A conversation with Stanford’s Christina Wodtke


“What we need to figure out though, is what is our relationship to these boxes on our computer that we’re locked into for so many hours a day. I think it’s time for us to just acknowledge that no human being should be in front of a screen for eight to 10 hours a day, that’s just not healthy.” – Christina Wodtke

Christina Wodtke is the author of the best-seller Radical Focus, which uses the power of story to build a new approach to OKRs, as well as The Team that Managed Itself and Pencil Me In. Christina currently teaches at Stanford in the HCI program in Computer Science. She speaks worldwide about humanity, teamwork, and the journey to excellence.

I had the pleasure of having Christina as a guest on this episode of the Control the Room podcast. We speak about influencing the influencers, psychological safety online, and re-evaluating our relationship with our computers. Listen in to find out why it’s okay to miss your OKR’s.

Show Highlights

[5:59] Influencing the influencers
[14:58] Learn with your hands, not your ears
[18:37] Human bodies aren’t machines
[30:03] Psychological safety online
[42:26] Why it’s okay to miss your OKR’s

Christina on LinkedIn
Christina’s Website

About the Guest

Christina has helped grow companies like LinkedIn, Yahoo, Zynga, the New York Times and numerous startups throughout Silicon Valley. She’s the author ofthe business fable book Radical Focus, which uses the power of story to build a new approach to OKRs, The Team that Managed Itself on creating high-performing autonomous teams, and Pencil Me In, on using drawing to make better businesses and products. Christina currently teaches at Stanford in the HCI program in Computer Science. She speaks worldwide about humanity, teamwork, and the journey to excellence. Find out more information at cwodtke.com

About Voltage Control

Voltage Control is a facilitation agency that helps teams work better together with custom-designed meetings and workshops, both in-person and virtual. Our master facilitators offer trusted guidance and custom coaching to companies who want to transform ineffective meetings, reignite stalled projects, and cut through assumptions. Based in Austin, Voltage Control designs and leads public and private workshops that range from small meetings to large conference-style gatherings. 

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Full Transcript

Douglas: Welcome to the Control The Room Podcast, a series devoted to the exploration of meeting culture and uncovering cures for the common meeting. Some meetings have tight control and others are loose. To control the room means achieving outcomes while striking a balance between imposing and removing structure, asserting and distributing power, leaning in and leaning out, all in the service of having a truly magical meeting. This episode is brought to you by MURAL, a digital workspace for visual collaboration. At Voltage Control we use MURAL to facilitate engaging and productive meetings and workshops from anywhere. MURAL gives teams the means, methods and freedom to collaborate visually. Use their suite of facilitation superpowers to control the virtual room and solve tough problems as a team with their pre-built templates and guided methods. To see for yourself why companies like IBM, Atlassian and E-Trade rely on MURAL, start your 30 day trial at mural.co. That’s mural.co.

Today, I’m with Christina Wodtke, a full time lecturer at Stanford University, where she currently teaches in the HCI program and computer science. She’s also the author of the business fable book Radical Focus – in which she uses the power of story to build a new approach to OKR – The Team That Managed Itself – on creating high performing autonomous teams – and Pencil Me In – on using drawing to make better businesses and products. Welcome to the show, Christina.

Christina: Thank you so much for having me. I’m honored.

Douglas: It’s great to have you. I think it’d be really fascinating to hear your story. How did you get into this work of writing books and teaching an HCI program? How does one find their way to that space?

Christina: I don’t know what other people do, but I took the scenic route. I went to art school believe it or not, after…I grew up in Iowa, and I applied to a bunch of liberal arts colleges, but I was pretty depressed at the time, I had a rough teenaged years. And I didn’t get into any of them and my great aunt said there’s this great art school down the street, KCAI, and I went there. My parents thought I’d only go for a year and then transfer to a real college, but I fell in love with it. And it was an amazing place. And I finally found my weirdos. I was a weirdo among weirdos and it was just a really wonderful thing. And after graduating, I put a junkyard engine into my grandmother’s Buick and drove to California because they don’t have snow. I was like, “New York, California, California, New York.”

