10.14.2020

Committed to OKRs

A British couple ‘measures what matters’ for a healthy marriage.

Dan and Melissa Murray-Serter wedding day

Like millions of others, my wife and I have found being around each other quite an intense experience during the pandemic. We live in a two-bedroom apartment in central London, with limited space. Thankfully there’s a garden, but there have been periods since March where our otherwise mostly blissful marriage has been tested.

By the time we got into a bit of a rhythm, it was summer. We were doing our jobs fully remote just as well if not better by now, so we decided to join some friends in Portugal to catch some sun as all of our planned holidays had been cancelled. Surprisingly, this is where the trouble started, and exactly where OKRs came to the rescue.

OKRs work for big business, startups, and relationships.

My wife, Melissa, and I are both fans of OKRs and have been using them in our respective businesses, which are very different. I run a brain care startup called Heights, which launched in January 2020 (I know, great timing). It has been growing quite quickly despite the pandemic, now up to 12 full-time employees and counting.

Meanwhile, Melissa works at the youth media powerhouse VICE. When she became Director of Operations for EMEA at the start of this year, she was tasked with implementing an organisational system that would scale.

After some reading, researching, and asking around, we both chose OKRs despite the different stages of our businesses. Melissa’s not religious, but believes in organisation above all else; and, since discovering John Doerr’s ‘Measure What Matters’ in 2018, she’s declared it her bible. Her hard copy is peppered with index tags, filled with notes, and the spine is weathered from constant bending.

Anyway, this isn’t about how we use OKRs inside startups or giant media companies. This is a far more relatable story.

Relationship Issues

Like many, the pandemic made Melissa especially vigilant around things like cleanliness, hygiene, and personal space. After almost six months of being in our own space together, controlling what went in or out, we moved into a 4-bedroom villa with three other couples in Portugal’s sunny Algarve. We all worked remotely in different nooks and crannies, but each with a different attitude to what ‘tidy’ or ‘clean’ meant, all preloaded with our own COVID anxiety levels. Needless to say, it was a sudden shock to the system. It started to manifest in our marriage as bickering, something we don’t generally do with one another, and whilst we’ve been married for almost three years, the pandemic has made it feel like we have fast-forwarded ten!

After a couple of tipsy altercations in front of our friends, it was clear we had some underlying issues to work through. We decided to discuss them the following day on a long walk.

Although both Melissa and I are process-oriented, it manifests in different ways for each of us. I love to try new process techniques related to personal growth, whilst Melissa loves any and every process that makes things more logical and organised. After getting to the root of the problem with the ‘5 why’s’ approach, we diagnosed a few behaviours that really triggered the other, and talked about how to call them out in a supportive way.

With the crux of our issues defined, it was time to have a much more rewarding conversation - how to have the best marriage we can.

Visualisation

I am a big believer in the power of manifestation and visualisation techniques. Ultimately, you have to believe in the future you want to live. Melissa and I spent about 5 hours in January doing a variety of manifestation exercises, which given it’s 2020, we got pretty wrong. But no harm in hoping for the best!

It’s one thing trying to visualise your future like many of the world’s most successful people have famously done. It’s quite another to try to manifest a ‘great relationship.’ The rules are slightly different.

We had a very obvious ‘north star metric’ of ‘have a healthy and long-lasting marriage,’ so now it was time for the magic question - and I knew what the answer would be…

Me: “What framework do you want to use to make sure we are taking personal responsibility for achieving this outcome?”

Melissa: “There’s only one framework I love. OKRs. P.S. I love John Doerr”.

She might not have said that verbatim, but you know, that’s essentially the message, loud and clear.

Set and Setting

If you are going to tackle a big serious topic like “have a healthy and long-lasting marriage,” you need to give it the proper time and space to define what good key results look like. Tip number one is, when setting personal goals, don’t rush, as good key results could easily impact how you start to live your day to day.

We decided to say goodbye to co-living in the villa and headed off together to a beautiful, less popular part of Portugal. In a random farmhouse surrounded by green, with no wifi, we disconnected from everything and reconnected with one another, and nature.

The plan was to write a little every day, and then go for a long walk to discuss any obvious challenges that came from our Objectives or Key Results. The process took probably 2 hours a day for three consecutive days. But we didn’t force it, and it felt quite natural. If we started going round-and-round and not agreeing on something, we left it to come back to the next day.

