John Doerr is many things. He’s a multi-billionaire. He holds a bunch of patents on memory devices from his Intel days, but was also one of its most successful salespeople. Kleiner Perkins, one of the most successful Silicon Valley VCs, scooped him up in 1980, and he became one of their most successful investors, backing Google and Amazon very early, for example.
And he became a significant Silicon Valley climate investor in the 2000s, after watching Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. He testified to Congress late in the 2000s, after doing a lot in California politics. He led Kleiner Perkins into climate investing. He admits his failures there, which is refreshing. The one that is most amusing is that the company picked Fisker over Tesla when it had a choice, despite how clearly bad Fisker’s hybrid was. And Kleiner Perkins stayed the course on climate investments, making its money back and more with several of its investments, despite the lean times around 2010.
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He’s also a New York Times best-selling author for his book co-written with Larry Page of Google on goal setting as the path to success, Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs.
But it’s his latest book, one that dropped in November of 2021, that was recommended to me by a collaborator recently, and I have just finished it. Whoever recommended it to me, thank you.
But first, a bit of a digression. Among other lines of interest, for several years I’ve been reading strategy books, from the earliest ones through the latest business-oriented ones. Mostly they suck for dealing with business strategies. Mostly historical ones were specifically about wars, and not about sophisticated coopetition in a rapidly changing economy. Lots of guidance for what military boys should do with their military toys, and very little that advanced my knowledge of strategy gleaned from a couple of decades of business and technical strategy work with clients around the world working for one of the major tech giants.
Some were decent, although requiring a lot of interpretation to apply to actual business settings as opposed to machismo zero-sum corporate warfare fantasies. Others, such as Boyd’s dogfighting strategy work, were fascinating to me as an aerospace nerd (and it did allow me to understand why the F35 is such a completely dominant aircraft, albeit with an absurd price tag.)
But finally I found a book on strategy which was actually deeply insightful, useful and more directly applicable, Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters. Rumelt was originally a STEM nerd as well, with an electrical engineering background and a systems engineer at JPL. Then he completed his PhD at Harvard and joined its business faculty, before moving on to UCLA in the 1970s. He’s had an illustrious and global career, and a tremendous amount of it was focused on business strategy, not military strategy, which was very helpful.
For anyone who has dealt with buzzword bingo strategies and mission statements and visions over the past decades, his book is refreshing. As he points out, most ‘strategies’ espoused by business leaders are anything but, usually being aspirations, slogans, or meaningless exhortations for growth, assuming that growth is a goal in and of itself.
So what is a good strategy? It’s not rocket science. Rumelt leans into what he refers to as the kernel of a good strategy. First, figure out to the best of your ability what is actually real and happening, which he refers to as a diagnosis. Second, figure out a guiding policy that makes sense for your firm to deal with the actual situation. How will you respond to reality to the benefit of your firm, its customers, and stakeholders? Third, you need to have a set of concrete actions that align with both reality and the policy.
Different firms and strategists will start with empirical reality and come up with radically different policies and plans, which is okay, except when it comes to climate change. The fossil fuel industry realized that climate change was real, serious, and caused mostly by it in the 1970s, so it got the diagnosis right. And then its guiding policy became to deny and delay, to preserve its profits at the expense of the planet. And their action plans included creation and ongoing funding of right-wing think tanks, sending thousands of lobbyists to climate conferences, funding PR firms to spread disinformation and the like. It was, indeed, a strategy, and purely in the context of Rumelt’s definition, a ‘good one’. Morally and ethically, of course, it was a terrible strategy which is going to cost the world tens of trillions to address and mitigate the impacts of over the coming years. But as the Tom Toro New Yorker cartoon with the tattered band sitting on the ground around a fire says, “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.”