So I went out to California planning to work in tech. And somehow I ended up painting and waiting tables for a while and then the web came along. And a friend of my boyfriend at the time said, “hey, do you want to build a Yahoo killer?” Yes, we spoke about that that way even back in the 90s. And I said sure and I was reviewing- If you can remember back that far, everything was a directory. So CNET was building a directory and I was reviewing 50 websites a week and I just fell in love with the web so hard. I was like, “this is the most magical place in the universe.” It’s like a territory that you’re both exploring and creating at the same time. And that really set up the bulk of my career. From there I got a job at Egreetings writing front-end code. So I got to see the birth of JavaScript and CSS. I went ahead and switched over to design.

I used to do design reviews with the creative director and I was reading a lot of Jacob Nielsen and I would say, that’s not- That’s going to be a problem, blah, blah, blah. And I joined him as an information architect, one of the very earliest information architects. And from there, my career just took off. I had a consulting firm, I wrote a book on information architecture, I went to Yahoo and redeveloped their search engine. Back in the day we bought Inktomi and Overture and had the most amazing experience there. Then went ahead and went out and did some management consulting for people like the New York Times, went back in. I did a startup that got bought by LinkedIn. Working at LinkedIn was an amazing experience. I ended up working for MySpace for a while and commuting by airplane down to LA and staying at the Beverly Wilshire, that was one of the most surreal periods of my life.

And then after that was Zynga. And Zynga was finally the place that broke me. It was a really, really intense culture. I had a small daughter at that time and I was like, “I don’t want to miss seeing her grow up.” So I thought, “Okay, what am I going to do?” And at Zynga is where I learned how to use OKRs. And I thought, “well, let’s see if I can use OKRs to figure out what to do with my life.” So I thought, “Well, maybe I want to be in food,” because… Doesn’t every tech person want to quit and get a job in the food industry? I don’t know why.

Douglas: You open a restaurant.

Christina: Yeah. Well, so I went to culinary school for a while and I realized that’s hard on the body as you grow a bit older. And then I went to work for a food startup and realized that margins are really hard in food, and I was going to end up not loving food anymore if I kept working in it. And then I decided to teach a night class at General Assembly. And that’s when it all snapped. I was like, “I love this. I love teaching.” So from General Assembly, I went to California College of the Arts, I believe it’s a 110 year old art school in San Francisco. And just loved the students, loved teaching so much. And then an opportunity showed up at Stanford. And I think in a lot of ways, this was my boldest choice ever, because I was happy. And I loved working at CCA. The students were incredible, the faculty were, my kind of weirdos, in some ways had come full circle, I was back at art school.

But the opportunity to influence the future influencers in the valley was too sweet of an opportunity. At Stanford, I’m literally going to run into the next generation of founders and CEOs, right? These kids are going to go off and shape technology. So this is my opportunity to shape them, to show them how human beings struggle with technology to get them to really love and care about their impact into the world, to give them the tools to navigate business so that they can actually get those dreams come real. This is probably shocking to you folks. The kids at Stanford want a better world, they really, really do. And they care profoundly about giving back. And then they get at the end of their college year and they’re laden down with all kinds of debt some of them, many of them, and they’re like, “oh, I guess I’ll work at Facebook, because I need to pay down this debt.” And teaching them that there’s more ways to make a difference and make money and that making a difference and making money aren’t necessarily antithetical to each other, that’s what I like to do.

So I try to get them to dream a little bigger. And it’s been amazing, those students are so bad ass, it’s incredible. They’re creative, they’re smart. Right now I’m teaching a game design class and they’ve got these games that they’ve not only designed, made the art for, the music for, but coded themselves. These kids are… poof. They keep me on my toes all the time and I love that feeling. I love the feeling of not being- It’s so good not to be the smartest person in the room. I love that.

Douglas: So what sorts of questions are they asking?

Christina: Oh, gosh! I think 99% of what I do for them is telling them it will be okay. The thing is that I’ve had ups and downs in my life and for me to go from a waiter, having painting shows in a pizza place to teaching at Stanford, they shouldn’t worry about that first job. They’re so strung out on, “I got to get the internship just right. And then I got to get the second internship just right. And then I have to get my first job just right.” And I’m like, “oh, my God, kid, no. Go hitchhike across Asia or something, just go have some life while you’re young and not tied down with family and experiment a little bit. It won’t kill you, it will be good.” So they’re often like, “oh, my gosh, I can’t pick between these two jobs. Which one is it?” And I’m like, “maybe it’s one that hasn’t even shown up yet. Go there, go to the one you like, try it, if it doesn’t work out, quit, try something else.”