Dan and Melissa Murray-Serter on their wedding day

Up until now, you can tell Dan has written this article because it’s all story and fluff. But at this point, if you want specifics or a detailed, high-quality action plan, that is where Melissa really comes into her own. So, enter stage left… Melissa 👇

As with any good framework, you need - well - a framework. So we started by pulling together a layout and template for the OKRs to live. For us, this was a google sheet (see template here). One thing you’ll notice is that there is space to include a summary for each objective and key result. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. It allows you to elaborate on what the Objective means in detail, without fluffing up or complicating the wording of the Objective or Key Result.

  2. It acts as a detailed reminder of what you’re really trying to accomplish in case you ever forget - which is something Dan struggles with given he juggles roughly four full-time jobs, including his Instagram updates for his devoted 22k followers - based on the fact that the cats, who mostly sleep, have almost 10k followers (you can follow them here), I wouldn’t be that impressed.

For our overarching Objective, “To have a healthy and long-lasting marriage,” we crafted this accompanying summary statement: “To have a fulfilling partnership that results in the longevity of our marriage, supporting our minds, bodies, and souls.

Notice the summary statement identifies the three key areas we agreed would define that north star of ‘healthy.’ That meant that in order to align with our overarching Objective; mind, body, and soul each needed to be covered in our key results:

KR 1 MIND: Achieving at least 36 weekly engaged meaningful communications with one another Summary: These relate to activities that we could do together or separately, that add value to the relationship from a mental perspective. It could be journalling, reading, sharing knowledge, meditating, or just having independent space to re-energise to better contribute to the relationship.

KR 2 BODY: Achieve at least 32 weekly activities that contribute to the growth of our bodies Summary: This relates to a combination of physical movement, sexual connection, intimacy, and health that will collectively help us maintain our bodies in a positive and meaningful way

KR 3 SOUL: Achieve at least 10 weekly activities that nourish our souls Summary: This relates to a combination of activities that fulfill us both emotionally and spiritually. It could be time spent with one another indulging in a shared past time, having our favourite meals, seeing our favourite people, working on projects, or contributing to our communities or loved ones in a meaningful way.

These overarching objectives and key results probably took us the longest time to agree on. We debated a lot - namely, on the difference between sex and intimacy (Men! SMH). But we also had many talks about whether the metrics chosen for the key results were measurable and, more importantly, if they were aspirational enough.

brain care startup Heights

Cascading to Personal OKRs

Once our Relationship OKRs were established, the rest cascaded easily into our Personal OKRs to support them. The KRs for ‘a healthy marriage’ became guides for our personal Objectives. Each Objective then had 4 key results with a clear data source defined. Some are (very) private (!), but here are a few examples:

O1: MIND = Become the most engaged communicators with one another - ever KR3: Each digest at least 1 new fact/story and share it with one another every day

O2: BODY = Have the healthiest relationship with each other’s bodies possible KR1: Each complete at least 5 forms of heart raising movement per week

O3: SOUL = Have deeply nourished souls KR1: Do 1 dinner every week (at our dining table) with no phones allowed

We then decided on incorporating our OKR tracking into our daily journal (see image above), as it felt natural to incorporate it into an existing habit.

Surprises and Discoveries

The main surprise about our Relationship OKRs is that we were surprised that they were working. As previously mentioned, we both use OKRs in our businesses, and we’ve seen them work. So it’s been great to see how well they transitioned on a personal level.

The biggest discovery has probably been that they reduce nagging - or what can feel like nagging. Setting OKRs against meaningful areas in your relationship, whether they are meaningful for both of you or just your partner, means that there is an agreement on what you are both going to contribute towards. They act as reminders, instead of feeling like forgotten conversations or broken promises.

In a time where every day risks feeling like the movie Groundhog Day, it’s easy to slip into bad habits or unhealthy routines - not just physically, but emotionally too. Looking to your partner to fill the void left by colleagues, friends, and random encounters… expectations can quickly turn into burdens. Happily, we can both confirm our personal OKRs are working for us: we exercise more regularly, eat healthier, and don’t begrudge each other time apart (even if it’s just an hour sitting in different rooms). But the greatest achievement has been reviving our capacity for teamwork. After all, that is what a marriage is about.

When work and life have blended together so much over the last few months - living and working in the same space - it seems only fitting to also bring the values OKRs hold in our businesses to our personal life too.

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