What Game of Thrones Teaches Us About OKRs

What Game of Thrones Teaches Us About OKRs

If only Cersei and Daenarys Used OKRs to Create Their Winning Strategy

With only one more episode (the finale) of Game of Thrones, we thought we would jump on the bandwagon and bring you a culturally relevant example of how OKRs can help the process of developing your skills as a strategic leader.

What’s an OKR?

In the 1990s John Doerr and Andy Grove created OKRs when they were working together at Intel. John Doerr’s recent book titled: Measure What Matters ( provides a succinct explanation. OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are prevalent to the tech industry, but useful for any company looking to integrate strategic vision across teams. We use it in our work with clients. One of the hardest things to manage is how a senior leader’s strategic vision is carried through by internal and external resources. OKRs make this happen.

Let’s look at a Game of Thrones analysis of three characters chasing similar objectives to support our argument that good OKRs help you drive desired outcomes. [Spoiler alert, if you’re not caught up on Season 8, don’t read this]. We wrote OKRs for three main Iron Throne seekers Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow and Cersei Lannister. We asked ourselves, do the quality of the OKRs correlate to who will win the Iron Throne? (Not that they will, because it’s a TV show controlled by writers and ratings, but it would be cool to see who is deserved of the Iron Throne, nonetheless). After you’ve read through each character’s OKRs we think you’ll see who should sit at the King/Queen of the Iron Throne.

Cersei Lannister (Queen of the Seven Kingdoms)

Objectives (Strategic Vision):

  1. Solidify role as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms retaining great power and wealth.

  2. Ensure the life of [not yet born] child (Cersei has suffered through the deaths of her other 3 children).

Key Results (Measurable Results to Achieve Objectives):

  1. Remain Queen after husband King Robert Baratheon’s death.

  2. Form a paid relationship with The Iron Fleet and The Golden Company to add to the Lannister Army’s forces (Sea and Land).

  3. Win the battle at King’s Landing.

  4. Deplete competitor’s army with new weaponry (Ballista — or Dragon killing bow).

  5. Overcome an assault on King’s Landing.

Initiatives (Actions taken to support Key Results):

  1. Attempted to keep Winterfell and Westeros at peace through marriage, her son Joffrey and Sansa Stark of House Winterfell. (This failed when Joffrey wielded his power and had Sansa’s father Eddard Stark killed).

  2. a) Did not participate in helping to battle the Night King. b) instead spent the time building up her battle forces with the help of Euron GreyJoy and Golden Company armies.

  3. Broke Daenary’s battle advantage with new weaponry, the Ballista, built to kill Dragons.

  4. Convinced Euron GreyJoy that she is carrying his son (the real father is Jamie Lannister) in order to form an alliance with his Fleet.

  5. Refused to surrender peacefully to Jon Snow and Daenerys, and instead captured and killed Missendai (Daenerys’ trusted advisor and handmaiden).

  6. Attempted the Battle at King’s Landing, and ended up surrendering.

In the Season 8, episode 5, it appears she’s died (not for certain). But if she didn’t, we’d still affirm that she is NOT deserved of the Iron Throne. Everything she assembled, ended up backfiring. She wasn’t able to develop any deep, trusted relationships or lead people effectively. Most importantly her OKRs were not rooted in humanity (which it takes to gain empathy/loyalty with your followers — this is our opinion). Her visions are more tactical than they are strategic (short term wins vs. setting up for longer-term outcomes) and Cersei used people as pawns, not relationship building. We say Cersei makes a bad Iron Throne leader longer term for the Westeros region.

We can see that her direct reports suffered from the poor quality of her OKRs. Her direct reports (in Season 8: Maester Qyburn (Cersei’s hand — from the poor man to royalty help — deceased); The Mountain (Ser Gregor Clegane — deceased); Harry Strickland (The Golden Company — sellswords army from Essos — deceased); Euron GreyJoy (Iron Fleet — deceased).

Jon Snow

Next, is Jon Snow. He grew up as the bastard son of Ned Stark but discovers in this Season 8 that he is actually the true heir to the Iron Throne (the only surviving son of a Targaryen).