I think that their questions are that…these are the kids who always got straight A’s for being obedient, and then they come to Stanford and they work really hard on their GPA, and they really want to play by the rules. And it takes a lot of work to deprogram that out of them and say, “what if you were in control of your life? What if you chose the topics you wanted to study?” When I design my classes, I always try to put enough space so they can bring their own passion to the projects and shifting them to being much more self directed is really, really important. I think it’s absolutely critical. Otherwise, they’ll just end up working for some toxic boss somewhere stuck because it’s a sexy company, and I just don’t want them to be that way.

So they ask questions about what’s it really like? “Should I be a product manager or a designer, an engineer?” And I’m like, “you can be all three, I have. You can change your mind later. It’s okay.” So I think a lot of their questions are, “What is it like out there?” And I’m like, “it varies. But if you don’t like one spot, that means there’s another place that might be just perfect for you.”

Douglas: I love this notion of helping deprogram them around this. Like, what’s this notion of success and now they can take a little bit more control of things and not just be a victim of a system.

Christina: I think about classrooms… I have a daughter who’s 14 now, and I think so much about how so much of school is about getting you to behave and it’s a very colonial attitude. We’re making good little soldiers. And so that’s not what we need right now. We don’t need people who know how to obey, we need people who can question the status quo and can make things better. And if your CEO comes up with something that’s really morally questionable, they need the tools to be able to question it effectively. Because if you don’t know how to do good argumentation, which is a huge part of any class I teach, then you just stop being invited to those meetings and you don’t want that. What you want to do is have enough ability to be persuasive and be able to show people new paths as well. So I sneak a lot of life lessons into my classes, I’ll admit it.

Douglas: So we talked a little bit in the pre show chat just about your aversion to online teaching prior to the pandemic, and now being forced to explore that and work through it, you’re forced to get good at. So I’m curious what you’ve learned and what other things you might be able to share as far as what others can learn from your experience.

Christina: Oh, my gosh, yes. So it’s interesting because I have both corporate training, which lets me afford to teach. I joke that my corporate training supports my unfortunate teaching habit, because I love teaching. But even at Stanford, where they pay you very well, Palo Alto is a very expensive place to live. So it ends up coming out in the wash. And so, I’ve had to think about what is the difference between a class that you’re giving online that’s required and the students are going to show up or an elective where it’s fun and interesting to them and they’re there because they’re committed. And then with the corporate trainings, you’ve got a bunch of folks who some of them are probably very excited to hear you talk and other ones are like, “oh, my gosh, what is this Silicon Valley bullshitter going to try to make me eat now?”

So it’s so much harder online because you can create a lot of psychological safety with your body actually, the way you look at people, the way you listen to people, the way you move. I usually take off my shoes, I originally started taking off my shoes because I was afraid I was going to trip over the wires on stages, and now I just do it automatically and people are like, “oh, when you took off your shoes, I knew you were real.” And I’m like, “okay, no shoes it is.” And I teach my classes that way too. But all of a sudden, here I am like a Roman bust or something, right? A head and shoulders maybe, trying to reach out through these little teeny, tiny itty bitty windows to really connect with these students. So I know all their names now of course, but I don’t feel like I know them as people as much as I have in the past.

I like to know what my students goals are, what their hopes are and I like to amplify those through the classwork. And it’s really hard. However, what is good about it is I think that I really switched even harder into active learning, which is with the students you don’t lecture very much. I put up a lot of pre recorded stuff, I like to find experts in the field to teach different aspects. So pull on conference talks and books and stuff like that. And then in the actual Zoom meetings, we work together. We do exercises or work on projects. And so I’ve gotten very good at using the breakout rooms and I’ve really… I think I was a little sloppy when I was teaching live, because I could fix things so easily, I could run around from table to table. And this has caused me to be a lot more thoughtful about what is the best exercise that will show them the value of the knowledge that I’ve given through a reading or a conference talk? How can I make them realize these things?

