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‘They’re Failing Us.’ John Doerr Has a Risky Plan for Course-Correcting the Government

When it comes to achieving goals, legendary venture capitalist John Doerr has written the book. Fresh off publishing Measuring What Matters, he appeared at the annual Fortune CEO Initiative conference Tuesday to share the secrets to success of some of the world’s most successful companies.

But the counterintuitive thing about his system, which he adopted from former Intel CEO Andy Grove, is that it’s okay for innovators to fail.

“You write down what your goals are, publish them so that everyone internally can see them, and then at the end of the quarter you grade them—and then toss them aside,” he said. “The grades are not used for bonuses or promotions.” Instead they’re used for a higher purpose: getting collective commitment across the team.

Doerr’s advice, based on decades of investing in startups that later became giants like Amazon and Google, resonated with the crowd of around 100 c-level executives in attendance. But he also had a message for government leaders, who aren’t known for being on the cutting edge: You’re innovating all wrong.

“We’re at a moment in time where our leaders and some of our great institutions are really failing us—they’re failing us,” said Doerr, who is chair at venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers. “Sometimes it’s because they’re bad or unethical—and that’s pretty clear—but too often it’s because they’ve led us to the wrong objectives, and that’s produced absolutely unacceptable outcomes. And this has got to stop.”

Doerr’s hope is that his system will be used by other organizations to vault them to success. But one central tenet of his plan is that creating risky goals will sometimes lead to failure, but also, ultimately, to growth.

“My dream is that OKRs (objectives and key results, a key aspect of his managerial mantra) are going to spread well beyond our businesses to our families, our schools, our hospitals, and even our governments,” said Doerr. He said he is waiting for the day an organization like a city council will adopt OKRs as a way of being more transparent with its constituents, effectively saying, ‘These are our goals; here’s how we’re going to measure our success.’

And he may not have to wait very long for that day to come. Doerr said he was recently speaking with a new CEO of a hospital system that is planning on adopting this tech company-centric managerial system. “You might think is the last place you may want to see risk in our lives,” said Doerr. “But (the CEO) said ‘No, John, I want measured risk-taking. I want people to understand the mission and the goals.'”

But that idea may be a challenge for our current leaders and institutions, and addressing their failings. “It’s not going to be easy, we’re going to have to course-correct, and get really clear — and I dare say transparent — about what it is that really matters,” said Doerr.