[book report] Radical Focus: Achieving Your Most Important Goals with OKRs by Christina Wodtke

Over the years one of my [many] deficiencies as a manager in the Civil Service has been my rather dismissive attitude towards the entire appraisals process and by association objective setting. In the past I believed that reliance on ‘reviews’ for performance management whether quarterly, bi-annually or annually was a sign that you weren’t managing your team properly in the first place and that objectives were either too broad and high level to ever be measured, ‘gimmes’ that could be achieved by default or too short term to really reflect any kind of achievement over a period of time let alone map to any wider strategic goals of the organisation.

Over time though my thinking has evolved and while I still think that the existing process we are faced with within the Civil Service is flawed I increasingly see the worth of well thought through, measurable objectives that are clearly tied to higher level goals. Once I got to that point in my thinking though I needed some idea of what so about it — and that is where this book comes in..

Radical Focus..’ by Christina Wodtke introduces the concept of OKRs — Objectives and Key Results — these are a process for identifying the most important goals for an organisation and aligning objectives towards achieving them alongside measurable targets that can be regularly reported upon. Initially introduced by Intel but now widely used by internet-age companies like Google, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Using a similar conceit to ‘The Phoenix Project’ which last year introduced me to the basic principles and thinking behind the Dev/Ops movement Wodtke frames her book around a fictional ‘fable’ that follows a struggling start-up as it turns things around by embracing OKRs (and firing the odd asshole!). I do enjoy this approach — I am more of a fiction reader by nature and was quickly drawn into the storytelling style.

The story of Hanna, Jack and TeaBee (their tea selling start-up) is quite short (another thing I approved of) and skilfully outlined the key aspects and advantages of OKRs within the narrative. There is obviously a lot more detail out there but I found it an invaluable introduction to the topic.

At the conclusion of the ‘fable’ the book sets out some clear definitions and basic approaches to implementing OKRs — including this simple and clear intro →

OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. The form of the OKR has been more or less standardized. The Objective is qualitative, and the KRs (most often three) are quantitative. They are used to focus a group or individual around a bold goal. The Objective establishes a goal for a set period of time, usually a quarter. The Key Results tell you if the Objective has been met by the end of the time.

Like most agile approaches there is a set of rituals and artefacts (Monday commitments, Friday demos, quarterly reviews, checking the ‘four quadrants’ etc) and the book outlines them all and provides a starting point for introducing them to your team or projects.

What the book doesn’t really help with is how you can implement this approach somewhere you are not starting with a clean sheet of paper — it is clearly popular and successful at companies where it was introduced early but what if you have years of legacy thinking to shift first? I need another fable for that 🙂

I really do recommend the book — it is a surprisingly light read given the topic and gave me a great deal to think about and is a useful primer before going deeper into the subject on line where there is a LOT of information.