Ended: Dec. 1, 2019
To be clear, I have the utmost reverence for entrepreneurs. I’m an inveterate techie who worships at the altar of innovation. But I’d also watched too many start-ups struggle with growth and scale and getting the right things done. So I’d come to a philosophy, my mantra: Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.
The practice that molded me at Intel and saved me at Sun—that still inspires me today—is called OKRs. Short for Objectives and Key Results. It is a collaborative goal-setting protocol for companies, teams, and individuals. Now, OKRs are not a silver bullet. They cannot substitute for sound judgment, strong leadership, or a creative workplace culture. But if those fundamentals are in place, OKRs can guide you to the mountaintop.
My first PowerPoint slide defined OKRs: “A management methodology that helps to ensure that the company focuses efforts on the same important issues throughout the organization.” An OBJECTIVE, I explained, 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. 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. (As prize pupil Marissa Mayer would say, “It’s not a key result unless it has a number.”) You either meet a key result’s requirements or you don’t; there is no gray area, no room for doubt. At the end of the designated period, typically a quarter, we declare the key result fulfilled or not. Where an objective can be long-lived, rolled over for a year or longer, key results evolve as the work progresses. Once they are all completed, the objective is necessarily achieved. (And if it isn’t, the OKR was poorly designed in the first place.)
In 2009, the Harvard Business School published a paper titled “Goals Gone Wild.” It led with a catalog of examples of “destructive goal pursuit”: exploding Ford Pinto fuel tanks, wholesale gouging by Sears auto repair centers, Enron’s recklessly inflated sales targets, the 1996 Mount Everest disaster that left eight climbers dead. Goals, the authors cautioned, were “a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing . . . and close supervision.” They even posted a warning label: “Goals may cause systematic problems in organizations due to narrowed focus, unethical behavior, increased risk taking, decreased cooperation, and decreased motivation.” The dark side of goal setting could swamp any benefits, or so their argument went. WARNING! Goals may cause systematic problems in organizations due to narrowed focus, unethical behavior, increased risk taking, decreased cooperation, and decreased motivation. Use care when applying goals in your organization.
First, said Edwin Locke, “hard goals” drive performance more effectively than easy goals. Second, specific hard goals “produce a higher level of output” than vaguely worded ones.