Because I think that people don’t really learn with their ears, they learn with their hands. So getting them from something that they’ve learned intellectually into something they’ve learned experientially as quickly as possible is critical. And what’s really hard about this is it’s harder to do that for corporate trainings, because you can’t get them to do the pre-reading. I used to teach in Stanford Continuing Studies and working professionals, you can’t get homework out of them, you can’t get them to do the pre reading. So that’s when I really have to lean into a combination of storytelling to stay interesting, because I’m competing against Facebook quite literally. Facebook is a tap away, so I better be interesting. So I’m doing things like telling lots of stories, fables, poems, anything I can get to keep people interested, I’m having them do little mind experiments. Usually, if I’m only giving a 45 minute talk, I can’t send people off to breakout rooms.

That was a big learning in spring is whatever you want somebody to do in person, you have to give him twice as much time in breakout rooms, because people are vaguely disoriented, they’re like, “okay, now we have to introduce ourselves and okay, now we can finally start doing things.” So with a shorter thing, you still want to keep it interactive, but you have to make little notes to themselves or type something in the chat. And over time, I swore I would never teach online, but I’m starting to realize that it can be done. There are still huge challenges however. One is bandwidth. I don’t care what kind of internet you have, your internet will go down eventually. It’s just a matter of time. People with the perfect bandwidth, perfect cable or fiber or whatnot, suddenly, they have no internet one day. And so you got to figure out how am I going to deal with that? Zoom’s technology is useful, but there’s a lot missing there.

A lot missing there, there’s things that are hard to do there. And the biggest lesson was simply people have bodies. And I know that sounds really obvious, but in tech, we’re usually only dealing with their mind. We’re thinking about… We’re in this like intellectual cloud space. And the reality is that when you’re sitting here in front of a computer, you get messed up, your back gets tired, your shoulders get tired, you’re putting in so much time, you get Zoom fatigue, because Zoom has this weird panopticon quality, you have to let students turn off their cameras, because it’s too exhausting to be seen all the time. But then you’re talking into an empty space, which is also very difficult. Not seeing the faces smiling back at you has been really tough on a lot of other instructors I know, because you feel like you’re screaming into the void. You don’t see those smiles, you don’t see those nods, you don’t see those brows furrowing with confusion. So that’s the downside.

So I think as we move forward, these tools are now blossoming really quickly, because suddenly, they have so many users who are just banging away at them really fiercely. So I think things like Zoom are going to get smarter. What we need to figure out though, is what is our relationship to these boxes on our computer that we’re locked into for so many hours a day. I think it’s time for us to just acknowledge that no human being should be in front of a screen for eight to 10 hours a day, that’s just not healthy. So I’m hoping that we get to a point where we find a better balance in our relationship with our technology, because COVID forced us to swing to the far end, we were heading that way and now it’s so quick. Maybe we’ll take the time to say, “Okay, is it time for me to go outside? Is it time for me to get a walk? Is it time for me to do a little yoga?”

And start building that into our lives because… I’m going to physical therapy and my physical therapist is like, “oh my God, we’re just slammed.” Everybody’s got back problems, everybody has shoulder problems, everybody has RSI. It’s just incredible. So I think it’s time for us to recognize that human bodies are a part of the equation and we aren’t machines.

Douglas: A few things that really jumped out to me, this notion of how the preparation is so much more necessary in this virtual world, because like you said, we have so much experience of holding space in a room, that if something went sideways or not perfect, we could react pretty easily. But in the virtual setting, so much can just easily fall out of control. And so we have to plan for lots of things and we have to make sure we got the right activities, et cetera. And that thing you touched on, the last bit there around being confined to this small little area. And that’s the area by which you’re still in the screen, if you move too far to the left, or too far to the right or up or down, people can’t see you. And so we’re kind of constrained to this view port. And that’s not how things are in the physical world. So, we quickly learned that you couldn’t have an eight hour workshop online, because it just crushes people.

Christina: Yeah.

Douglas: But you’re also touched on this… I wanted to extrapolate on that, because we talked a little bit in the pre show stuff around, on the long list of negatives, there’s lots of positives in the sense that some of these small cities and little towns are starting to shut down to traffic and create more outdoor seating, another reason to keep the restaurants alive, but it’s created this phenomenon where people are outside more and it made me think of the Nintendo Wii, which is supposed to have this promise of like, it would remind people to go out… They’re playing a game that reminds them to actually go outside and move. Well, now it’s like we’re kind of forced do that so to speak. And I think that, maybe that will swing the pendulum a little bit back in the other direction.

