Leading Change With a Culture of Experimentation

Rick Klau, California’s chief technology innovation officer, offers insights on creating a culture of empowerment using OKRs and a shared language of organizational goals.

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Leading With Impact

In this series, author and organizational coach Chris Clearfield talks with leaders who manage technology-driven teams at innovative organizations across the world. The series will examine universal big-picture challenges as well as specific lessons on sparking ideas and accelerating innovation.
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Many leaders will be familiar with objectives and key results (OKRs), a collaborative framework for aligning goal setting with strategic planning. Originally developed by Andy Grove at Intel, OKRs were later introduced to the founders of Google by John Doerr, a protégé of Grove’s and a leading investor in Silicon Valley.

Organizations use OKRs to set and communicate goals, track milestones, and achieve results. When employees can see how their work contributes to big-picture outcomes, they understand why their efforts matter, and their motivation increases — something that Rick Klau, who spent more than 13 years at Google, witnessed firsthand.

In February 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Klau to serve as California’s chief technology innovation officer, where he has focused his attention and energy on COVID-19-related initiatives, including deploying a digital vaccine record system. I spoke with Klau about his transition from the private sector to the public sector during a global crisis, and how to create a culture of empowerment through a shared language of organizational goals.

MIT Sloan Management Review: When you were a partner at Google Ventures, you gave a talk about OKRs. I probably watched it eight times when I was starting my own journey with OKRs. Much of the purpose of using this type of framework is about setting yourself on a course and then being open to what actually happens, right?

Rick Klau: OKRs were part of the air we breathed at Google. It was how the company thought about the work it did and the decisions it made. This approach provides teams with focus, discipline, and the ability to prove ideas. That’s how OKRs conditioned the organization: Hypothesize, learn, and iterate.

One of the beautiful things about OKRs is that they let your organization be both tightly coupled and loosely coupled at the same time. It’s not rigid. Does that seem like a good characterization?

Klau: I think of it as an agreed-upon language: What do you want? What do I want? How much of those overlaps? And in the parts that don’t overlap, how comfortable are we with that separation?

If the CEO has declared her intentions, specifying the things that are most important to her that quarter, the teams that report to her must ask themselves, “Of all of the things we could be doing, which are most likely to have the most impact on the objectives the CEO declared?” But occasionally, something critical needs to happen, whether or not the CEO is focused on that this quarter.

I’ll give you a great example. A startup CTO had been struggling because some urgent tasks (that weren’t necessarily important) were getting a disproportionate amount of time and attention. After they formally adopted the OKRs framework, they started thinking in quarterly increments and annual milestones.

They knew the next year, they’d be launching in five more languages. The CTO realized, “If we’re only ever focusing on quarterly milestones, we’re never going to focus on internationalizing. When the time comes and leadership says, ‘We now need to launch in Asia,’ that’s going to be nine months of work all at once — unless we do a little bit of the work now and a little bit of the work next quarter. By the third quarter, the foundation will have been substantially built, so engineering would be able to deliver a company-level goal to the CTO.” They needed to have that conversation to develop a shared understanding of what the leadership wants. There are larger initiatives, that — unless we start now — are not going to be deliverable by next year.

As a leader, you want to be predictable. You want people to understand where you’re trying to lead the organization and why.

Today you are California’s chief technology innovation officer, where OKRs are, presumably, not in the organizational DNA. Are OKRs one of the tools you have reached for in this new role?

Klau: When I showed up, OKRs did not guide how quarterly objectives were set, either for my own office within the Department of Technology, or, more broadly, of the state. During the first six to eight months of the job, most of my energy was diverted to COVID-related initiatives. Because we’re dealing with a once-in-a-generation pandemic, that was clearly the best use of everyone’s time.

It’s only been in the last couple of months that I’ve been able to transition into planning and thinking more concretely about who we are as the Office of Enterprise Technology, about the broader departmental goals, and about the governor’s goals for the state. I am beginning to ask myself, “What levers can I push to give us the most impact?”