Objectives (Strategic Vision):

  1. Save Mankind.

  2. Help Queen Daenerys retake the Iron Throne.

Key Results (Measurable Results to Achieve Objectives):

  1. Convince leaders that the Night King exists before the Night King comes South of the Wall.

  2. Build a large enough army in the North to protect against the Night King.

  3. Defeat the Night King.

  4. Win Battle at Kings Landing.

Jon’s Initiatives (Actions taken to support Key Results):

  1. Traveled beyond the Wall, showed loyalty to the Free People that he would fight with them for however long.

  2. Relinquished leadership role at the Wall with the Night’s Watch.

  3. Broke down barriers between past enemies to form a large army.

  4. Convinced Queen Daenerys to fight with her Dragons and in return, he abdicated his role as King. This resulted in him increasing his forces: Dragons, Unsullied Army, and Dothraki Army.

  5. Accepted two Lannister family members (Queen Cersei’s brothers) into House Winterfell knowing he needed anyone who would fight against the Night King and his army.

  6. Accepted Daenerys as his Queen, even when he finds out he’s the true heir to the Iron Throne (and actually Queen Daenerys nephew).

By the end of episode 5 season 8, he’s still alive. So he remains a strong contender. And based on his alignment of OKRs, he’s effectively shown strategic leadership through long term alliances and partnerships, and the willingness to be flexible in the near term for future outcomes. He showed leadership strength with a long list of allies from back in his Winterfell days, his battles beyond the Wall and his travels South.

We can see that having effective OKRs helps your direct reports thrive. His direct reports: Sam Tarly (Lord or House Tarly), Tormund (Leader of the Free Folk), Night’s Watch Lord Commander: Dolourous Edd, Ser Davos Seaworth (Baratheon leader) and the Winterfell army.

Daenerys Targaryen

Daenerys of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, The Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Protector of the Realm, Lady Regent of the Seven Kingdoms, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons”

Key objectives (Strategic Vision):

  1. Retake the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms.

  2. Provide a new kind of leadership where slaves and citizens are free to choose their own life (hopefully one where she is the leader).

Key Results (Measurable Results to Achieve Objectives):

  1. Defeat the Night King along Jon Snow’s side.

  2. Remain allies with Sansa Stark and House Winterfell.

  3. Use dragon firepower to provide air support to land forces at the Battle of Winterfell (Night King battle).

  4. Ensure the secret about Jon Snow’s identity is kept secret in order to retain her role as heir to the Iron Throne.

  5. Takeover Kings Landing without destroying the city and the people.

Key Initiatives (Actions taken to support Key Results):

  1. Married Kal Drogo to become Queen of the Dothraki and Mother of 3 dragons.

  2. Unseated the Unsullied leaders and finds herself the leader of slaves (by giving them their freedom).

  3. Formed partnership with Jon Snow to defeat the Night King, in exchange for Jon to relinquish leadership to her as Queen of the Kingdoms and to fight for her.

  4. Helped to defeat the Night King with dragon support.

  5. Utilize intelligence from Cersei’s loyal advisors (Jamie, Tyrion, and Varys) to help win Battle at Kings Landing.

  6. With the help of her dragon, Drogon defeated Euron GreyJoy’s Iron Fleet, forces the land armies to surrender.

  7. Command the ultimate battle with Jon and the armies on Kings Landing.

Based on her OKRs and an examination of her initiatives she’d make an unstable strategic leader. She was doing a really great job executing her vision until she decided to go one step too far and burned down the Red Keep at King’s landing — killing thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

Deviating from an objective should be a rare, highly coordinated and considered event. When she went rogue and wiped out Kings Landing none of her reports were in the loop. We think this is going to spell her demise.

Her Direct reports: Ser Jorah (dead), Tyrion Lannister (hand to the Queen), Varys (advisor — dead by fire killed by Daenerys), Greyworm and The Unsullied (Army), The Dothraki, Jon Snow.

Would you agree? Disagree? Let us know! We’re looking forward to the final episode this Sunday.

In summary, OKRs are an effective framework to wrangle complicated, long term and short term objectives to help drive results. Who would have thought a water cooler TV series could be used to strategize your battlegrounds and alliances at work. Hopefully, you’re not having to slay dragons, but if you are, take a lesson from Jon, Cersei, and Daenerys and let OKRs lead the way to strategic vision and leadership.

