What OKRs offer a new generation of executives

August 10, 202113 min read
Image from Walt Disney's Sword in the Stone

Image attribution: Still from Walt Disney's 1963 film The Sword in the Stone.

 

Summary. This article (formerly titled Beyond Systems Theory) explores how the Objectives and Key Results goal-setting framework (OKRs) fits into the story of management theory, the philosophical underpinnings of OKRs, and ultimately how OKRs help to solve a key challenge faced by a new generation of executives.

 

Deming's failed quest


In 1990 Peter Senge finished writing the manuscript that would become the celebrated management book, The Fifth Discipline, the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. All that remained for the MIT lecturer and systems scientist to do was find someone to write him a short preface.

Thinking back to that time, Senge confessed, “there was no one I would rather have write something than Dr. W. Edwards Deming,” the man who was “revered around the world as a pioneer in the quality management revolution.” Senge could think of “no one who had had a greater impact on management practice.”
 


With this in mind, Senge wrote to Deming but with little hope of getting a reply. Aside from the fact that by this point Deming was long retired and almost 90 years old, as Senge put it, “I doubted that a letter with such a request from an unknown author, referring to a work with which Deming was unfamiliar, would get a favorable response.”

Senge was wrong. Much to his surprise a few weeks later he received an envelope from Deming. Senge hurriedly tore it open to discover a letter on which Deming had written one short paragraph. As a measure of the impact that paragraph had on Senge, after reading it, he said, “I had to stop to catch my breath.” Why? Because in that one paragraph Deming had delivered an assessment of his life’s work, and the unmistakable conclusion was that in the final analysis, he had failed. Deming’s exact words were:

“Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers—a prize for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars—and on up through the university. On the job, people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by Objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.”
 


It was clear from Deming‘s damning assessment that in his twilight years the god of systems and process management had realized that his emphasis may have been misplaced. Deming realized that his project had been wrecked by the failure to place an equal emphasis on transforming the mindset of staff and managers, or in other words, the organization's culture.
 

Synthesizing Deming and Drucker


Evidence of the effectiveness of the kind of equal emphasis on culture and systems that Deming had in mind could be found at Intel Corporation under the stewardship of CEO Andy Grove.

The Silicon Valley firm’s CEO had been influenced by Peter Drucker, the acclaimed Austrian-American management consultant who was famous for focusing on the human element of the management equation. “I am more interested in people than I am in how businesses work,” Drucker declared.

In contrast to Deming, who claimed that “a bad system will beat a good person every time”, Drucker confirmed his relative indifference to systems when he added, “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths …making a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.” No surprise then, that Drucker is remembered for saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
 


But Grove, like Deming, was also an engineer and a physicist. He was initially Intel’s Director of Engineering, while his book The Physics and Technology of Semiconductor Devices became a college textbook on the subject. 

Therefore you can understand why Grove never adopted Drucker‘s somewhat cavalier attitude towards systems. Instead, he embodied the kind of emphasis on both systems and culture that Deming had called for in his twilight years. Or as Intel chairman Andy Bryant put it, “he combined the analytic approach of a scientist with an ability to engage others in honest and deep conversation.”
 

Going beyond Deming and Drucker


Grove was not content to simply synthesize the ideas of Deming and Drucker without evolving them. For example, in a move that would have appeased Drucker, Grove didn't seek to replace or further complicate existing methodologies governing different departments and processes such as production, quality, or innovation.

Instead, Grove’s methodology worked as a kind of alignment architecture, capable of aligning staff at all levels, projects, and whatever methodologies were being used across the organization with the business priorities that flowed from the CEO’s vision.

For the same reason, it was an approach to management and self-management that was necessarily easy enough for anyone to use, universal enough to serve as a common language, and efficient enough to avoid adding bureaucracy.

But then in an act of siding with Deming over Drucker, Grove rejected the link between objectives and rewards that Drucker advocated and Deming had criticized. Grove did so because he understood that fear of failure would lead to less risk-taking.

Grove also agreed with Deming‘s call to drive out the kind of fear that stopped subordinates from delivering bad news to a manager, which in turn would leave the manager in the dark.

But Grove stopped short of buying into Deming‘s more general call to “end fear in an organization“, because he saw complacency as one of the biggest dangers organizations faced. Thus, Grove argued that some fear is healthy, especially in organizations with a history of success. Or as Grove famously put it, “Only the paranoid survive.”
 