You’ve gone from private-sector tech to now working in the public sector. How do you think about being of service? And was that part of that transition for you?

Klau: It is an awesome privilege. We are the most populous state in the country. We are one of the largest economies in the world.

People can choose not to use Google, right? But if you live in California, you don’t get a choice about which government you get. When I think about that, in reverse, I recognize that we have an obligation to meet our residents where their needs are. We don’t get to tell them which platforms or which devices — we’ve got to commit to serving, and that word is intentional. So it was a transition in terms of understanding that mindset.

During this crisis, decisions were made in minutes and hours, and you’d see the impact in days. Even at Google’s best, that was generally not the turnaround time. But this is different. We launched the digital vaccine record this summer. Within a month, we had bar and club owners putting our URL in their windows, not because we told them to but because we built something that served their needs. We had residents telling their friends, tweeting and posting on Facebook and Instagram, about this great new thing we had built. Being able to echo that appreciation internally so the team could hear how grateful people were for the work they had done — it was humbling, and it made it easy to feel excited and invigorated about the work that we do.

The organizational attitude toward learning is a key differentiator for how well an organization manages complexity. In my own work, I see that newer organizations tend to be better at managing complexity than legacy organizations.
Government, in many ways, is the ultimate legacy organization: It’s been around for a long time, you can’t choose your customers, and your strategy is essentially all-encompassing. You’re talking about the agility of the process, and that surprises me a little bit, so can you talk a bit more about that?

Klau: Everything happened unusually quickly. From writing the first line of code to shipping to the public was six weeks. I collaborated with a physician inside the Department of Public Health. We wrote the memo that went to the governor’s office a month before we started writing code. Even if you go back to the first draft of the memo to public launch, it was still under 90 days.

The team, called the Office of Enterprise Technology, was 50-plus people when I showed up, who had been asked by Amy Tong — the state CIO — and the governor to build and ship stuff quickly and to experiment. If you had grown in a lab something designed to take advantage of the world I came from and planted it in the middle of a government org chart, this is the thing.

Time is the other advantage. I showed up in the middle of a crisis that threw literally every rule to the sideline. If we don’t have a road map, there is no expert. So we’ve got to figure it out. We need to get shots in arms. We are trying to build this plane as we go. We’re the largest state in the country, with no road map.

Where would a guy like me thrive in the government? Put me in a place where there are no rules and no legacy of accretion. Every suggestion was an opportunity for us to say, “Might that work? Let’s see. If it does, let’s do more of it. And if it doesn’t, we’ll learn.” So while we didn’t formally have OKRs, the circumstances made it easy to have focus and create an environment centering around experimenting and evolving.

I got thrown into the middle of this laboratory, in these circumstances that predated me by nine months, with a very willing set of participants and an openness to things being very different. I was very lucky. Now we’re in a place where our leadership team is built out, so we can start strategizing more and applying a framework, but everyone involved in this project has learned firsthand: You have to narrow your scope to expand your impact.

What are some of the ways you think about managing and leading people?

Klau: Part of your job as a leader is that you’re a storyteller. You need for your team to see their contribution, and you need to tell the story in a way that allows them to feel like they contributed and like they were part of it.

The worst leaders I’ve ever worked for made that story all about them. “Look at what I did. Look at what my idea, my product accomplished.” The story should be about the team and what the team accomplished, because nothing succeeds without them. They are protagonists, and that is how I tell the world the story about the creation of our digital vaccine record. I played a part in that, but only a part. If this sounds interesting and exciting to you, I want you to know — you could be part of the next story that I tell.


Leading With Impact

In this series, author and organizational coach Chris Clearfield talks with leaders who manage technology-driven teams at innovative organizations across the world. The series will examine universal big-picture challenges as well as specific lessons on sparking ideas and accelerating innovation.
More in this series

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