Rick Klau once gave one of the most influential intro presentations to Objectives and Key Results: How Google sets goals: OKRs / Startup Lab Workshop – YouTube. It’s an evergreen talk and has gotten nearly 1.2 million views over the past nine years. He recently followed up with a post What my OKRs video got wrong. In that post he mentioned that one of his key learnings is “What you and your team say no to is at least as important as what you say yes to”.
It reminded me of a story that I often tell when introducing OKRs. It is about Atalanta, a heroine in Greek mythology. If you have watched Disney’s Brave you will notice similarities with Merida, the main character.
Atalanta was a strong, independent woman, and she was the fastest runner in ancient Sparta. To her father’s chagrin, she did not care to get married. Her father did not agree to that plan and set up a contest in which young men would race to win her hand in marriage.
To keep her freedom, she asked to be allowed to participate in the race herself, i.e. race for her own hand. Her father, not thinking she had a chance of winning, agreed to the deal.
At the same time, there was a young man called Hippomenes, who fell in love with Atalanta a long time ago. The race was his chance to marry his love. He knew how fast Atalanta was, so he prayed to Aphrodite. Gossip and intrigue are nothing new, and Aphrodite didn’t like Atalanta. So, she gave Hippomenes three golden apples and told him to drop one at a time during the race to distract Atalanta. To her demise, she was so fond of those golden apples that she stopped to pick them up.
After each of the first two apples, Atalanta was able to recover the lead, but when she stopped for the third, Hippomenes won the race. It took all three apples and all of his speed, but Hippomenes was finally successful, winning the race and Atalanta’s hand.Adapted from Christina Wodtke‘s Execution is everything
If only Atalanta had set clear goals and stock to them. She would have stayed single, footloose and fancy free.
Atalanta’s story is surprisingly timely. We all are running into golden apples every day. So much to do, so little time. However, unless we focus on a few things, we spread ourselves too thinly and what feels busy is actually distraction. OKRs help discern the trivial many from the vital few.
The most obvious example is the selection of key results. When introducing OKRs a lot of teams start with more than five key results for each objective, because those are the metrics they are tracking. Over the course of one or two quarters most realize that focusing on three-ish key results per objective helps them focus their energy and get more done by saying no to more things.
In other words: If at all possible, avoid the temptation of golden apples!