4 min read

Objective Acquired, Part 1

Objective Acquired, Part 1
All credit to Orion Pictures. Good old terminator vision

Historically, I think I've been pretty crap at setting goals.

Perhaps I was uncomfortable with the feeling of having something hanging over my head? I'm honestly not sure, but I was definitely bad at setting them all the same.

All that changed when the fire nation attacked. Actually, wait, that's a different story. It changed a few years back when the company I was working for tried something new:

OKRs. Or if you prefer the long version, Objectives and Key Results.

I regret not actively blogging during that period, because it was quite an adventure and I think it fundamentally changed the way I solve problems. It would have been nice to be able to go back and read about it now, but I can't because it doesn't exist :(

To avoid making future me sad in the same way, I'm going to write about it now.

Almost two years and one pandemic later.

I have a pretty good memory so I think this is going to end well.

Your Goals, Give Them To Me Now

Before I get started on the story, I think its worthwhile to delve a little bit into what OKRs actually are.

The textbook definition is "a management methodology that helps to ensure that the company focuses efforts on the same important issues throughout the organisation". I stole that description word for word from the book Measure What Matters. It was written by John Doerr, who introduced OKRs to Google in its infancy, so I think he probably knows what he's talking about.

To me, the most important part of that description is the word "focuses", because one of the benefits of clearly articulated and trackable goals is alignment. People and teams can orient themselves in a consistent direction and then move forward confidently from there.

Its a lot easier to accomplish great things when you don't have a bunch of people and teams pulling in different directions.

From a mechanical point of view, OKRs consist of two things: objectives and key results. No surprises there, its literally written on the tin.

Objectives are goals, the things you want to accomplish. They are easy to understand, aspirational and easy to communicate to others. Typically they aren't directly measurable.

Key results meanwhile, are the indicators that show progress towards an objective. They should be clear and concise and must be measurable.

That was a bit of a crash course, but its enough to get started. There is a lot of nuance to OKRs, but that's enough for now.

Now, on to the story.

Come With Me If You Want To Live

The company I was working for was doing okay.

Our legacy platforms were requiring less attention while still remaining profitable and our cloud product was growing, but we weren't exactly smashing it. We wanted to do better and the desire was for a vast increase in performance, company wide. I remember numbers like 10x being bandied about.

The core hypothesis was that while we had plenty of great people and we were delivering a bunch of valuable things, we weren't very focused. As I said earlier, even the best group of people can meander around and accomplish mediocre results if they are not all facing in the same direction.

The CTO at the time (my manager) was adamant that OKRs were the mechanism to help us achieve our performance goals as a company, and he finally got the rest of the leadership team to agree.

From my point of view, I had no idea what OKRs were, nor was I involved in our first tentative steps towards their use. I was oblivious, heading up the legacy applications area and busy with unstructured thoughts on how I could engineer myself out of a job.

Are You Sure You Have The Right Person?

The first thing the company did was to try and validate the OKR hypothesis. It was a great idea, limit the scope, perform some focused experiments, learn some lessons and then iterate and go from there.

It wasn't a silent, secret experiment either, so it attracted my attention. I'd been struggling with finding a way to rally my own teams, so it was fortuitous.

I did a little reading, reached out for some guidance and then gave it a shot, creating an experiment of my very own. Working with my team, we collaboratively created a few objectives and some appropriate key results and then let it play out over the course of a quarter.

That first set of OKRs was...mostly an unmitigated failure. We didn't really know what we were doing, so we set way too many objectives with way too many key results. I think we accomplished maybe one of them over the entire period? Maybe none?

But it was enough for me to see the value and to recognise that it was an execution issue, not a problem with the idea itself. I injected myself into the team looking into OKRs, then started to relentlessly push their agenda, first in my own teams and then across the organisation.

I'll Be Back

I'd love to say that my efforts were a complete success, that OKRs became the backbone of how the company operated and that we immediately started performing a million times better.

But that would be a lie :(

Instead, it was an interesting journey that came to something of an abrupt end when the COVID-19 pandemic kicked into high gear in early 2020.

Come back next time as I write about how we actually did OKRs and some of our initial challenges.