The continental influence


You only need to look into Grove's past to understand why he associated paranoia with survival. Grove came to America as a refugee after surviving the back-to-back Nazi then Communist occupation of his native Hungary.

His upbringing in Budapest presumably also accounts for why Grove’s management approach appears to owe something to the Continental Rationalists instead of just the stark empiricism that underpinned thinking in the Anglo-sphere.

For example, according to Grove, market disruption was not only inevitable but desirable. “Every business has the seeds of its own destruction,” said Grove, because “the more successful you are, the more people want a chunk of your business, and then another chunk, and then another, until there is nothing left.” But contrary to how most people would perceive such an outcome, according to Grove, this was not a bad thing. Rather, it should be seen as an opportunity to adapt and find an even higher level of success.

No wonder Professors Chou, Cheng, and Hwang, of the National Taiwan University, feature Grove, along with former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, in the paper Dialectic Leadership in a Contradictory World. These were two leaders, the professors confirm, who exhibited a “dialectical worldview that resonates with the Hegelian Dialectic under certain conditions.”

The term ‘Strategic Inflection Points’ was in fact coined by Grove in reference to his philosophical interpretation of market disruption. The concept also became the organizing principle for his third book, also titled Strategic Inflection Points. This work became the favorite management book for many of both the old and the new guard of tech industry leaders, including Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, Bill Campbell, and Mark Zukerberg.
 

Andy Grove with Steve Jobs


Unfortunately, the book must seem very bland to the wider audience thanks to the publisher overruling Grove and imposing the title High Output Management on the book instead. 

It was an act of friendly fire that ensures to this day it's not immediately apparent to the uninitiated that underpinning chapter after chapter of Groves’ thoroughly grounded and practical advice is a page from idealist philosophy - an inclusion that makes Grove’s approach all the more intriguing since it was not a product of theoretical speculation. After all, unlike the theories of most management gurus, Grove’s approach was forged by the real-world experience of running a large corporation.

It's also an approach that was subjected to the most severe of stress tests that began during the 1980s, and ironically it was a test brought about by the most fervent advocates of Deming‘s approach – none other than the Japanese memory chip makers. As such, this was a test that was perfectly calibrated to pit Grove’s balance of empiricism and crypto-continental rationalism against the pseudo-physics and uncompromising empiricism of Deming.
 

Entering The Valley Of Death


The stakes were high. The Japanese strategy of undercutting whatever price Intel set by a flat 10% was designed to turn Silicon Valley into “The Valley of Death”, and Japan into the center of the computer chip business.

Thanks to the government subsidies enjoyed by the Japanese firms, this was a price war that Intel could not win. But despite this, because of Grove’s approach to management, including his philosophical outlook on market disruption, leadership of the tech industry was a prize the Japanese memory chip makers would not be able to claim.

Grove began by asking Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Without hesitation, Moore answered, “He would get us out of memories.” Moore was proposing that Intel switch focus from memory chips to microprocessors instead.

But while this might seem obvious in hindsight, at the time there was nothing empirically sound about making such a switch. This was before the PC revolution, and as Professor Nalebuff of the Yale School of Management explains, “second sourcing had created multiple competitors, and a downturn had led to excess capacity.”

This meant that at that time Moore’s suggestion amounted to the kind of a priori reasoning that Deming was famous for airily dismissing with the mantra, “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” Fortunately, Moore wasn’t talking to an arch empiricist. After taking a moment to consider Moore’s words, Grove looked up and replied, “Why shouldn’t you and I walk out that door, come back in, and do it ourselves?”

As history records, Grove’s leap of faith combined with his faith in the ingenuity of labor rather than cheap labor would pay off. The workforce at Intel progressively made microprocessors so much faster and more affordable that it gave rise to the legend of Moore’s law and helped fuel the very PC revolution that lit the blue touch paper for Intel’s success in the microprocessor business.

At the same time, Grove’s management methodology allowed intel to pivot with agility to make what had been a secondary business line the main focus of the enterprise, while simultaneously limiting exposure to the memory business.

As venture capitalist Ben Horowitz explained, the outcome was that “Intel, and as a result, the US, ended up being both the center of the microprocessor market and also the center of the PC industry. In turn, this led to [the US] being the center of the internet – making Grove the foundation of the US leadership in technology.”

