Use OKRs to stop your team setting their hair on fire

John Doerr and the Googlers

20 years ago, billionaire investor John Doerr introduced two of his young investees to his secret sauce, his special concoction, that which sets his cooking apart from all others: OKRs. That stands for Objectives and Key Results, and the pair were 24 year-olds Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of one year-old Google. The idea of setting targets and measuring success is nothing new, but for Doerr and Google, this methodology was simple and action-oriented. So began the use of OKRs at Google.

John Doerr’s strategy provides a simple yet effective way to set and measure objectives. By stating your objective and attaching a key result, you can ensure that you have a clear metric to track progress and determine success. The formula is simple: “I will [objective] as measured by [key result]”. The “as measured by” is crucial because, without having a metric attached to a goal, there is no way of knowing whether that goal has been achieved. 

When Doerr put this to Page and Brin, the latter’s response was, “we don’t have any other way to manage this company, so we’ll give it a go”. Doerr explains the next bit best:

I took that as a kind of endorsement. But every quarter since then, every Googler has written down their objectives and her key results. They’ve graded them, and they’ve published them for everyone to see. And these are not used for bonuses or for promotions. They’re set aside. They’re used for a higher purpose, and that’s to get collective commitment to truly stretch goals.

John Doerr

Achieving focus can be hard, especially when starting a company. Initially, it’s not wise to have complete focus as you need to refine your idea, develop your product, and find its market fit – you want to get somewhere but you don’t have to know every step on the journey at the beginning. However, once you have identified the right market fit, you must shift your mindset overnight from being divergent to being extremely focused. Otherwise, you risk building, creating, or discussing your product in a manner that does not connect with your intended audience.

It is easy, also, to assume that very successful companies didn’t do this. Slack, for instance, is used by huge numbers of businesses around the world and across every sector. But, born out of the chat mechanism for a video game, the company’s very early positioning was just towards companies it knew – friends, essentially. 

But as the tool was used by increasingly large teams meant Slack had to keep reversing. The product had numerous iterations and changes, but this information gathering provided the early data needed to drive the creativity, precision and focus for the company’s mission. 

And there are plenty of other examples of successful brands pivoting.

The Creators not the Company

In order for an idea or project to have focus, every single individual within that entity needs to have focus – hence it’s Googlers’ OKRs, not Google’s. 

Without focus from every single person, it is very difficult to make decisions, know what’s right from wrong as you’re building because you can’t equally evaluate answers and opinions on customers and develop your idea further. The team buy into the mission and the OKRs come off the back of that allowing everyone in the team to pull for the same ultimate goal whilst measuring results of their own part of the puzzle.

OKR - Path to Success from What Matters


Success isn’t guaranteed. Sometimes it’s failure that you spend more time with than success. In the classic words of JFK, “Success has been fathers but failure is an orphan”. OKRs help centre you; help you remember what you are trying to do. They help you push to succeed, even when failure is kicking your ass. 

Here’s Doerr again on OKRs in practice:

In 2008, a Googler, Sundar Pichai, took on an objective which was to build the next generation client platform for the future of web applications – in other words, build the best browser. He was very thoughtful about how he chose his key results. How do you measure the best browser? It could be ad clicks or engagement. No. He said: numbers of users, because users are going to decide if Chrome is a great browser or not. 

So he had this one three-year-long objective: build the best browser. And then every year he stuck to the same key results, numbers of users, but he upped the ante. In the first year, his goal was 20 million users and he missed it. He got less than 10. Second year, he raised the bar to 50 million. He got to 37 million users. Somewhat better. In the third year, he upped the ante once more to a hundred million. He launched an aggressive marketing campaign, broader distribution, improved the technology, and kaboom! He got 111 million users.

John Doerr

It is specificity and focus which enables all of us to stretch further than we initially think we can. Carefully choose your objective and stick with it. Rather than scatter-gunning and seeing what sticks, make sure that every single employee sticks to the following: what are you trying to achieve? How will you know if you’re getting there? And business leaders take note: how does their idea and project achievement help improve the overall company? 

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