Author:
Bruce Gil

Photo:
Ben Heath

“A few extremely well-chosen objectives,” wrote former Intel CEO Andy Grove in his book “High Output Management”, “impart a clear message about what we say ‘yes’ to and what we say ‘no’ to.”

Grove’s business pupil and prominent venture capitalist John Doerr calls this power of discernment, “focus.”

Highly effective organizations harness the superpower of focus to strategically prioritize. It all starts with acknowledging that no individual department can do it all. There are only so many employees, investments, and hours within your organization’s reach. Focus is the discipline of ensuring that you are applying all your resources on efforts that will make the biggest impact (not just the “safest” ones.)

It’s easy to say yes. The challenge comes when you have to say no to an overeager boss or go against old ways of thinking. Fortunately, OKRs provide a fair and transparent framework for saying no based on already agreed upon collective commitments. If it doesn’t fit the company’s objectives, then it’s a no—no additional explanations are needed.

The freedom to say no is essential for any high-performing team. Here are a few organizations that have learned that the key to efficiency is saying no when necessary.

Examples

The Student Experience team at the Minerva Schools at KGI made a breakthrough with saying no this past year.

The university’s Student Experience team is responsible for connecting what students learn in the classroom with the real world. Every year they organize events called Symposiums that bring professionals from different fields together with students for a fun and inspirational night of community building. It seemed natural at first to track how many professionals they invited, but while debating measurements for their key results, the team realized that tracking the number of professionals invited to each event wasn’t enough.

The metric they found mattered most is the number of students who successfully land internships and mentorships. As fun as the Symposiums were, they weren’t resulting in the experiences the team knows are so crucial for students’ long-term success.

“Within our team, there can be a desire to create things because they’re really cool or inspiring but they didn’t necessarily link [to our mission,]” says the head of the Student Experience team Mike Wang.

Because of the OKRs they committed to, they’ve decided not to produce the event in all of the seven cities the school operates in going forward.

Instead, they plan to work more closely across departments with the school’s career development team to curate professional partners that are more likely to provide opportunities for students.

Knowing when to say no isn’t always clear like it was with Minerva. Often, it can actually seem counterintuitive. In the book, “Measure What Matters”, we share the story of Remind, a communication platform that allows teachers to send mobile messages to students and parents in a secure way. It was founded by brothers Brett and David Kopf in 2011.

For the past two years, their app has reached their number one spot in both the iOS and Android app store charts during the back to school season. But getting there took focus on both quality and engagement.

Throughout the years, one of the most requested features from teachers was to be able to send a single repeated message on a recurring schedule. But through discussions, the company-wide OKR became to improve engagement with students and parents. As a result, the whole Remind team was clear that they could not devote the engineering time or resources to invest in building the feature in that cycle.

“When our answer was no, we decided to shelve it—a tough call for a teacher-centric organization,” wrote Brett Kopf. “Without our new goal-setting discipline and focus, we might not have held our ground.”

OKRs are a great safeguard against ingrained habits and biases toward opportunities that look shiny and exciting at the moment. But they’re also a useful tool for clarifying roles—and even providing a clear framework for pushing back against leadership effectively.

23andMe co-founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki says OKRs even help her team keep her in check. As CEO, she wants to support her team as much as possible and even once offered to learn how to code, but they responded with a clear no.

We all know leaders who are willing to jump in and help at a moment’s notice — but OKRs allowed her team to assure her that the best thing she could do for them at the time was to fill the gaps in the company by focusing her efforts on hiring.

In an interview with Doer, Wojcicki said saying no is much easier with OKRs than it was without them.

“So for decision making and especially at the team level an opportunity can come in and people can say no we’re not going to work on that, it’s not part of the OKRs,” says Wojcicki, “And we hear that and it’s become part of the language within this building.”

Where can I get more information?

OKRs keep companies focused on their goals. That freedom to be able to say no to the boss or from immediately jumping on every opportunity that is presented to your company will propel your organization to the next level.

It’s also important to note that a no doesn’t have to last forever. Sometimes a no really means maybe next quarter. Atlassian has great tips on how to sift through what’s urgent and what is not.

The data and insights provided by tracking OKRs will assist your business to make more informed, impactful, and confident decisions freeing you and your team to focus on the most important things.

To learn more about OKRs make sure to check out the helpful FAQs, Resources, and Stories here on WhatMatters.com.

Or, if you’re looking for an OKR coach, check this out.