Christina: I really, really love the way my neighborhood has changed. Now obviously, there’s lots to not be happy with. And I feel like everybody’s talking about that. So let’s just talk about some things that are nice about this. Some silver linings, which is yes, I love going to these little downtown’s and every one of them has closed, the main road and all the restaurants are out there and there’s art galleries setting up posters and stuff. And it’s like being in Paris or something. I know that is a bit of a stretch. And of course, the waiters are wearing masks. So it’s a little weird. But Sunday, for my birthday, my parents and my daughter and I and my dog all went out to eat in Menlo Park and it’s one of those brisk fall days and the sun is shining and you just feel like you’re part of a community.

I’ve lived in my current condo for three years and I never got to go get to know the neighbors and maybe it’s getting a new dog. But I think it’s just people are out a lot. So you end up going out and you’re chatting, you’re learning people’s names, you’re finding out more about them, you’re waving to the older folks as you change sides of the street. Because changing the side street could be a little insulting. If somebody doesn’t have a mask on though, but if you give them a little wave and a smile, it kind of softens it. So I’m seeing the sort of neighborliness show up where I didn’t. And the best part is the kids actually. I think a lot of parents, myself included, we’re like, “oh, my God, kid get off that damn Switch and go outside and play.” And the streets are full of kids on their scooters, or playing make believe or just running around. They were putting together piles of leaves yesterday and jumping into them. And I remember doing that as a kid.

And I think that’s another thing that we’ve gained, is remembering that the outdoors is fun. It’s good. It’s nice. I’m blessed because… Well… Or I’m smart, I don’t know. Somewhere between that, because I live in California now and not in Iowa. And I really feel for those people for whom the snow is coming, but I hope that they get nice boots and make some snowmen. And I discovered the other day, it was kind of cold, I put my mask on, it keeps your nose warm. So maybe that’s too pollyannaish, but I think that it’s really important because this pandemic that should have been an incident has become a marathon and if it’s a marathon, we’re going to have to figure out how to navigate it. And visiting the trees is a pretty good way to do it.

Douglas: 100%. And I think there’s a design challenge there, right? How can we apply those principles to how we explore and navigate this and stick with it through the long haul? And I love this… You jokingly said maybe it’s too pollyanna, but at the same time, there’s a lot of power in positive deviance, that we can focus on what works and the good in things, then we can tend to motivate ourselves toward great solutions and double down on the things that work.

Christina: Yeah, I wish I could remember who did this study. But there was a study done on people who won the lottery and then people who had a severe accident that left them maybe without a leg or an arm. And what’s interesting is before the incident, they had a certain level of happiness, and during the incident, the happiness spiked or went down, depending on what the incident was and then it returned. We humans are incredibly resilient, bad things will hit us, but it is in our nature to find our way back. And that gives me some hope, which is yes, this is hard right now, but again, taking a walk outside and I’m so glad my skies are blue and not orange, that was a bit alarming. And just expressing gratitude and appreciation for what we actually have. And to be honest, Zoom sucks and you can go, “blah, blah, why is their chat so horrible?” Because yeah it is horrible.

But then again, how awesome it is that I can talk to my best friend who moved to Belize a couple years ago and I can’t go down there and see him, which makes me sad, but I can talk to him and I can see his face. And he walks around and takes a phone and shows me the garden he’s trying to grow on his front patio. So if we can not take things too much for granted and use the technology for what it’s supposed to be for, connecting people who are far away, or we’re learning and we can keep it in balance with life in nature, maybe it will be okay. Maybe it will be okay.

Douglas: That’s right. And also, it makes me think about just this notion of connection and how important that is. And we heard this from the facilitation community really strong right when the pandemic first started taking hold and we were holding facilitation practice every week and we still are, but early on it became very clear that this was something that people were really worried about whether or not they were going to be able to achieve those same levels of connection, whether they… If they did, would people still no longer crave personal experiences? So there’s like all of this dystopian kind of concern as well. And so much so, that’s going to be the theme of our facilitation conference this year. But it also reminds me of your point you made earlier when we were chatting around this real concern around establishing psychological safety in the virtual world.

