Wine & OKRs

Oana Calugar is the founder and OKR Coach at Perfomance+, a management consulting company, based in Germany. In this Voices of OKR piece Oana draws parallels between the complex process of winemaking and the OKR methodology.

As the pandemic came, I was able to find refuge with a lot of distancing in our recently purchased vineyard. For a few months, business life almost froze, but the vineyard was in full bloom.

We worked in the vineyard almost every week and didn’t travel as much since training and workshops moved online. In the long spring afternoon hours and Saturdays working in the vineyard, I had time and peace of mind to think and reflect on the philosophy of life, business, goals, Objectives, and Key Results.

Working in the vineyard brought me new ideas about OKRs and a new appreciation for wine, as I see now how much manual work is involved in each glass of wine. There is a calendar for vineyard work, just as there is a calendar for OKRs.

Vineyard Grooming calendar – based on the annual grapevine growth cycle for Northern hemisphere; source: Vins de Bordeaux: Vineyard Management

As I was cutting and pruning and trimming and harvesting, 3 parallels between grape growing, winemaking and OKRs emerged:

1. 🍇  “A struggling vine makes the best wine” and likewise, OKRs work better in environments with constraints

Let’s think like a grapevine! As a vine, my reason for existing is not to make wine, but to get my grapes as ripe as possible, and this will attract birds to eat my grapes, so that they spread my seeds and my species thrives. In fertile soils laden with moisture, I tend to throw all my energy (sugar) into growing shoots and leaves, because there seems to be no risk to my life (like in business), so I may as well flourish where I am – no need to send energy to the grapes, because I don’t need the birds.

But when I’m growing in a less fertile space and water is less, I think I need to get out of here because I might die. The best way to do that is not to grow leaves but to put all my energy into the grapes and make them sweet and delicious for birds; then my seed is spread.

Juicy Pinot Noir grapes; source: author’s personal collection

Sweet and delicious to birds also means great for winemaking: more concentrated flavors, higher alcohol, a wine that can mature. That’s where the term “a struggling vine makes the best wine” comes from.

It’s the same in business – OKRs work especially well when we don’t have enough resources (time, people, money), when we need to choose our priorities carefully, when we need to think long term, and when we need to focus on fruits or results.

When a business or team must ‘fight’, it really needs OKRs and the phrase should go like this: “A struggling business needs OKRs”.

2. 🍷 Vineyard management practices influence the grape and wine quality, just as annual OKRs shape the future of our business

Each cut I make in the vineyard in the spring influences the taste of the wine next year: it’s about how many canes I have this year, how many grapes, how many leaves and where, how many spurs for next year and how many wild plants between rows of vine there are. I need to think long-term, not just a few months ahead.

Just like with OKRs – it’s very easy to fall in the trap of thinking only about next quarter OKRs, but objectives need to be derived from company strategy, which is multi-annual. In the OKR implementation projects I lead, I use the Dual Cadence approach created by Paul Niven and Zachary Ross. This approach is explained in the article “How often should we use OKRs?”

Within organizations using a dual cadence, the company defines a set of annual OKRs and typically breaks this down into a set of OKRs for each quarter. Teams may then create an annual and quarterly set of OKRs or decide to set OKRs only for the upcoming quarter. Among the benefits of the dual cadence is the aid of context provided by establishing annual OKRs.” – Paul Niven

3. ✂️ Pruning the vine is just as vital as focusing on few OKRs

Vine pruning involves cutting the vines back when they have stopped growing at the end of the annual growth cycle. Pruning is essential because one has to choose the buds that will produce the fruit for next year’s harvest. Wine grapes are pruned to produce fewer grapes that are more concentrated in flavor. The focus is on quality, not quantity.

My son pruning the vine in Spring 2020; source: author’s personal collection

When working with team OKRs, it’s easy to put everything you need to do in Objectives and end up with a list of 14 OKRs. Well, how many of these are doable? If they are truly ambitious, probably none. In my OKR workshops, I sometimes take my pruning shear to encourage participants to cut from the big list of OKR and focus on the essential. In Christine Wodke’s wise words: “Do less, better.”

What now?

Now that winter is coming, there is less work in the vineyard and more time to enjoy wine. I’m certain that new parallels between winemaking and OKRs will come up.

Just a suggestion – next time you finish an OKR Planning workshop, enjoy a glass of good wine with your team to celebrate the new OKRs cycle. To your health!

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