growth driven by:
There’s plenty more to John Doerr’s book, and in fact we’ve only covered the first part of it. The latter half is dedicated to further examples of OKRs at work and it’s stuffed full of case studies and great ideas that you can take and adapt for your own business. Still, we’ve covered a lot of ground and by now you should have a thorough understanding of the basics.
Now that you know how OKRs can help you to develop your business and to drive up to 10x growth, the next step is for you to take a fresh look at your company and to think about how you could implement OKRs across the business.
The good news is that the highlights that we’ve shared today will be enough to help you to get started, and you can also pick up a copy of the book once you’re ready to learn more. After all, there’s so much more to this book than we could ever cover in a single blog post, and Doerr is particularly worth reading because of how deep his experience goes.
Ultimately, we reviewed a lot of business books, and Doerr’s addition to the list is well worth picking up if you get the chance. Not many ideas have the potential to truly transform your business, but the implementation of OKRs is up there with inbound marketing and other industry best practices that you simply need to adopt if you don’t want to get left behind. Good luck.
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