Focus: When you go on a hike, do you have a destination?
This is a short post dedicated to Jeff Walker. Jeff introduced me to the concept of OKRs to improve my focus and communicate more effectively. Walker worked with OKRs at Oracle back in the 1980s where he was the founder of Oracle Applications and also took on the role as CFO helping Oracle grow from roughly $20 million annual revenue in 1985 to well over $1 billion in 1991. Jeff is a world-class business manager, so I was quite lucky to receive Jeff’s business mentoring back when I was a VP at a software start-up and he was a board member coaching me on how to talk about progress at work.
Recall my definition of OKRs: “a critical thinking framework that enables employees to focus their efforts and work together to make measurable progress.” I arrived at this definition based on my conversations with Jeff. Here’s an excerpt from one of our many weekly discussions.
Act 1: Ben gives Jeff a “random” “OKR-less” update that lacks focus
Scene: Ben is sitting at his desk, working at his 25-employee start-up company. He is working as hard as possible to grow the company. Phone rings and Ben picks up.
Jeff: How’s business this week?
Me: (In an excited, energetic tone) Great! We’re operating on all cylinders and we’re totally buried. We have two webinars coming up next month. We signed up a new part-time sales rep so that should really get us going. Also, the pipeline is great with lots of demos scheduled next couple weeks.
Jeff: (In a grumpy and disappointed tone) When I ask “how’s it going?” you seem to give the same answer every time we talk. You tell me that you’re really busy with a bunch of stuff. I really don’t want to know about that. When you give me an update like that, it just sounds like you’re putting together a bunch of random ideas about what’s on your mind and what you’re doing. What’s the latest revenue forecast look like? How many leads did we get last week? Are we seeing an increase in demos? How are you measuring the quality of the demos we deliver? What results are you looking to create and are we on track?
Me: Oh, well, I’m not really sure, but I have those reports somewhere and I can probably get the data.
Act 2: Jeff asks the “trick question” about focus
Jeff: (In a slow voice that Ben interprets as ‘you better listen carefully since Jeff is about to make a very important point’) Do you like to hike?
Jeff: Well, when you go on a hike do you have a destination?
Me: (Seems like a trick question, but Ben tries to answer honestly) Actually, with Lizzie, my younger daughter, we used to have destinations, but it was frustrating. We never got there. We now find it’s better not to even set a destination. We just pick a starting spot and see where we go. She’ll see a waterfall or a butterfly or start playing with some newts or rocks. Next thing we know, we’re just going wherever she takes us.
Act 3: Jeff tells Ben how you need a destination in order to focus and advises Ben to adopt the language of OKRs
Jeff: (In a nice warm and fatherly tone) Well, I’m happy to hear about where you and Lizzie go and the butterflies she follows when we’re talking about your family. (Jeff’s tone gets a bit more intense here) But when you’re at work, you waste my time, your time and everyone else’s time when you don’t have a destination. Did you know that all the people that report to you as well as the other team leaders are looking for you to have clarity about where we’re going? You need to focus in order to create focus in this company. Otherwise, when you talk about stuff, it just keeps changing and no one really knows if we’re on track or where we’re going.
Jeff: Here’s how you can talk to me and others next time I ask how’s it going at work. Remember MOKRs?** Start by telling me the destination, the OKR. Then, pause to confirm I understand the OKR. Next. give me a short update of progress to date plus the level of progress we expect to achieve for each KR. The less words you can use to communicate this progress update, the more effective you are at communicating. Then, if you’re really clever, ask me how I can help your team achieve the KR. I may have different solutions for getting your team to achieve the KR and you’d be wise to ask me for help. When I know where you’re trying to get, I’m much more likely to be able to help you get there.
The Moral of my short dialog with Jeff
As I recreate this conversation in my mind, I realize the wisdom Jeff shared. People like Jeff are resources that can help you achieve great things. We all have people like this in our lives. I find that communicating with an OKRs framework forces you to clearly define the destination. Doing so can dramatically increase the chances that you’ll get help along the trail toward your amazing Key Results. The call to action for this post is simple: find your “Jeff Walker.” This person might be a family friend, a former colleague, or even a paid coach like me!
Providing updates on the latest progress of a task list is not often a productive way to communicate. It can be more effective to first articulate the destination to provide a focus. Then, communicate measurable progress toward this destination. This type of communication is a daily ritual for people who use OKRs and can enable other people to help you achieve amazing results you may have never imagined possible.
Little did I know that this small chat with Jeff was my first step toward a new career, a career focused on getting clear about destinations at work. I’m so grateful that Jeff helped me get more focused and I’m delighted to share this wisdom with my friends, colleagues, and clients. Thanks again Jeff!
**Jeff actually introduced me to “MOKRs” which is identical to OKRs, but has “M” for “Mission” in front. For more, see my post on MOKRs