Imagine a scenario where we try to play basketball with no actual basket. Get two teams of five. Set them on a court. Give them a ball and a referee and a scoreboard and an audience. Now remove the rims from the backboards so that there are no actual goals. Once that’s complete, have the teams line up and blow the whistle for tip-off.

Cheer these teams on as they leap for the ball and assume their offensive and defensive positions. Applaud their efforts as they dribble down the court to the … what? The end the other team is defending? Why? To toss a ball at a blank backboard? What are we doing?

There’s no way to score. Is the team with the ball really on offense if there is no goal?

What is the defense actually trying to defend?

These and more questions swirl in everyone’s minds. Is this even basketball anymore? Why am I dribbling? Maybe this is … dodgeball. Yeah, we’ll say this is dodgeball instead. So everyone line up on opposite ends of the court and we’ll throw this heavy leather ball at one another until there’s just one team left. Because we’re here to play a game and the one we wanted to play is not available to us. So we’ll make our own.

That’s innovation!

That’s also the basic situation behind every bad workplace environment I’ve ever seen. There are places, whole offices with hundreds of decent people, where the proverbial goals have been removed from the basketball court. These are places where everyone comes into the office with zero idea of what, exactly, they’re trying to do. Are they even part of a team? If so, what’s their role? How on earth is anything getting done? And of all the things that are getting done, why are we even doing them?

Amidst these questions, some people band together and make their own games in their own departments or divisions. Others just check out because, well, this is boring. A few get really passionate and try to coach the colleagues towards some end, making it up as they go, fabricating their own basketball goals out of tin foil and baling wire. Or worse materials:

I don’t remember where I found this image. I just remember laughing.

Then a boss arrives and says “we’re going to do X” and sets up an actual goal for the teams to play around. Only to decide six weeks later that “we’re going to do Y” instead, moving the goal to another part of the court and raising the height by thirty feet.

Reach for it! Nothing ventured, nothing gained! You can do it! Isn’t this fun?!?!

Image by Urban Prankster

Ridiculous as all this may sound, it’s basically what happens in the typical workplace when bad management holds sway. Bad management isn’t just defined by mean bosses doing dumb things. Bad management is found in the white spaces, too; it is found in the bad kind of non-action where you have the absence of vision, clarity, focus, and, well, goals. No one wants to be a bad manager but it happens when we are overwhelmed by too many inputs, too much complexity. With no framework or coherent approach, we end up with the silly behavior I just described. That’s not the result of bad people. Just bad management.

There is no dimmer switch here. When it comes to the workplace architecture, you’re either doing the work of a great manager or a bad manager. That performance is determined by factors already covered this week and based, at the foundation, on your ability to shape and manage the actual game.

As stated in Monday’s article, a great manager is not only a trainer and coach; a great manager is the actual creator and steward of the game itself.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Jack Welch once said that the CEO is actually the CMO or Chief Meaning Officer. As such, the top leader imbues the organization with a sense of purpose, vision, and a crystallized understanding of how each person in the company contributes to it. This is perpetuated through the management structure, all the way down to the rank and file who come to see that they have a stake and that this this is theirs, too. As the popular book title reads, the idea here is that people understand “It’s Your Ship”.

This has broader application beyond the corporate world. Ben Horowitz and Graham Duncan and many more have understood that founders must remain involved in startups since they hold the gestalt of the business or the “spirit” of that particular game. There are value judgments, choices of what to do and not do, that all correlate to the meaning that you try to make. That way, you never lose total sight of where the goals are.

But most of us don’t work for startups. And I never worked for Jack Welch. And I’m coming to grips with the fact that I’ll probably never work for Horowitz or Duncan. So without their support, what are the rest of us to do about the aimless workplace? The basket-less basketball court? The struggle to tell the story, find the meaning, capture the spirit?

How can we get our teams on the same page in a durable, meaningful way?

There are a number of methods and techniques one could use. I’ve tried many. The best, though, starts with the practice that Andy Grove championed in 1995 with this week’s featured book High Output Management. He called is Management By Objectives (MBO), which is the most literal title I’ve probably ever seen. It’s since been given a new name: Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). Why is it the best? Three reasons:

  1. You can actually stick to it. Because these techniques are akin to dieting. The best diet plan is the one you can actually follow consistently since the consistency, more so than the details of the diet, is what sparks the results.  
  2. You can understand it. Ever seen Michael Porter’s Five Forces? The Balanced Scorecard? The mechanisms behind Hardwiring Excellence? The stuff of TQM? The tortured efforts to apply Six Sigma to the entire world? Or how about the mish-mash of Lean Six Sigma? See, it’s different when you add “Lean” in the title! All these strategic management tools are as complicated as they are opaque. It doesn’t make immediate sense to everyone; we can’t have a shared language around it. Without that shared language, these systems fail to truly stick.
  3. You can use it to connect dots and tell stories. As much as I think Jack Welch is right about the notion of a “chief meaning officer”, the truth is that very few people in the business world are great storytellers. So a coherent method that we can use, a proverbial Story Grid for our narratives, is supremely helpful. This management tool provides that. It can turn your typical Bill Lumbergh into a William Faulkner. Guaranteed!