And I think those two things are somewhat… Well, I would say intertwined. Because I feel like in order to have safety, there needs to be real connection and trust and that’s kind of like the first principles to evolve out of that stuff. And I know you said it was top of mind and you had real concerns around is it even possible. So I guess what’s been on your mind, kind of bumping into you there?

Christina: There’s so much there that I’d love to respond to. So first, I’m lucky enough that I was invited to join a small group of facilitators to talk about how can we move this to online? And what happened is this small group became friends. We did it out of desperation, like, “quick, let’s figure out. What’s a good platform? How do you charge?” Everybody expects you to charge less when you don’t have to travel. Where’s the real value and how to explain value? The emergency stuff first. But pretty soon it became, how are we making sure that we’re bringing more diversity into our talks, even if you’re a white dude being the one who’s doing this job, how do you make sure that you’re referring to people of color who are quotable? How are you making sure that you’re showing that inclusiveness through your talks? And so this thing happened that wouldn’t have happened unless we’d had COVID. All of us would have been in our own little tiny planets.

And I know that you’re used to the community of facilitators, but this group would have all been in their like little rooms going, “la-dee-da, I’m doing it right,” and charging all sorts of different things and caught in their usual loops and pulling us together that way. I really want to thank Bruce McCarthy, shout out to him. He’s the one who put it together. It’s been a precious gift on so many levels. So there’s that. So the question of psychological safety online is really, really hard. So if you’re not familiar with psychological safety, the easiest way to explain it – and I definitely recommend Amy Edmondson’s book, The Fearless Organization. Oh my gosh, that book is so very good, so good. You can read it all the way to the end, there’s no filler. But psychological safety is simply if you’re on a team within a company, you feel comfortable disagreeing with your boss, you feel comfortable putting out a weird idea.

You won’t be shot down, you won’t have a pile on. And by a pile on I mean, if you’ve ever been online and you said something stupid accidentally and suddenly 15 people are telling you how stupid you are, that’s what I’m referring to. So online is actually very unsafe right now between Twitter and Facebook. When I worked at LinkedIn, one of the toughest things we had to struggle with is that people are really uncomfortable sharing links or even asking questions to other professionals because they don’t want to seem stupid or uninformed, or am I the last one finding this article that everybody’s already read? And we had to work hard to figure out how do we make that acceptable, because the stakes are so high professionally. And with the students, the stakes are also high because they want to get an A, so they come into the situation, they don’t know me, they don’t know the teaching team.

They’re wondering what kind of person I am, am I one of those people who’s going to say, “keep all your cameras on and you have to be exactly on time to synchronous classes.” And meanwhile, a bunch of my students are in India, or Thailand, they’re forced to become nocturnal just to attend the class. So first of all, starting to make students aware that there are a bunch of things that I know about them. I know they’re in different time zones and I know that they have different situations and I know that some of them don’t even have a safe place to study. And I know some of them have riots literally across the street from them. Last spring, somebody lived across the street from a grocery that was burned down during one of the protests and…Letting them know that we believe that- we know we’re in weird times and we’re here to help.

So that’s the promise, but nobody will believe our promise until they see it happen live. So it’s actually really important to… If there’s a mistake you make, I get my TAs – that’s what I mean by the teaching team – to correct me and I’m like, “oh, thank you so much. That was great.” And showing up early and talking small talk, like talking about a game I just played or a movie, more importantly ask them about something that’s caught their interest so they know I care about them as a person, stay after on the Zoom meeting so that again, you can have those questions answered. Just…You have to walk the walk. And I would say about halfway through the class, it really takes longer than you think it does, they really, truly believe that I and my teaching team are committed to their success. So getting that translated into a corporate setting is hard. If you have remote teams that you meet with every week, you can do that. You can continually reinforce psychological safety in your own behavior as a team member or manager.

But if you just have one of these, let’s pop in and give a talk or do a workshop online, it’s a lot harder. So I’m lightly dyslexic and really bad dyscalculia. And I’ll go ahead and acknowledge mistakes. Me acknowledging a mistake makes them more comfortable knowing that if they asked a question or if they make a mistake, that I would be like, “oh, good, we just learned something that’s great.” And so I try to create moments for them where I am human for them and let them know that I’m a human being. Maybe it’s a picture of my kid, if my cat jumps on my lap, I go ahead and lift him up so we can look upon his beauty. Just making yourself into an actual human being is a great first step.

