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Book Review

Measure What Matters

by John Doerr

Sep 30, 2018

Measure What Matters by John Doerr is an above-average offering in the tired Silicon Valley Tech Guru genre. It certainly better be, given the pedigree of the author and contributors. This book is taking my office by storm; seemingly out of nowhere it has become almost inescapable. Copies are prominently displayed on desks, there’s a slack discussion channel for it, people are toting it around conspicuously —  even our CEO was seen with a copy.

The hype is real, which usually tends to make me skeptical. Many tech leaders write books that are bland products, and so few have real knowledge to give. I was mildly surprised to find that I enjoyed this book and hope to put it into practice soon.

“A mission is directional. An objective has a set of concrete steps that you’re intentionally engaged in and actually trying to go for.”

Practical Utility

The beauty of OKRs lies in the simplicity of the concept. It’s a system that’s easy enough to understand, and the real difficulty lies in having the will to change. Many tools exist to help you manage OKRs, but in theory your company could do it with just pencil and paper. If you do it right, you should be able to have frank discussions in a culture of radical candor about whether or not you met your goals. If your company needs a lever to create alignment amongst inconsistent teams, this has real value. Additionally, the last chapter has some tools — worksheets and the like — to help you get started.

authenticity

It’s always hard to gauge authenticity; storytelling is akin to bullshitting. Presenting chapters as case studies from the perspective of leaders of many successful companies adds a natural component of truth. It also squashes any chance of the author presenting to much braggadocio around The Culture of Me. Some of the companies mentioned have had ups and downs since adopting OKRs, but that doesn’t invalidate the message.

Entertainment Value

Despite the repetitive chapter structure, this book held my attention reasonably well. The story arc of each chapter was fairly engaging and showed a clear correlation between problem, solution, and success. Some of the anecdotes of eccentric tech gurus stopping meetings to do push-ups made it feel less relevant to my Midwest sensibilities. Despite that, I stayed engaged and was able to knock it out in under a week of only reading it on the train.

enjoyable prose

The book’s editor probably needs to get a nod for this; different ways of speaking and writing were blended into a collection with a common tone and style. The prose was simple and clear, but not rudimentary which helped keep the focus on the story each chapter was telling. The focus on simplicity and clarity was a nice stylistic match for the message being delivered.

Information Quality

The information presented was solid and level of detail was just right. When I finished the book, I had just wet my beak enough to want more. I found the frequent OKR examples — abstract, but formatted — to be helpful in grounding the concepts discussed in a practical reality that I could actually envision.

The Hidden Truth

A recurring theme in this book is alignment. Alignment is a crucial and often missing component of success in anything involving groups of people. One of the most common themes you’ll notice about successful companies is that everyone has rallied around clear goals and ways to achieve them. The horror stories of failure tend to include anecdotes of fragmented leadership and work groups with conflicting or unclear goals.

What this book is really selling underneath the author’s favorite method is alignment; alignment around clear goals and a shared acceptance of cultural change. The parts of the book that repeated how important it is for this to be endorsed straight from the top had me nodding along furiously (and getting funny looks from strangers on the train).

Companies resist change; they have inertia that keeps them moving in the same direction, even if that direction isn’t great. That inertia usually comes from some combination of the business model, the culture, and the individuals who make up the company. That’s why you need explicit adoption from the very top. A clear mission and direction from the top is the very thing that causes alignment. Without it, OKRs are just another flavor of the month and people will just show up and continue to do whatever they usually do.

Who Can Benefit From This Book?

Senior and executive leaders frustrated by a lack of meaningful progress towards clear and concrete goals. It’s also useful for mid-level contributors who want to contribute to a culture of positive change. Because the main message of this book is one of selling the idea of OKRs, individual contributors interested in OKRs may be frustrated if they don’t yet have broad influence within their company.

Recommendation

Read it almost cover to cover, but skip the chapter by Bono. If OKRs are something coming to your workplace, great! You’re primed for change and can help drive towards a positive future. If this isn’t something on your executive team’s radar, you might find yourself examining your company’s existing goal structures with disappointment.

Ratings Breakdown

  • Practical Utility 80% 80%
  • Authenticity 60% 60%
  • Entertainment 60% 60%
  • Enjoyable Prose 80% 80%
  • Information Quality 80% 80%

Overall Rating

  • More than tolerable. Kinda good! 72% 72%

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