Winning is Hard

Vision is a CMOs most underutilized weapon. Nothing adds more value to your brand. Nothing else compares when it comes to fueling business growth at scale. Yet, too often, vision sits on the sidelines like a dragon at the Battle of Winterfell (I figure any GoT mention should help SEO). Vision, our game-changing asset gets set aside while we obsess over incremental tactics.

I get it.

It’s in our nature. Brand health and human health are pretty similar. If the promise of a lifetime of well-being felt as good as instant gratification, we’d all eat better, live smarter and spend our time more wisely. So, yea, it’s harder to do what’s best for you. That’s why there is probably about the same percentage of thriving brands as there are happy people. 

We gravitate to what we can measure. But we can’t let that divert us from focusing on what it takes to win. And you won’t win if your most powerful asset isn’t in the game. `Nothing against data-led optimization here. It’s essential, high-value work. But vision is what enables differentiation, creativity, innovation, inspiration and alignment. Without vision, optimization is a fast road to parity.

What can we do about it? First, let’s recognize the paradox; your most valuable brand tool is also the least measurable. That sucks when you think about the accountability gauntlet you have to live through; revenue meetings every Tuesday morning, the ever-present marketing dashboard, quarterly leadership team performance reviews, the $250,000 attribution model and on-going C-Suite scrutiny of whether marketing is an investment or cost center. Not a highly receptive environment for talking about brand vision, platform and relationships.

So don’t.

Vision is about one thing - winning.

Every project has a win. Increasing sales, gaining share, acquiring new customers, successfully launching a new product, elevating the brand. Equate your vision directly to the win. All those famous brands we love to talk about do it every day. The vision sets in motion an unstoppable chain of events that determine your fortunes. Make it 1) inspired enough to rally a diverse team around a shared mission, 2) clear enough to provide an achievable (yet ambitious) picture of success and 3) actionable enough to guide how individual contributions ladder up to the collective win. 

Think about the best work you’ve been a part of. Was the magic conjured by a series of A/B tests, or was it a vision that motivated a team to achieve something special? 

Final thought about the most common scenario. Just about everyone articulates some sort of vision early in the process. The truly hard part is making that vision a compelling, on-going factor in every marketing decision throughout the entire process. It’s hard to keep that flame lit, but it’s what great, dynamic CMOs do to build iconic, enduring brands.

That ended kind of abruptly. Even I have some questions for me:

Q: What evidence do you have that vision is so important?

A: There are many studies from folks like HBR/EY (link) and Korn Ferry (link) about how companies who embrace and activate vision/purpose/strategy significantly outperform their peers. But I’ll cite one from, of all places, the Project Management Institute (link). I use them to illustrate my point about activating the vision in your go-to-market work. Projects (campaigns) are where that happens. They say that over 1/3 of projects fail, and every one of their reasons point back to strategy [or in this case lack of]. While this is universal across all categories, I find this correlates strongly with how marketing falls short because the value of the vision wasn’t realized.

Q: I already spent a lot of time articulating an awesome vision, so, I’m good to go, right?

A: Glad you asked, I wanted to talk more about this. That’s a great first step, but you still have work to do. You need to make sure that vision is infused everywhere along the journey. From the brief, through the integrated campaign process, creative reviews, channel strategies and in-market activation and optimization.

Q: You said that brand vision isn’t measurable, so how will we ever know what it’s contributing? 

A: Well, that’s a mischaracterization of what I said. My point is that it’s less measurable with less immediacy than your performance marketing activities. The full answer is kind of long, but the key is to avoid making your brand tracker an isolated study. (Perhaps a topic for a future post).

Q: Can you expand a bit, maybe by doing a play on words?

A: A powerful vision takes the blinders off. Channels can work in concert. It’s why your social content, customer service, experiential, brand experts and the rest work in additive, versus siloed, ways

Q: Why don’t you like optimization?

A: Wow, did anyone even read what I wrote? I’m an optimization fan. Think of it like building a race car. If everyone went off on their own making state-of-the-art components…. sorry, petered out there, analogies bore me when you know where they’re headed. 

Q: But if I spend more time doing vision-led versus data-led stuff, I’ll get fired, won’t I?

A: Maybe. But it’s not like CMOs are lasting very long right now anyway, so, what do you have to lose?