Douglas: You’re also going to be working on a second edition, or you’re in the process of working on a second edition of radical focus. I’m really curious to hear about what changes you have in stores. I’m sure that, especially observations through this giant experiment we’re all in right now, probably impacted some of the things, especially the fact that we’re also reactionary right now.

Christina: Yeah, yeah, yes. Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s funny because I started it before COVID, but as you might imagine, there have been some surprises in my work life lately. So the reason is that when I wrote the first one, I was mostly working with startups, I was advising startups, I was writing it around the time I was still trying on working with the food startup and so on before I got really deeply into teaching. And it has a small company perspective. The fable is about two Stanford students – this is before I was even working at Stanford – two Stanford students who go ahead and have a startup. And so what came out of that is I had no idea OKRs were going to take off the way they did. I had a gut feeling that it might be true, but I really wrote it because I am so grateful to OKRs for helping me get my life pointed in the right direction.

I used it in the startups I advised and it always helped the startups and I thought, this is something I want to get out there. Because my policy is if I find something good, I always write about it and put it out in the world. And so what’s happened is a lot of big companies have started adopting OKRs left and right. And so the question is really the same question that Eric Reese had to face with Lean Startup, is a lot of big companies wanted to be lean. They wanted to move to a culture of experimentation. And so when you start to look at how do OKRs work in a big company, that’s hard. You cannot cascade. I had talked a lot about cascading OKRs, because that works great when you cascade three levels max. If you’re cascading more than that, it’s a nightmare. I heard stories of when they tried to do OKRs at Yahoo, long after I had left.

They took an entire month to get all the approvals of people’s OKRs, which meant, you know, the key results that they were trying to get to, they suddenly had two months instead of three months to get to them, because it was just so much bureaucratic overhead. So having worked with a ton of clients over the last five years, we’ve managed to tweak them enough so that if you’re a big company, you can really work on alignment rather than cascading, which is a lot more effective. But in order to do that, you have to have empowered teams, which is absolutely critical as well, because you can’t do command and control and have OKRs, it just doesn’t seem to work. Marty Cagan and I have had quite a few conversations about this, which is both of us really thought… I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, he wrote Inspired, which is the best book on product management. I’m sorry to my other friends who wrote books on product management. But it was the one that I read when I first did product management and it helped me so much.

And if you can’t trust your teams and you have to be command and control, then just don’t even bother, don’t even bother with OKRs, because the great thing about objectives and key results is you set a goal and then you trust your team. You set the goal, you have A-players hired, and then you trust that they can figure out what to do on their own. So talking about how do you start building that trust? How do you get the psychological safety in the team? That led me to The Team That Managed Itself, which really talks about the way to get an empowered team. And so now that we’re zoop, zoop, zoop, going back to Radical Focus, I don’t want to shove all of The Team That Managed Itself inside of there, but I do want to talk about how big companies navigate things differently. So one is alignment, another one is really talking a lot more about strategy. So a lot of startups aren’t particularly strategic, because they’re really small, they saw an opportunity in the marketplace and they’re chasing that opportunity down very hard and they’re trying to survive.

So they’re very opportunistically driven. But then when you get to be big, you start getting into the sort of innovators-dilemma type thing that Clay Christensen talks about, where you’re really trying to figure out how do I balance continuing to be good at one thing, which is the thing that got us to be big and what new things should we be investing in? How do we fund various projects? And then you have things that come along like COVID and all of a sudden the playing field’s been turned upside down. It is very, very tempting to just give up on strategy and just white knuckle it. And a lot of companies are white knuckling it. I always used that phrase, when you’re writing on a roller coaster and you’re completely terrified, you’re holding on so hard, that your fingers- your knuckles get white. And that’s COVID. The craziest roller coaster of all. And you’ve got companies like Zoom that I’m sure are hiring everybody breathing right now, because suddenly, they’re so much bigger, suddenly, they have so many more challenges than they used to.

