Day 23: Short Book Review “Measure What Matters” by John Doerr

Earlier this week I finished reading Measure What Matters by John Doerr.

I picked the book up to learn about OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). OKRs are a management tool used by companies like Google, Intuit, Microsoft, and IBM–in other words, some of the most successful technology companies in the world. I wanted to learn about OKRs for three reasons:

  1. The company I work for keeps growing and we need to find better ways to set priorities and align our efforts across departments.
  2. My job description can basically be summarized as: align efforts across the company. So the subject matter was right up my professional alley.
  3. OKRs had come up in a few different contexts, and in each the individual bringing them up spoke highly of them.

I really hate business jargon. There’s no faster way to get me to delete a LinkedIn connection request or cold email than to drop “synergies” into it. I’ve been resistant to OKRs for that reason. I keep hearing folks who are all about synergies talking about them. However, I’m glad I suspended by cynicism long enough to read the book. Having read it, I’m convinced there’s really something to OKRs.

What Are OKRs?

OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. You can think of an objective as a goal, and the results as the steps you need to take to reach the goal.

OKRs can, and should, be applied at multiple levels in the company. How many levels will depend on the particulars of each company. They can be daisy-chained together, so that one level of OKRs feeds into the next.

Done properly, OKRs help individuals and teams across the company know what is most important to the company, prioritize accordingly, and align their own work to the company’s priorities.

There’s a lot more to OKRs than that, but that’s the gist. If you want to know more, read the book. 🙂

Why Are OKRs Important?

Let me draw two different pictures.

Scenario one

On any given day at work I could stop and write down 100 different things that I could do, and most of them would seem to be quite important and valuable uses of my time. However, the reality is that I only have time for 5-10 of those things each day, and each day 10+ new things are added to the list.

The idea that I might run out of useful things to do is laughable.

One of the keys for me to be effective is to pick the 5-10 most important things out of that list of 100, and do those. But how do I know which 5-10 things to pick?

Ah, great question. It’s a question of prioritization. How should I prioritize my work?

We’ll come back to this question.

Scenario two

Let’s consider a different type of day. On this day I log on and there are 37 unread DMs in Slack as well as 30 emails in my inbox. I dive in.

An hour later I’ve identified 4 different issues that are screaming for my attention. Do they have to have my attention right now? Can’t say, haven’t stopped to think about that. The squeaky wheel will get it’s grease. 9 hours later I realize I never even made a to-do list. My day was completely derailed. I ran from fire to meeting to fire and back all day long.

To have a day like this is understandable and unavoidable. To allow every day to be like this is inexcusable.

It’s a question of focus. You can’t let your work pick you, you’ve got to pick your work.

Prioritize and focus

So we can see that on any given day there are two questions I must address, these are the questions of prioritization and focus. If I’m going to work on the things that truly need my attention I’m going to have to prioritize, and I’m going to have to focus.

So what’s the answer to the questions of prioritization and focus?

What if the company came up with a list of the 5 most important initiatives across the company, and then put together a list of the steps needed to accomplish those initiatives? What if my manager adopted some of those steps as departmental initiatives and put them in front of me on a regular basis and asked me how I could contribute to the department achieving them?

Well, that would help me prioritize. That would help me focus.

I would know what the company considered to be most important. It would be unavoidable. When I didn’t know what to prioritize, or when my day seemed to be getting away from me, I’d have these initiatives, these OKRs, to point me back in the right direction.

That’s the basic idea behind OKRs.

OKRs aren’t easy to implement. They aren’t a magic bullet. They can fall flat. They won’t solve every problem. However, they seem to be a really useful way for businesses and the individuals who work for that business to get on the same page about what is important, and to make progress on the most important things.

Was the Book Any Good?

Measure What Matters is an in-depth explication of OKRs as well as a collection of stories and anecdotes surrounding the author’s experience with OKRs.

One thing I really enjoyed about the book is that the stories helped illustrate how OKRs can and should be adjusted to suit the needs of the business. Different businesses have adopted OKRs in fundamentally different ways, and seeing this presented in the book was really helpful. There’s more than one way to run a business, and John demonstrates that OKRs are flexible enough to be adapted to a variety of leadership styles and use-cases.

As far as business books go, this one was solid. I’m deeply cynical of much popular business literature. This book was an exception. The actual subject matter content was solid and well-illustrated by the stories included.

If there is one weakness in the book, it’s the section on CFRs (the performance-review alternative that tends to go hand-in-hand with OKRs). I found that section to be much less practical than the rest of the book.

All-in-all, I would readily recommend Measure What Matters to anyone who wants to better understand what all the buzz is about OKRs and how to go about bringing OKRs to their own work place.

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