Why PFA Needs OKRS…(and Congress does too)

OKRs are a goal setting exercise and it may be tempting, as such, to lump them in with their cousins, SMART Goals, along with performance reviews, 360s, competency libraries, agile workflows and a whole bunch of other corporate mumbo jumbo heard everywhere in the halls of corporate America and almost nowhere outside them. However, I believe OKRs are different and have potential value for many of us, both in our work and in other aspects of our lives.

But let’s start from the beginning; OKRs stands for Objectives and Key Results. It is a methodology first practiced at Intel in the 1990s but popularized over the course of the last decade or so, largely because one of its early adopters, Google, shared their experiences with OKRs with the rest of the world. There is an excellent (if long) You Tube video done by a Googler on how OKRs work both in theory and in practice..if you are interested in the specifics you should check it out.

Atlassian Blog: https://www.atlassian.com/blog/jira-align/scaled-agile-okrs

At first blush, OKRs appear to be similar to all cascading goals exercises: The person at the top proclaims…”these are the three things we are trying to do this quarter” and all the successive levels of the organization create their own goals based on how they are going to help deliver their boss’ goals. It sounds good, but without a fair amount of rigor it devolves into something like this:

Boss: “we’re going to sell 15 percent more Doodads this quarter” Minion A: “Great idea boss, I’m going to teach our sales people how to sell better” Minion B: “Brilliant idea boss, I’m going to improve our marketing materials” Minion C: “What a paradigm shift boss! I’m going to get with our channel sales partners and talk about how they can sell more.” When Doodad sales remain flat everyone looks around and wonders why.

OKRs are built on the concept of being measurable. Every quarter, you choose three objectives (not ten) that line up to at least one of the three objectives of your team (your team’s manager creates those based on the larger team, etc, etc.) You then come up with three key results, which must be quantifiable, that you believe will be the output of the most important activities you can engage in to drive that objective. At the end of the quarter you and your manager score your OKRS based on what percentage of these three key results were actually met and you end up with a score between 0 and 1. (1, by the way, is not the perfect score at Google – it means you probably set goals that were too easy.)

The secret sauce, though, is that these OKRS are shared with every other member of the organization both before and after scoring. So – if you have a key result similar or complimentary to someone else’s key result you might be able to work together to drive them. Or, if you are counting on partnering with an individual but you see that they are planning a six-week travel assignment you can adjust your strategy. Again, if you are interested – check out the video here. I’ve also been a productivity disciple of David Allen for years – you will also find some commonalities between OKRs and the wisdom of Getting Things Done.

But here’s why I’ve come to realize that PFA needs this approach. Now six months in to the return of Project to Find America one of the challenges I face is a nagging suspicion that all of the work that has gone and will continue to go into this project won’t make a damn bit of difference in solving the fundamental problem at hand. If you have been reading this site for awhile you may have been thinking the same thing all along.

As with any good goal setting exercise one of the keys is to get the first part right…what is the fundamental problem at hand that I’m trying to solve? Part of my challenge is that I have expressed it in different ways before but here it is again:

At a time when the world is changing faster than ever before, the United States needs a government that can create policy that is more responsive and more flexible than ever before. But instead of that, our prime legislative body – the US Congress, is less responsive and more inflexible than it has been in at least the last hundred years.

Please do me a favor – read those last two sentences again. Do you disagree? I didn’t think so. So, what is to be done? If your answer is “things will get better after the impeachment trial,” think again. The 116th congress was well on its way to ignominy before the President even dialed up Ukraine last summer. The impeachment process has merely moved the progress meter from glacial to sedentary. There are many reasons for this and the best analysis I’ve found of most of them can be found in It’s Even Worse than it Looks (now changed to Its Even Worse than it Was,) a book by a pair of longtime Washington scholars. But while the book is instructive in understanding the problem, I found it much less so in understanding what to do about it.

That then, is the problem at hand. Tomorrow in this space we’ll lay out some OKRs for Project to Find America and then Sunday, look at what a world in which Congress itself adopted some of these same principles might look like.

The Unasked Question

You probably didn’t hear it here first. but the message you’ve seen many times on this site over the course of the last several months is now being reported much more widely in the media: American politics are broken and are diseased not by a difference of ideas but by a schism in identity.

Here is US News and World Report on States of Hate from last week.

Last month, NPR did a very detailed story looking at many of the same sources we covered in this Prezi and the pilot of 435 Voices.

and here’s a more unlikely source – The Financial Times tells us how Partisanship sates Americans’ lust for belonging.

What is in short supply in all of these accounts is what to do about it. In ten months we are going to vote for President. Either Donald Trump or one of several Democrats appears likely to occupy the White House in 2021 and beyond. There seems to be a common hope that a new (or somehow the existing) President can fix all this. But since we are in the midst of the football playoffs I’ll go with a sports analogy here; expecting any of them to be successful with our current Congress is like expecting Patrick Mahomes to go the Super Bowl with the guys from Moe’s Tavern on his offensive line.

You could roll up the best traits of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan and still not have a President that could navigate the soul-crushing dysfunction they are likely to meet with in the 117th Congress. But as Reagan himself said (while) “there are no easy answers, there are simple ones.” If we want partisanship out of the halls of Washington we are going to have to vote it out.

And yet…

Take a minute right now and go see if you can find the news articles about candidates that are pledging to work with the other side (whatever that other side is) to actually make policy in the next Congress….I’ll wait right here.

You will recognize these stories because the candidates will be quoted as saying things like, “we are going to try some new things to confront the many challenges Americans face today, we are going to measure how well these solutions are working and then, without assigning blame, we’re going to try new things if they are not working as well as we hope.”

Oh…back so soon?

Instead, what we have, even in the districts where there are competitive primaries, is candidates lining up to campaign on the status quo.

This is a screenshot of a Google News Search using just the last names of the five Republican candidates running to replace Bradley Byrne in the Alabama 1st congressional district. It’s hard to see, but you should be able to replicate the search here. The district is reliably Republican, voting with the GOP candidate every year since the early 1960s so it is likely that one of these five men will be elected (made even more likely by the fact that is almost impossible to find any articles about the three Democrats running for the seat). You can see the results for a search about the Democrats running here.

But it’s pretty tough to find much difference between the five. The few articles suggest they all support the President across the board on national policy. There isn’t much coverage of local issues to go on but in the brief coverage of how to pay for a federal highway bridge, for instance, there doesn’t appear to be much daylight either (they all agree that the federal government should pay for it instead of having a local toll while also agreeing that the feds should continue to lower taxes). It seems pretty safe to say that whichever Republican wins the primary eight weeks from today is likely to win again next fall and go to Washington to do, wait for it…exactly what their predecessor has been doing.

As strange as it sounds, though, the voters along the coast in the Alabama-1st have more choices than many of their fellow residents. Super Tuesday Primaries in all but two of Alabama’s other six districts have been canceled because there is either no challenger at all or just two candidates running against each other, these will both go automatically to the general election in November.

There will be some new faces among the folks headed from Alabama to Washington next January. One representative, Marthy Roby, is retiring, and another, the aforementioned Bradley Byrne, is running for the Senate so there will be at least two new members sworn in to replace them. But unless something changes, that delegation doesn’t seem likely to behave much differently than this one.

But there is still time to ask candidates, in Alabama and elsewhere, one telling question that could make a difference (or better yet encourage your local media to ask it for you)... “If you go (back) to Washington, what are you, personally, going to do to fix this problem?”

435 Voices will be back asking local journalists what they have heard for answers to this question later this month.