In Rice talk, Doerr emphasizes importance of setting ambitious goals

“Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.”

That was the message conveyed by engineer, acclaimed venture capitalist and Rice alumnus John Doerr in a public talk at the university Dec. 4 on “Measuring, Finding and Developing Successful Tech Innovations to Change the World.” Doerr is the author of recent New York Times best-seller “Measure What Matters,” a handbook for setting and achieving audacious goals.

John Doerr, right, discusses the importance of setting and achieving goals in a presentation moderated by Doerr Institute Executive Director Tom Kolditz. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

Doerr was an original investor and board member at Google and Amazon, helping to create more than 500,000 jobs and the world’s second- and third-most valuable companies. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1973 and 1974, respectively, from Rice.

In 2015, Rice established the Doerr Institute for New Leaders with significant support from Doerr and his wife, Ann Doerr, who also earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Rice and serves on the university’s board of trustees. The Doerr Institute’s mission is to “elevate the leadership capacity of Rice students across the university.”

“We’re at a critical moment,” Doerr told the capacity audience gathered for the event in Stude Concert Hall at Rice’s Alice Pratt Brown Hall. “Too many of our leaders and some of our great institutions are failing us, in some cases because they’re bad or unethical. In too many other cases, though, our leaders are leading us to the wrong goals, with terrible outcomes and consequences. That has got to stop. How we are going to right these wrongs … is one of the great challenges, among many challenges, for our generation. I believe the key is in choosing the right goals.”

In a wide-ranging, 50-minute conversation, which was moderated by Doerr Institute Executive Director Tom Kolditz, Doerr made an impassioned case for the importance of OKRs, short for “objectives and key results.” It’s an approach he learned from the late, famed Andy Grove at Intel Corp. in the late 1970s and has been sharing with the companies he invests in ever since. It entails a team setting a goal, agreeing on a few key results that would indicate progress toward that goal and frequently revising or replacing them.

During the talk, Doerr told the story of how Apple founder Steve Jobs showed him the first iPhone and how Jobs worked to refine the product.

While OKRs should be transparently shared within an organization, the process is not standardized and shouldn’t just be handed down from on high, Doerr emphasizes. “Teams and individuals should be encouraged to create roughly half of their own OKRs,” he writes in his book, which he describes as “my love letter to our future.” Each member of the audience received a free copy.

Doerr first presented OKRs in 1999 to two young men with no real business plan, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Their company, Google (now Alphabet), still uses the OKR system to make tough choices on priorities while keeping teams on track. So does the Gates Foundation, rock star-philanthropist Bono and countless entrepreneurs, Doerr said.

“When you start using a system like this for setting goals — I say you have to build ‘goal muscle’ — it takes time and, more than anything else, it takes commitments from the leaders,” said Doerr, who helped popularize the OKR technique with a viral TED Talk earlier this year. “This is not just a system for startups or small for-profits or larger ones, it can also make a big difference in nonprofits.”

At the conclusion of the event, which was part of the President’s Lecture Series, Rice President David Leebron presented the Doerrs with a replica of a sculpture of Rice’s founder, Edgar Odell Lovett. The gift was offered in gratitude for their generosity and the “extraordinary influences” they have had on the university. Leebron jokingly added that he was “positively sure” Lovett “had an exemplary set of OKRs.”  

Thanks to the Doerrs’ vision, Rice students have a leg up on their peers at other higher education institutions across the United States: an opportunity to participate in a state-of-the-art leadership coaching program. The Doerr Institute is the country’s first professional leadership development program offered at no cost to all undergraduate and graduate students. It’s also the only leadership institute that provides individualized guidance from credentialed coaches for college students. As of this academic year, approximately 26 percent of Rice students have participated in Doerr Institute programming.

The President’s Lecture Series, which is sponsored by the Office of the President and supported by the J. Newton Rayzor Lecture Fund, was created to enrich the intellectual life of the Houston community by bringing to the Rice campus “celebrities of substance,” speakers of both high intellectual distinction and broad public appeal.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.