Manager OKRs, Maker OKRs: How Early Stage Startups Should Think About Goal-Setting
You’re Not Yet Google, So Don’t Blindly Mimic Their Processes
Google’s internal management approach has sustained and scaled pretty impressively over the years. Quantitative goal-setting, setting stretch targets — these principles are as evident in the 2020s as they were when I arrived in 2003. Underpinning it all are OKRs — Objectives and Key Results — the framework by which individuals, teams and the entire company is managed. Xoogler Don Dodge did a comprehensive job of documenting OKRs in an earlier blog post, but the basics were always this: Each quarter individuals and teams document their objectives for the next 90 days and grade the goals they set 90 days earlier. In Q4 teams also set metagoals for the next year. Now we have software startups who have basically built their business around OKR-style planning! Or you could, of course, use this OKR template from Homebrew portfolio company Coda.
My Nine Years at Google meant 36 Quarterly OKRs and the correlating number of annual planning exercises. My role at YouTube had me often working through our OKRs with Larry and Sergey (one of those stressful exercises that in hindsight was amazing). I believe OKRs were originally recommended to L&S by John Doerr of KPCB, and since that time, OKRs have spread through tech companies, sometimes carried by Google alumnus themselves. OKRs are sensible, straight forward and on a planning cycle managers understand. And that’s the problem.
In 2009 Y Combinator founder Paul Graham wrote an essential essay called Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. The post discusses how engineers need long periods of dedicated time to build and managers (or people whose work generally involves lots of meetings) can honor this by not scheduling interruptions in the middle of these periods. It’s great — you should read it.
Manager time vs Maker time gave me a lens to not just evaluate day to day schedules, but the general cadence of how we plan and build at Google. We consider ourselves a company founded and driven by Makers (our engineers), but somehow we settled into a Manager planning rhythm, one which mimicked accounting cycles rather than how things actually get built.