What OKRs really are
A North Star and compass
OKRs, shorthand for “objective” and “key results,” have long been a Silicon Valley management tool. They’ve got the two ingredients for an idea to survives Darwin—they’re simple and easily adapted to many different use-cases. They’re intuitive.
OKRs grew out of Silicon Valley, the leading and loudest voice advocating for them being John Doer. Doerr says the objective must be concrete. And, as he’s written, the “key result has to be measurable,” because “at the end you can look, and without any arguments: Did I do that or did I not do it? Yes? No? Simple. No judgments in it.”
Doerr takes his work ideas home with him. In an interview, he noted some personal OKRs, one of which set an objective to “have a healthy family life.” The key result was “to be home for dinner 20 nights a month by 6pm, and to be fully present. No screens.”
OKRs kind-of work for everything. That’s why they aren’t going anywhere.
But they could use an upgrade. Even though some will love those three capital letters forever. “O-K-R” seems stapled onto the souls of Silicon Valley’s finest.
But let’s inject two important metaphors onto OKRs.
Your objective is your North Star. It’s a fixed aim point. It’s concrete. It’s something you can see, and just as important, it’ something you can see yourself in relation to. You may move, your organization’s position may change, but the North Star won’t.
Your key results, collectively, enroute to that North Star—that’s your compass. It’s a measure of movement, a way of determining progress along the way. And there is no “gray area” with compass measurements—you’re either on course or you’re not.
Now there are different ways of calibrating yourself in relation to an objective. You may be on a go-for-broke short distance sprint to meet some near-North Star. You may never lift your gaze from the compass on this type of trip. Or the journey may be longer, slower, steadier, on a long-haul trip to a distant North Star. For such a trip you might simply check in once in a while.
Either way you’ve got to have both. A clear aim and steering mechanism. They’re useless without one another. You may have a clear aim but no way to zero in on it. Equally bad would be an ambiguous aim or none at all. In that case, the world’s greatest compass won’t get you on target.
I’ll close with maybe the most eloquent description of why the North Star and compass must work together. It comes from the 2012 film Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner. In it, Pres. Lincoln (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) must pass the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives to codify the Civil War’s moral objective into law by abolishing slavery. To get the law passed, Lincoln and his agents resort to deals, flattery, bribes, and even lies. When asked about how he can reconcile the two—the good end and the bad means, Lincoln replies with an example from his time as a surveyor: “[A] compass…[will] point you true north from where you’re standing, but it's got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp…[then] what’s the use of knowing true north?”