MBO by way of OKRs

Our legendary author, the former Chairman and CEO of Intel, writes about his MBO system with characteristic clarity. Here’s his explanation of what the system does:

A successful MBO system needs only to answer two questions: 1.  Where do I want to go? (The answer provides the objective.) 2. How will I pace myself to see if I am getting there? (The answer gives us milestones, or key results.)

There you go. That’s it. The end. Pretty simple, right?

Simple, yes, but not easy. These are the most important, most difficult questions we face as individuals. As organizations, it can be just as challenging. The answers take time and they can (and should) change as situations evolve. All the same, these two questions form the proverbial goals of our basketball court. Without formal, definitive answers, we just end up with the usual vague business-speak and buzzword soup.

John Doerr wrote a helpful book last year called Measure What Matters. It’s all about this system (referred to as OKRs) and gives us insight into the way Google and a few other successful firms use the approach. The book is basically a refinement and expansion on the original MBO idea as Andy Grove detailed in his work. And as a sidenote, Andy’s approach is derived from Peter Drucker’s work in the 1950s. A great geneology of the practice is featured in this Economist article.

In my humble opinion, the history shows that this is a concept that is as old as formal management. Every new approach is a derivative of the idea. And the more I reread these ideas in modern practice, the more I understand what great management is: the teaching and coaching that Andy Grove argues is Part 1 of being a great manager is defined and contextualized by this approach defined in Part 2, organizational architecture.

Monday’s amateur-quality Venn diagram provides this interplay:

It’s not a mechanical thing, though. This managerial approach is a bright-lined dance floor. It gives you parameters and permission to move within them. This is my favorite aspect of the method: it instills a loose-but-firm hold on the organization, a nudge-worthy libertarianism that suggests “We, the management, don’t care what you do with your time so long as you deliver on this objectives through these results.”

It’s a basic Who Does What By When with outcomes defined to explain Why. And when fully utilized in the refined methods Doerr highlights, as OKRs, you have a modern day managerial practice that reflects the best, most long-standing truths of the profession with the pace and flexibility needed in today’s environment.

I know that sounds like a line pulled straight out of a brochure but I write it earnestly. Mostly because Andy Grove demonstrates it so well in his book. His use has such a wonderful degree of nuance. Again, this isn’t mechanical. It isn’t about compliance or control and rote efficiency. If anything, it builds a sense of movement and momentum while giving shape to the work. As he writes it:

The MBO system is meant to pace a person—to put a stopwatch in his own hand so he can gauge his own performance. It is not a legal document upon which to base a performance review, but should be just one input used to determine how well an individual is doing. If the supervisor mechanically relies on the MBO system to evaluate his subordinate’s performance, or if the subordinate uses it rigidly and forgoes taking advantage of an emerging opportunity because it was not a specified objective or key result, then both are behaving in a petty and unprofessional fashion.

The ultimate strength is the clarity. To know where the basketball goals are. As he writes,

The one thing an MBO system should provide par excellence is focus. This can only happen if we keep the number of objectives small.

Notice the caveat at the end. This gets to the subtle art of the work, all of which is learned from past mistakes. It begs the question: what other subtleties should we adopt? Particularly in the modern-day practice we call OKRs?

How Does One Practice OKRs?

This is a very important question that deserves the best possible answer. Doerr’s book can give you those answers. But until you read it, there is an equally-great article by the Medium author niket. It’s a great place to start. His article can be found here:

OKRs by nivet

As a bonus, you’ll even find a nice systems diagram in his writing on Uber. Which plays nicely to the work we’ve already done to understand systems thinking in previous articles.

So start there. With nivet. And take the insights you find there as gospel because I think they are quite true.

This article tees up the topic. I can’t give it proper justice in the space I have today. So instead, I offer a goofy analogy of basket-less ball games to reinforce the need for this wonderful tool. I’m so impressed that Andy Grove and others were practicing this long before it really gained the latest attention. It worked for them. It can work for us. In fact, if a rookie manager did nothing else but apply OKRs to his team in the most ham-fisted, dim-witted way, I think they would still outperform just about any other group.

Because the team just needs to know what to shoot for. And for us managers to stay on the sidelines coaching them along.

More from Andy Grove’s book in tomorrow’s article. We’ll examine his thoughts on the hybrid organization, also known as the matrix organization.