I understand a lot of the Home Depots and Lowes and Orchards of the world are doing really well because apparently, when you’re trapped in your house, you finally decide you really will get rid of that ugly lamp. So they’re growing crazy. And then there’s other people who’ve seen their business disappear. The event people are suffering in a way I haven’t seen them suffer since the .com crash. And it’s worse, because it’s all the event people and not just the tech conferences. So in these moments where you’re either overwhelmed by goodness, or overwhelmed by trouble, does your strategy still matter? And the thing about OKRs is they are not there for everyday activities. They’re there to make sure you do the really important things that you wouldn’t do if you didn’t have them. And so it’s really critical to continue to have objectives and key results, but you have to have the health metrics to balance them out.

And the health metrics will tell you when you can call a code red and stop your work on your strategic work and put all your bodies against an emergency. OKRs help you think about beyond next week, because they have to be really at least a quarter, or they’re not really going to work. I’ve heard people like, “oh, we do two week OKR sprints.” And I’m like, “there is nothing in that sentence that makes sense to me. You do two weeks sprints, that’s fine, but they’re not OKRs, OKRs are for longer term critical things for the health of the company.” And part of the problem is there’s so many consultants out there that will say yes to anything to get paid. And luckily, because I have a day job, I don’t have to I can tell clients that’s stupid, which is…The clients like it, I like it, everybody’s happy. And one of the things that’s stupid is if you have to say, “okay, guess what? We’re not going to make our OKRs this quarter, because the entire world is exploding.” That’s okay. You know what? That’s okay, you’ve just learned something.

You’ve learned you’re not ready for a global pandemic, fantastic. Take that learning and make a better company. It’s all good as long as you’re learning. It’s all bad if you’re just reacting and flailing about. We want you to be waving, not drowning in this situation. So finding a way to find a balance between opportunity like Zoom or home decor places and longer term strategic thinking is really critical. You don’t want to be yo-yoing back and forth between them like when you’re trying to balance something on a scale. One side goes down, the other side goes down. You want to try to get to a place of equilibrium, where you have the range and ability to react to things while not forgetting strategic initiatives. And I think that OKRs if done correctly, really do help with that. And if you’re making little tiny, itty bitty OKRs for every single thing people are doing, they’re not really serving you, they’re just another form of command and control.

But if you have radical focus, if you can – excuse me, it’s not a book plug, it’s just true – if you can really focus and say this is the strategic thing that’s really important to us this quarter, you can keep going with your strategy while the world is crazy. And that’s really, really critical because someday this thing will be over, I promise you. It won’t last forever. And then where are you going to be? You want to be prepared for the future. So you have to find this balance.

Douglas: Well, this has been a pleasure, Christina. I really thank you for taking the time to chat. It was great to hear so much perspective around making the shift to online teaching and the concern around psychological safety and the importance of OKRs, especially navigating this uncertainty and reactivity versus strategic thinking. But I want to give you an opportunity to leave our listeners with a thought. Where do you want to leave folks?

Christina: So there’s a quote that I love, which is, “be kind to everyone you meet for they too are fighting a great battle.” And it’s by John Watson, not the fictional one, a real one. But I think this is more important than ever right now. Everybody’s hackles are up, everybody’s freaked out, everybody’s nervous and anxious. And so it’s very easy to go, “who is that asshole not wearing a mask? Who’s that jerk who’s buying four things of toilet paper?” Just slow it down, maybe the person who’s not wearing a mask usually wears a mask and they just forgot it that day and they’re feeling really embarrassed. Maybe the person buying all that toilet paper has 14 kids, we don’t know. So it’s a really good time to give everybody the benefit of the doubt and just be kind to each other. We need each other more than ever right now. We need to be humane to each other.

And everybody who’s out there who is like, “oh, I need to know whether or not my employees are working because they’re home all day.” No. Just no, they’re also trying to get their kids homework done, they’re trying to take care of their family, maybe somebody has COVID. Just set them goals and let them make it and if they don’t make it be understanding, because things are hard. So just be kind, just be kind to everyone you meet. That’s all I can tell you, because that’s what’s going to get us through this.

Douglas: Thanks for joining me for another episode of Control The Room. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive updates when new episodes are released. If you want more, head over to our blog, where I post weekly articles and resources about working better together, voltagecontrol.com