Squirrels can kill the vibe

squirrel with fluffy tail on dry tree twig

(Each week, I write a post about OKRs. You can see the series of posts here; if you have a question about OKRs you’d like to see me cover down the road, drop me a line.)

I read a great blog post from Michael Rill last week about OKRs and the risk of distraction:

We all are running into golden apples every day. So much to do, so little time. However, unless we focus on a few things, we spread ourselves too thinly and what feels busy is actually distraction. OKRs help discern the trivial many from the vital few.

“Golden apples” is a reference to an equally great essay from Christina Wodtke, who correctly points out the risk distractions pose to an organization’s ability to execute:

Every startup will run into golden apples. Maybe it’s a chance to take stage at an important conference. Maybe it’s one big customer that asks you to change your software for them. Maybe it’s the poisoned apple of a bad employee who distracts you while you wring your hands over what to do about him. A startup’s enemy is time, and the enemy of timely execution is distraction.

Years ago, I led a team at Google in an SVP’s org where the SVP was famous for loving new ideas. It was right around the time the film Up was popular, and on one particularly frustrating day when the SVP sent the team chasing his latest random idea, an engineer observed that he felt just like Dug when he’d see yet another squirrel:

Later that week, a Beanie Baby squirrel showed up on my desk, a gift from one of my fellow product managers who shared my extreme frustration at the never-ending distractions this SVP threw our way. I still have it on my desk, more than a decade later – a reminder that distractions are a given, it’s how we respond to them (i.e., how we ignore them) that will determine our ability to succeed.

I find OKRs to be particularly useful in dealing with squirrels, as it creates an agreed-upon framework for a team to decide how to respond when a squirrel runs past the window. Is the idea related to one of the few things we’re focused on as a company? If we pursued the squirrel, would we make a meaningful impact on one or more of the metrics we agreed to influence? Does this squirrel matter, right now, to the work we’re doing?

More often than not, the answer to those questions is “no.” But there’s another angle here that’s important to understand: teams like saying yes to good ideas. It’s easy to say no to squirrels that are obviously counter-productive, but what if the squirrel is clever? Interesting? Fun? Those squirrels are a lot harder to ignore.

OKRs help the team maintain focus, so that “no” is really “not now”. It might be a great idea, might even be worth pursuing at some point. But pursuing it now – which necessarily means deprioritizing some previously-agreed-upon work – not only leaves the team less clear on who’s doing what (and why), it means the team loses the ability to know what the outcome will be when they actually finish work they’d started. Then this quarter’s abandoned objective (tossed aside to pursue this week’s squirrel) becomes some future quarter’s squirrel.

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