Earlier this month, Kara Swisher interviewed my old boss Dick Costolo on her podcast, Sway. The entire episode is worth listening to:
Something in particular Dick said really struck me:
[Your managers] have to understand what you understand.
This is the same point I made in my MIT Sloan Management Review interview last fall with Chris Clearfield:
As a leader, you want to be predictable. You want people to understand where you’re trying to lead the organization and why.
OKRs are all about creating a shared framework, a language, for understanding what the organization prioritizes, how it prioritizes, and why it prioritizes some things above others. In the absence of a framework like OKRs, picking some things to work on (and not others) can feel political, even mercurial: is the CEO picking that project because she likes the person who suggested it better than me? Why aren’t we working on this other thing, that seems more important to me?
When a team implements OKRs, the what, the how, and the why all come into focus. There’s a method to what the org cares about, a consistency to how the decisions get made, that resonates. The team doesn’t have to always agree with those decisions, but they should always understand those decisions. Teams that understand why their CEO made the decisions she made will, in my experience, trust her. They’ll execute more consistently, and more quickly. They’ll be aligned.
That’s what Dick was getting at with Kara. When I worked for Dick at FeedBurner all those years ago, we knew what business we were in and why. He even wrote about this for Brad Feld and David Cohen in their book Do More Faster:
When FeedBurner was starting to become popular in 2005, and we’d hired our first director of business development, Rick Klau (now a partner at Google Ventures), he would occasionally come to my desk and say, “Company X will pay us an extraordinary amount of money to do this thing with their feeds. We’ve never really talked about that before, but it could be a good opportunity and it’s really a ton of money.” My reaction, which eventually became Rick’s reaction, was “Do we have all the feeds yet? No? Okay, then let’s just focus on getting all the feeds. Step one is to get all the feeds. Don’t bring me a rabbit; bring me more feeds. Throw away the rabbits.”
Teams make dozens of decisions a day about what to do, how to do it, and what not to do. The more dysfunctional the organization, the more those decisions get bumped up the ladder, asking for someone more senior to decide – either because they don’t believe they have the authority to make it themselves, or because they just don’t know what their leadership would do. Leaders who help their teams understand what they care most about – and why – empower their teams to make those decisions. The team won’t have to ask for permission: they’ll understand what the CEO would say if she’d been in the room – and they’ll have the benefit of moving more quickly in the process. (Not every decision is clear-cut: those can and should get escalated.)
It’s not just the team trusting the CEO. The leader who knows that her team has internalized this framework – who understands that for now, their job is to throw away the rabbits – will trust her team to consistently execute on that shared vision. She won’t second-guess the decisions that are getting made day-to-day, that she’s not included in.