David Tuite

Radical Focus Summary

January 09, 2019

The following is a summary of Christina Wodtke’s excellent book on Objectives and Key Results [Amazon].

Why we can’t get things done

  1. We haven’t prioritized our goals. By setting a single objective with only 3 key results attached you can provide the kind of focus needed to achieve great things.
  2. We haven’t communicated the goal obsessively and comprehensively. When you are tired of saying it, people will start hearing it.
  3. We don’t have a plan to get things done. The system around Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) - commitment, celebrations, and check-ins - makes sure we continue to make progress towards our goals, even when we don’t feel like it.
  4. We haven’t made time for what matters. Committing every Monday to work towards the objective ensures that we will be held accountable for progress.
  5. We give up instead of iterate. Everybody gets OKRs wrong at the first attempt. They might set their results too easy or too hard to simply not follow through at all. The successful teams have one thing in common: they try again.

The path to success

The mission

Startups are not a good way to make money. They’re a way to change the world. Your mission statement is the first step to success with OKRs.

A good mission is short enough for everyone to keep in their head. Great missions are inspirational, yet directed.

To make one, start with this formula and refine it to make it memorable.

We [reduce pain/improve life] in [market] by [value proposition]

Try to ensure your mission will remain true for at least 5 years. Do this by making it broad and inspirational.

Objectives

The Objective is qualitative and is used to focus a group around a bold goal. It has a fixed period of time. Usually a quarter. It’s a single sentence that is:

  1. Qualitative and inspirational. Use the language of the team. It must be something that gets the team excited.
  2. Time-bound. It should be a clear sprint towards a goal. If it lasts too long, it may be a strategy or mission.
  3. Actionable by the team directly. It should not be dependent on other teams doing their work. If you miss the objective, you don’t want to be able to blame someone else.

Examples of good objectives:

  • Pwn the direct-to-business coffee retail market in the South Bay
  • Launch an awesome MVP
  • Close a round that lets us kill it next quarter

Key Results

The Key Results should be quantitative. Defining key results forces you to be very deliberative about the language you use when you state your Objective. Typically you have 3 key results and they can be based on anything you can measure including Growth, Engagement, Revenue, and Quality. Quality can be measured with Net Promoter Score. You can balance directions by stating potentially opposing key results.

Key Results should be difficult but not impossible. They are always stretch goals. When you set out, you should be only 50% confident that you can achieve the goal.

Making OKRs work

  • OKRs cascade. There should be a company-wide OKR and then each team should set their OKR to feed into the global one.
  • Even individuals should set their own OKRs. An engineer might decide their objective is to get great at python. She can then set KRs around that goal.
  • OKRs must be baked into weekly team meetings. Adjust your confidence levels every week. Have discussions about why they are going up or down.
  • Do not change your OKRs halfway through. Suck it up and either fail or nail them.
  • Get ready to fail big. Failure to achieve your OKRs is a positive indicator.

How to introduce OKRs

The steps to introduce OKRs are:

  1. All employees submit the Objective they think the team or company pursue next quarter. This allows everyone to have buy-in.
  2. The exec team, in a half-day session, discuss the objectives and choose one. They then set KRs as outlined before.
  3. Each executive should introduce the OKR to their direct reports and work with them, in the same process from the previous steps, to create OKRs for each team.
  4. After this, we need CEO approval (this might end up being VP or Director approval in a huge company).
  5. Department heads deliver the OKRs to any subteams.
  6. Individual OKRs can be made at this point in a 1:1. Don’t do this over email.
  7. All hands meeting where the CEO announces the OKRs.

OKRs for MVPs

This section is from Angus Edwardson who is the Product Director at a company called GatherContent. They find they are especially successful for tracking product teams.

They use a series of MVPs to build new features. Each MVP has a representative card on a Kanban board. The fields on the card are designed to elicit the answers to two questions:

  1. What are we trying to achieve with this feature?
  2. How do we measure success or failure?

The cards have 4 fields:

  1. Hypothesis
  2. Key results
  3. Method
  4. Stories

A hypothesis is used instead of an Objective to help people be more comfortable with experimentation and failure.

Weekly status emails

  1. Lead with the team’s OKRs and how much confidence we have that we are going to hit them.
  2. List last weeks top prioritized tasks and if they were achieved.
  3. List next weeks priorities. 3 at most. They should be meaty tasks which deliver value. Consider the reader and what’s important to them.
  4. List risks or blockers. Note anything that you need help on that you can’t do yourself.
  5. Notes. Anything which doesn’t fit into the previous buckets but deserves to be mentioned. Congratulating people or hiring or whatever.

In a department with multiple teams, each team can send its status email and the director can use them to create a summary status update.

Common OKR Mistakes

  1. Setting too many goals per quarter. Try setting only one. You want extreme focus, not aiming in multiple directions. Obviously, with a huge company, you will have many OKRs in play at once but they should all feed into very few top-level ones.
  2. Setting ORKs which are too short. OKRs are likely not suitable for pre-product/market fit. They will be chopping and changing their focus all the time as they search for fit. Post product/market fit companies should commit for a full three months.
  3. Setting a metric-driven Objective. The objective should be inspirational. A call-to-action that gets people to leap out of bed.
  4. You don’t set confidence levels. Requiring people to hit a certain number of their key results motivates them to sandbag them. The point is to encourage people to shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you should end up with something very good. You should be 50% confident when you set your KR.
  5. You don’t track changing confidence levels. Make sure they’re embedded in the weekly cadence of the team.
  6. You use the Monday meeting for status updates instead of discussion. There should be tough discussions in that meeting and coordination of upcoming work.
  7. You talk tough on Friday. The Friday meeting is for fun and celebration. Leave the tough discussion for the Monday meeting.

Quick tips on OKR use

  1. Set only one OKR for the company. It’s about focus.
  2. Give yourself 3 months for the OKR.
  3. Keep metrics out of the Objective.
  4. In the weekly check-in, open with the company OKR, then do groups. 1 on 1s are the place for individual OKRs.
  5. OKRs cascade.
  6. OKRs are the things you MUST do. You can do other things outside of this.
  7. OKRs are bottom up and top down.
  8. OKRs must be publicly available.

If you enjoyed this summary and are thinking about using OKRs for the first time, you may also enjoy my summary of the book Measure What Matters by John Doerr. Another great way to get more done is to do things one at a time.


David Tuite

Written by David Tuite who is a product manager at Workday and used to be a software engineer. You should follow him on Twitter