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What First-Graders Can Teach Us About Focus in Business and Life

January 7, 2020
OKR lessons from first-graders
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I’m in the middle of reading “Measure What Matters”, the book that widely popularized the concept of Objectives and Key Results (OKR), by John Doerr. In the book, John explains how a deliberate focus on what you’re doing (objectives) and how you’re doing it (key results) is the key to success. In the middle of reading, I remembered a wonderful gift my sister gave my wife for Christmas the year before she started grad school – it was a “detailed” book of OKR advice on how to do well in school, written by 18 first graders.

I’m in the middle of reading “Measure What Matters“, the book that popularized the concept of Objectives and Key Results (OKR), by John Doerr. In the book, Doerr explains how a deliberate focus on what you’re doing (objectives) and how you’re doing it (key results) is crucial to success. In the middle of reading, I remembered a wonderful gift my sister gave my wife for Christmas the year before she started grad school – it was a “detailed” book of OKR advice on how to do well in school, written by 18 first graders.

Foreward written by my sister introducing the book on OKR advice for “graguit” school

The two books my sister is referring to are “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss, and “OKRs for Graguit Skool” by a class of first graders. What I’d like to draw your attention to is the “p.s.” at the end of the book’s forward. These bright young minds know that my wife is a nurse, but they ask her what symbols are used in calculus. This is an endearing reminder that kids are sponges and latch on to the information they know. Its also a great metaphor for the way people and businesses often latch on to the wrong metrics (key results) that lead to decisions towards the wrong Objectives, simply because they are the metrics that are familiar. This is OKR gone wrong.

An OKR plan helps us focus on the places we'll go
Literary motivation from the class of first graders

OKR for life and business

In his book, Doerr explains that OKRs are a method to focus on those items that are most important to the success of a business or an individual. He gives stories about how Google and the Gates Foundation use an OKR system to eliminate work distractions to allow for laser focus on a core set of objectives. These objectives, in turn, are measured by a refined set of key results that are directly in-line with achieving the objectives.

By using OKRs businesses, executives, and employees can vet every incoming request against these OKRs and decide whether or not the new requests align with the specific goals. Without this system in place, however, it’s easy to be caught up in the moment and fixate on tasks and metrics that are not truly “value add” to the mission at hand.

An OKR helps us stay calm when theres a bug in the room
A bug flew into the classroom and the students were talking about it many months later

As you can see from the wonderful advice in the picture above (and below), the first graders in my sister’s classroom had a bug fly into their class at some point early in the year. My sister, being the wonderful educator that she is, used it as an opportunity to teach the students about calmly responding to adverse events. And, as you would expect, the bug became a central part of the students’ view on being successful in the classroom.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love that these bright young minds fixated on the bug because the lesson learned had an awesome impact on their education. What I’m pointing out is that as we grow up and operate in the business world, we need to be able to vet the adult/commercial versions of these kinds of lessons, learn from them, and then let them go because they are not key results leading to our core objectives.

An OKR helps us be (fokist) focused on the topic at hand.

“Graguit” school and an OKR system

Graduate school is a time that many students struggle through the process of eliminating the noise and focusing on the most important objectives for success. For example, when working on a PhD, the point is to write and defend a dissertation based on your own work (objective). For ease of argument, let’s say a dissertation requires three separately publishable pieces of work in order to be strong enough for defense and graduation.

The Objective = Dissertation Defense and Graduation

  1. Key Result = Complete publishable piece of work #1
  2. Key Result = Complete publishable piece of work #2
  3. Key Result = Complete publishable piece of work #3
  4. Key Result = Complete graduate school degree requirements

That’s it. You have four key results required to achieve your Objective. Using this lens, you should only take the courses, attend the conferences, and participate in the clubs that directly align with one of those four key results. That means that when you get nasty feedback from someone who reviewed the paper you’re trying to publish, you should learn from the “bug in the classroom,” but then move on quickly back to your central set of four OKRs.

Measure what matters

As you decide what your objectives are, whether in life or in business, it’s important to define the key results that get you there and focus on those. There was a period of my life where my objective was to see the world, so my key results were to buy a plane ticket, travel to at least two continents, and use the fact that I traveled the world to get a job. The “bug in my classroom” came when I lost my passport, but I didn’t let the hiccup ruin the pursuit of my key results.

For parents, the objective is to spend as much time as possible with their kids. Their key results may be attending every soccer game, being home for bedtime five nights per week, and playing dress-up every time there was a request. If there’s a “bug in the classroom” of missing a bedtime during a major project deadline at work, don’t linger and make sure you are in tip-top shape to fit into that superhero costume the next time the opportunity comes up.

Long story short, don’t dwell on the “bug in the classroom.” Measure what matters in life and focus on the OKR system to make sure you get to where you want to be.

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