How To Set Goals Like You’re Google (Even If You’re Not)

Embrace the 10x factor. That is, ask the question, “what would we do differently if we were trying to increase revenue 10x instead of by 10%” or “instead of working on features which improve conversion by a few percentage points, what would we need to do to experience an order of magnitude lift?” It’s simple, and doesn’t always produce immediate breakthroughs, but at least challenge your team to see if there are higher risk bets which could produce commensurate payouts.

This philosophy was drilled into me by Larry Page whose insistence on removing constraints and setting outlandish goals seemed like madness during my first year at Google. But over time, I came to really appreciate, if not always in the moment, the challenge.

Our quarterly meetings to review YouTube’s proposed OKRs were a ripe target. Larry especially hated buffering events during video playback which resulted in momentary pauses (our users hated these too). We tracked these occurrences in the player and browser, trying to categorize the causes (insufficient steady state user bandwidth, connectivity interruption, overworked client CPU, etc) and prioritizing which we could intelligently solve for on our end. Our talented engineering and infrastructure teams consistently improved YouTube’s ability to serve high-quality, uninterrupted streams to 1B people across the world. But one morning the conversation with Larry changed. 

“Larry, this quarter we’re going to aim to reduce buffering events from X to 90% of X through…,” our engineering lead started explaining before Larry looked up from the paper we’d given him.

“You should have zero buffering,” the Google cofounder suggested.

As we detailed why of course that would be impossible because of all the things we can’t control for and the desire to manage our own bandwidth costs, I saw a familiar look settle on Larry’s face. Half-impish (as in “oooh, you really want to go down this rabbit hole with me”) and half-incredulous (as in “Each day I awake with my mind wiped of the fact most people aren’t as smart as I am and then progressively discover during the course of my meetings that you’re all idiots”).

“You should come back with a plan for zero buffering.” End of meeting. (Well, we did review the rest of the OKRs, but it’s less dramatic to write that).

Of course we never got to truly ZERO BUFFERING globally on YouTube, but we did come back to the engineering team with a challenge – if you really wanted to try and get to a 10x improvement, what could we do? A totally private, worldwide high-speed internet with locally cached video and free state-of-the-art PCs for every end user. That might work. Or what if it was more of a design challenge? Imagine a quick transition animation which played when you pressed the Play button that seemed to be a UX affordance but actually allowed us to start caching the video locally so we could tolerate connectivity interruptions in the post-play experience. There were a dozen more vectors we started discussing, none of which were exactly the right plan or the most pragmatic ideas, but overall it did help us identify a best path forward. So while we never did get a plan blessed by Larry which guaranteed ZERO BUFFERING, the next few quarters OKRs were more aggressive than they might have otherwise been and the nature of the discussion was changed by a simple stretch goal exercise. 

So when I talk with any startup – Google scale or not – my easiest recommendation in brainstorming and goal-setting is to not get caught up in just local optimizations, not to stay exclusively in the land of reasonable, but devote some time to 10x Impact conversations.