 

 

One can only wonder to what extent Intel seeing off the Japanese play for supremacy of the tech industry played in Deming‘s final disillusionment. It’s difficult to believe it had no part to play given that in no country in the world was Deming more revered and his practices more influential than in Japan. To this day the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers continues to award the Deming Prize for contributions to the Total Quality Management system that Deming invented.

But truth be told, by the time Deming wrote to Senge in 1990, he had seen enough. As Senge confirms, Deming had become so disillusioned with his own system that he’d “almost completely stopped using the terminology of ‘Total Quality Management’, ‘TQM’, or ‘TQ’, because he believed it had become a superficial label for tools and techniques.”
 

The end of an era


Deming passed away three years later in 1993. Sadly, it was only enough time for him to realize that the CEOs weren’t listening to him anymore. But neither were they listening to Andy Grove, the man who had outmaneuvered and seen off Deming‘s epigones. The CEOs didn’t need to. Because in 1991, one year after Deming wrote to Senge, and two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union collapsed. Under the mantel of globalization, what followed was an unprecedented era of business process outsourcing. 

 

 

For decades to come executives of listed companies were able to meet the perennial shareholder demand for maintaining and growing profits by leaning heavily on the option of ‘downsizing’. The euphemistic drapery would inevitably wear out requiring the contriving of new terms. Downsizing would become optimization, then transformation, but the esoteric intent of reducing the wage bill remained the same.

By 2016 the phenomenon had become so widespread that an Accenture study found that 82 percent of the 700 senior executives involved in the survey “aimed to cut costs to fuel growth”. No surprise then that somewhere along the way, rather than being a company builder, in many cases being an effective cost optimizer became the decisive measure of an executive’s track record.

Meanwhile, oblivious of Deming‘s repudiation of the era of process-focused management, for generations of people managers the acme of people management became freeing themselves from the task of managing people. Instead, they worked to transform their operations into self-managing systems, recreations of the clockwork celestial systems that had inspired the systems and process management gurus in the first place. 

Adding to the resolve of the managers in this regard was an uncritical conflation of immanence with command and control. The outcome was staff left increasingly baffled by the spectacle of managers trying to outdo each other in remoteness, the brevity of their one-on-ones, and the terseness of their one-line emails. Needless to say, none of this could last.
 

The return of the company builders


Today, we are assured that we're in the midst of a transition from the industrial to the knowledge economy. Everyone sagely nods their heads whenever the slide appears but without ever asking the obvious question, “why now?”

The answer is that the outsourcing wave couldn’t last forever. The outsourcers will no doubt continue to find ever more ingenious ways of reducing the wage bill. But after thirty years of continuous outsourcing, clearly, the great bulk of cost reductions have been made. The same dynamic applies to the covid-induced tsunami of digital transformation. By this point, cost reductions achievable through digital transformation are well and truly subject to the law of diminishing returns.

Until such time as the much-vaunted but yet to materialize wave of bots shows up to enable another round of wage bill reductions, the new generation of executives is presented with a challenge. Quite simply, how will they continue to satisfy shareholder expectations without being able to depend on business process outsourcing and digital transformation as their predecessors were able to?

It's a moment vaguely reminiscent of the 2010 transition of government in the UK when the incoming Chief Secretary to the Treasury found a note left for him by his predecessor. It read, “Dear Chief Secretary, there’s no money [left], kind regards and good luck!”
 

Incoming Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron pointing at the infamous note


Only in this case, the note to the new generation of executives from their outgoing predecessors reads, “there are no more jobs left to outsource, good luck!”

But with Grove’s philosophy in mind, the new generation of executives need not be daunted. Because surely, no more jobs left to outsource constitutes a strategic inflection point if ever there was one, and therefore a moment that should be embraced as an opportunity.

In this case, it's the opportunity for the new generation of executives to avoid the fate of having to spend their days publically proclaiming that the workforce is the source of all value, while privately trying to fire as many of them as possible. Given the personal conflict that must go with having to play such a duplicitous role, one does not envy the job of a cost optimizer.

Instead, the new generation of executives is free to pick up the torch from the executives who preceded the age of outsourcing. Like them, they are free to build enduring legacies they can be proud of based on being company builders.

As for a tool to help them align the entire organization around such a vision, they should consider the goal-setting methodology inspired by Grove’s own approach to management, the man who, when he passed away in 2016, was described by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen as “the best company builder Silicon Valley has ever seen, and likely will ever see.”

That methodology is known as Objectives and Key Results, or simply OKRs.