Understanding the why behind OKRs

An interview with CTO and engineering leader Mike Wu

Michael Boykin,Yellow Squiggle
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Ahead of Range’s mini-conference on goal and OKRs, I sat down for a quick conversation with event panelist Mike Wu to get a clearer idea of how he thinks about OKRs and his experience managing them. Mike is the former Head of Engineering for Seesaw and former CTO of VSCO. We got right to it.

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MICHAEL: Is there a place for individual OKRs on teams?

MIKE: It depends on where the company is with goal setting. If they’re just rolling out OKRs (objectives and key results), then I would say no. But, if they’ve been using OKRs for a few cycles and have been able to measure team- and company-level OKRs, then I would say it’s worth pursuing.

Coming up with objectives isn’t hard. Coming up with the measurable key results takes a lot of practice.

In my experience, setting and measuring OKRs right takes a lot of practice. If you’re doing quarterly OKRs with an organization of over 30 people, it can take up a lot of time. You want to make sure that the goals you’re setting are actually meaningful, otherwise you will end up chasing these measurable results that may miss the larger goal or strategic objective of the company. So, that’s why I hesitate to give a resounding “Yes.”

MICHAEL: What are the most important outcomes you consider when evaluating OKRs?

MIKE: There are a couple of things. One is understanding if the results you’re after really make an impact on the company’s high-level mission. Why are you in business? If you’re at a company whose mission is to improve peoples’ mental health, are you actually doing that meaningfully?

Short term goals such as increasing engagement or revenue often times are easier outcomes to measure. Can you squeeze margins? Can you increase the top line? Can you increase minutes per user in the app? But, again, it goes back to what your company is trying to accomplish. If you’re trying to accomplish something that’s a longer strategic mission like “We want to improve the mental health of individuals,” it’s a little harder to quantify because it takes a longer time to achieve.

You want to find ways to ensure your short-term objectives are aligned with the overall company mission. Often times, this can be really hard to do.

On the engineering side, especially on teams that are not directly working on end user features, we often see objectives like “We want to see our infrastructure costs decrease, reduce response time, or decrease the number of bugs found in our software.” But you want to make sure you don’t lose sight of why you come into work every day. These are important to the health of the business and sometimes we separate OKRs out between what aids in helping us achieve our mission and what things might prevent us from getting there (e.g., the health of the business).

MICHAEL: What does it mean to fail at an objective, and where have you most often seen teams fail?

MIKE: I think failure is something that should be celebrated if you are learning from them. If you’re learning from your failures and course-correcting, sometimes that can be more important than hitting your goals. If you’re setting goals and repeatedly failing at the same goals, then you’re probably doing something wrong. Either you're setting your goals incorrectly, or you’re just not learning, which is a real problem.

We intentionally want to set aggressive goals, but ultimately, at least in the organizations I’ve been a part of, the culture I’ve tried to establish is that failure is a learning opportunity and not an opportunity to place blame.

In my time, I have plenty of stories of failures. One that continues to be a running joke within the staff at VSCO is when we were testing push notifications for the very first time with our Android users. I was sending test notifications and didn’t realize I was testing on production. One of my tests sent a push notification to over 1 million users that just said “Read the journal” with no context. We got a lot of engagement that day and if our objective was to increase engagement I would have perhaps helped us hit that goal, but in the wrong way. Ultimately this was a mistake on my part and we ran a post-mortem to figure out how we could avoid this happening in the future without having to develop too robust a process of checks and balances.

MICHAEL: Is it okay to change an objective? And, if so, when is it okay — under what circumstances?

MIKE: I don’t believe you should be changing objectives, especially if you’re just moving the goal post.

It’s like when a group of kids is playing a game and they keep changing the rules so they can win. I think changing objectives defeats the purpose of OKRs.

I think this is tied to your previous question: How do we observe failure? If we miss an OKR, that’s okay. We’ll figure out what we did wrong. Let’s not move the goal post, because then we’re not going to learn. That’s the key thing.

As a company, as a business, as entrepreneurs, we need to be focused on the outcomes we want, what we can learn, and what changes we can make to succeed. If we’re not seeing traction with getting customers to pay for our product because they want to keep using it for free, what can we learn from that? If we’re in a growth stage, what do we need to learn so that we can attract and retain customers?

When you stop or change your OKRs—either the objectives or the key results—you’re doing yourself a disservice. Look back. Did you set the wrong objectives? Did they not align with your company goals? It’s totally possible that things change two months in. That’s fine. Recognize that, say “Great,” and figure out how to adapt in the next cycle on better setting and achieving your goals.

OKRs are a means to an end. They’re meant to provide a structure to help us succeed and move the company forward. Instead of changing objectives, I think you should constantly evaluate. Scorecarding is a useful technique here, and we did this at VSCO and at Seesaw. In our leadership meetings we would look at our OKRs and do a green, yellow, red. Instead of moving things, we just recognized that particular objectives were red, and that’s what we talked about. Why was an objective red? Did we set too aggressive a goal? Did market conditions change? Or, did we simply not execute?

That’s the intent of OKRs. OKRs aren’t there to help anyone get their quarterly bonus or receive a glowing performance review. OKRs are there to help the company achieve its mission through the work of its employees.

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Understanding the why behind OKRs
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