OKRs for PFA

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.

If you recall, that is the problem statement presented here in the first part of a look at the concept of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results.) All good goal-setting exercises have to begin with an understanding of what the context of the goal is. But this is the problem, not the goal.

In essence the goal is for voters to be able to choose candidates for Congress the way they would hire a financial adviser. Who would hire someone who spent the entire interview telling you what they are not going to do or criticizing every financial adviser you’ve ever worked with before? Presumably all the applicants would start off with a pitch about how they are going to make you wealthy and your retirement years golden but those who didn’t get into the specifics about how they are going to do that and the tradeoffs that will be required probably wouldn’t get a call back. Why should we expect anything less from the people that are making the most important decisions about our nation’s future?

That has to begin with getting candidates to answer two simple but elegant questions:

  1. What, specifically, are the three most important things you propose to do in Washington in 2020 and 2021?
  2. What measure could we be looking at to see if your efforts, independent of other (external) factors, are successful?

Seriously, …I’m not kidding. Why shouldn’t we expect politicians to be able to answer these questions? In fact, given the recently difficulty that members of Congress have had in being able to collaborate to produce progress for the country I think it would be reasonable to expect an answer to a third question too:

How and Why do you think you will be able to work more successfully with your colleagues in Congress that have different ideas than yours than other recent members have?

But getting answers to these questions requires that someone asks them and then disseminates the answers and pretty obviously the most likely group to do that are the reporters that cover the candidates on a daily basis.

3 Objectives (through April 2020)

  1. Research and report on the answers (or lack thereof) that have been given to the first two questions from each candidate for the first 125 seats in Congress to be decided this year (of the 436 in the House of Representatives and 35 in the Senate) in advance of their party’s primary if applicable, or the general election if not.
  2. Research and report on the answers (or lack thereof) to the third question in advance of their party’s primary if applicable, or the general election if not.
  3. Get the answers (or lack thereof) to all three questions reported on in local media at least once before the primary and again before the general election in each of those 125 races

3 Key Results: (through April 2020)

Objective 1: Research and Report on the Answers to the Two Key Questions

  • Produce a Ten Links in Ten Minutes video showing the coverage that is available to answer these questions in advance of the primary or general election for each of the 125 House or Senate seats
  • Follow up the video one week later with an episode of the 435 Voices podcast with members of the local media or others following the race to fill in the gaps on the questions
  • Send in a note to the campaign website for each candidate with the first two questions and report on any answers in the 435 Voices podcast.

Objective 2: Research and Report on the Answers to the Third question

  • Highlight any of the rare answers that have been given or comments about this question by any of the candidates in the Ten Links to Ten Minutes video above.
  • Ask local journalists, even if they are not on the podcast, if they have heard an answer to this question and report on these answers on the 435 Voices podcast above
  • Send in a note to the campaign website for each candidate with the third question and report on any answers in the 435 Voices podcast.

Objective 3: Get the answers to all three questions reported on in local media

  • Follow up on the episode of the 435 Voices podcast with a note to each of the journalists covering that race with a link to the podcast and ask them to report on the answers or ask the questions themselves and report on the answers they get
  • Distribute the podcast and video links to local community-based organizations (chambers, community hubs, etc) after each podcast runs
  • Build awareness of the PFA mission by doubling subscriptions to the 435 Voices Podcast and PFA YouTube Channel each month

So these are the first quarter OKRs for the Project to Find America. They look daunting written out this way but I can at least imagine what these outcomes look like. What is more difficult to guess at is what, if any, impact they will have on how people actually vote. I can’t answer that. For reasons covered extensively here we are all hardwired to throw rational thought out the window just before we step into the voting booth. But if we (and I mean you gentle reader) can get the word out about these answers, if you will help by subscribing to the podcast and video channel and passing it along to just a couple of other people a week we might end up with a 117th Congress that is more ready to take on the challenges of the 2020s.

What’s Next?

“Well, that’s over.” Those were the contents of a text this afternoon to my wife, Elizabeth and they seem as good a place to start this post as any. The acquittal of President Trump in the Senate this afternoon on both counts of impeachment ends a long and painful news cycle for better or worse and the question for the citizens of the United States now is…what’s next?

Some, no doubt, will be inclined to celebrate. Others will be in a mood to commiserate. But what I hope we all do…is contemplate. The case for whether the President should be removed from office was argued bitterly in Congress, almost directly down party lines, and now it’s over. But even some members of Congress that voted against removing Donald Trump from office made it clear that they did not approve of his actions.

So what’s next for the USA? Are we still a country that can serve as an example of democracy at its best for the world to follow or is zero sum politics the new normal here? There is an adage in the world of corporate culture, “Culture”…the saying goes, “is the worst behavior that your leaders tolerate.” So what is our culture? Do we still believe the stuff we tell our kids about right and wrong, about looking after the needs of others, about truth and justice or has it turned out that, in the end, winning really is more important than how you play the game?

In the last post I promised OKRs for Project to Find America. Now that this chapter is over they are coming tomorrow. Good Night and Good Luck.

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.