Google’s OKR Video Should be Retired. Here’s Why.
Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash
In my last post, I wrote a review about John Doerr’s book, Measure What Matters, which led to some people asking my opinion about Google Venture’s OKR video. The TL;DR version is that the video was crucial to promote OKR, but it is time for it to be respectfully retired.
Now for the full version. In 2013 Google Ventures’ partner Rick Klau gave a talk on OKR and shared it on YouTube. Unintentionally, it became a leading reference for OKR, reaching over 500,000 views. Klau based his talk on the original presentation that Doerr used to introduce Google to OKR in 1999, which is so old that Doerr delivered it using plastic laminate sheets on an overhead projector.
Although Klau and Doerr have both written new content on OKR, Google never made a new video. The current version is outdated and can mislead people into believing OKR is a top-down process for setting goals around outputs.
If you recall, my biggest criticism of Doerr’s book was that the examples were terrible. The same happens with Klau’s video, which includes items such as “Launch Monetize tab,” “Finalize PRD.” People try to follow the video to the letter and fail, as many argue that “Google includes tasks in their OKRs,” mentioning some of the examples above. But good Key Results measure outcomes: the value and the benefits you deliver to your customers or your company.
Klau’s Lessons Learned
In late 2017, Klau wrote a tweetstorm about what he learned since publishing the video, and a few comments stand out:
While I think the video largely holds up, there are a few things I’d tweak if I was doing the video today:
Skip individual OKRs altogether. Especially for younger, smaller companies. They’re redundant. Focus on company and team-level OKRs.
Spend more time on what team is willing to say no to. High-performing teams like saying yes to good ideas. Saying ‘no’ is more important.
Avoid metrics that quantify progress; focus only on metrics that reflect actual impact that’s core to the business. [emphasis mine]
(By ‘progress’ I mean: avoid metrics that show you’re busy but which are not connected to the outcomes your team wants to achieve.)” [emphasis mine]
Finally, keep it simple! I’ve seen teams get bogged down in process, get frustrated, and abandon the effort.
Pick a few things that matter. ID metrics that reflect success. Say no to everything else. Grade progress. Learn from failure. Repeat.
It is a shame that such solid advice – setting Key Results around outcomes, skipping individual OKRs, learning to say no, keeping it simple – was relegated to a few tweets. It deserved a new video or at least a post.
Side Note: In this tweetstorm, Klau links to an intro article he wrote to Google’s guide to OKRs, and although the intro is quite good, the guide itself includes probably the worst Objective ever written: eat 5 pies. Feel free to contact me if you can explain that one.
The Other Flaws
While Klau wrote that “the video largely holds up,” I disagree. The video has two additional fatal flaws: the football example and the lack of regular check-ins.
The Football Example
The video revolves around a football example used by John Doerr in 1999, were OKRs are 100% cascaded and which became the perfect excuse for those who want a top-down management approach.
One of the things that I loved about Measure What Matters is that Doerr updates the football example. He also shows that the traditional cascading approach can lead to adverse effects as loss of agility and lack of flexibility.
Laszlo Bock, Google’s former VP of People Operations, also wrote in his book Work Rules about the problems with cascading:
“On the topic of goals, the academic research agrees with your intuition: Having goals improves performance. Spending hours cascading goals up and down the company, however, does not. It takes way too much time and it’s too hard to make sure all the goals line up.
Bock also highlights that, contrary to what the video leads viewers to believe, Google uses a different approach:
We have a market-based approach, where over time our goals all converge, because the top OKRs are known and everyone else’s OKRs are visible. Teams that are grossly out of alignment stand out, and the few major initiatives that touch everyone are easy enough to manage directly. So far, so good!”
The Lack of Regular Check-ins
The final fatal flaw of Klau’s video is that he states that large teams should have maybe “only one or two check-ins in a quarter.” But without regular check-ins – preferably every week, teams fall in the “Set It and Forget It” mindset and fail. As I have learned from my friend and colleague Christina Wodtke, check-ins are crucial for OKR success.
This post is by no means an attack on Rick Klau, who is a highly successful individual and seems to be a very nice guy. I would love to meet him by the way. Klau did a great service for the OKR community with his original video, and I hope that he – or someone else at Google – decides to replace it with something new. It is time for the video to be respectfully retired.