And this is where we return to Doerr and his new book. Doerr’s NYT best seller with Page was about OKRs, objectives and key results. It’s strongly aligned with Rumelt’s strategy book, at least the second two-thirds. If you misdiagnosis the situation, OKRs don’t help, but if you do diagnose the situation correctly, OKRs can be a short, crisp way to drive toward success. They permeate Google’s culture. The objectives should be stretch targets, measurable and public. So far, so good, and also common sense. This is the way I ran major technology projects for a couple of decades instead of relying on Microsoft Project (side note: the best description I ever heard of that piece of software was that it was the world’s biggest Excel macro.)
Doerr applies the OKR framework to the climate crisis we face. The major headings, in his opinion, should fit on a napkin, and the book actually has a picture with them written on one, just like Roosevelt’s long-classified strategy for WWII.
- Electrify Transportation
- Decarbonize the grid
- Fix food
- Protect Nature
- Clean up industry
- Remove carbon
These are well-aligned with my Short List of Climate Actions That Will Work framework, mostly because Doerr and I both accept reality — the diagnosis — and are focused on solutions.
Doerr provides chapters explaining each of the OKRs, and because they have to be measurable, he indicates both the current gigatons of CO2e associated with the area, and the target reductions to get to net zero by 2050. This is an admirable and clear approach to the problem.
And he provides a set of 4 overlapping action approaches to getting to the results the planet needs, once again a short set of headlines:
- Policy and politics
One of the points Doerr makes is that he’s shifted from being a Silicon Valley libertarian to someone who realizes that problems of this scale can’t be solved solely by free markets and technological advances. He gets the value of governments. This doesn’t mean he throws the innovation baby out with the bathwater, but he doesn’t lean into it and deregulation, as far too many do.
So, this is an excellent book, founded on a deep and clear understanding of the scale and details of the problem, but if Doerr’s OKR was to “Drive climate action with the best possible insight and OKRs” as his stretch target, he has a bit more to do. That’s okay, as version 2.0 is often needed to address the failings of version 1.0.
And so, the short list of things Doerr should address in a second edition and related collateral.
The big one is that while he’s created a measurement structure and OKRs that are measurable, there is no evidence of a measurement system aligned with them that’s in place. It’s entirely possible that he’s quietly working to set up a foundation that will publish quarterly or annual report cards aligned with the book. But it’s not out there now that I could find. There’s a site for What Matters on OKRs, but none for Speed & Scale. That seems like an oversight, and something that could have been launched simultaneously with the book.
The next is in the diagnosis of viable solutions. Doerr is on the Board of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and it shows. As I’ve published many assessment of BEV’s investments, usually as they are tied to Bill Gates, I have a pretty good idea of its portfolio and mindset. It’s a bit broken. Gates is hugely influential on BEV, and Vaclav Smil has been hugely influential on Gates. And Smil gets stuff wrong on climate action, as I published in an assessment in late 2020. In other words, while Doerr and BEV’s diagnosis of the problem is mostly right, their solutions tend to stray away from usefulness.
BEV and Doerr assert that we need breakthroughs to get to zero, and that we need to make a lot of bets so that some will land. Both are true. However, when BEV invests in stuff which doesn’t withstand the slightest scrutiny, but has principals with strong connections to BEV’s bigwigs, stuff goes off the rail. For example, I assessed Heliogen’s claims of being a great industrial component using machine learning for concentrated solar power, specifically its target of cement manufacturing. Clearly, no one in BEV thought through the systemic integration of concentrating solar into industrial uses before greenlighting the investment and giving the company a lot of money and promotion.
Yes, we need to deal with industrial emissions, but that means actually getting qualified people to assess potential investments for glaring problems.
Similarly, Gates personally started a small modular nuclear reactor firm, Terrapower, and is on its Board of Directors. He went to Congress a couple of years ago telling them that they should cut subsidies to renewables and instead subsidize nuclear, because the decades of direct and indirect subsidies in nuclear generation including decommissioning, security, R&D funding and tax breaks wasn’t enough. Doerr leans into nuclear, including fission and small modular reactors, technologies which are unproven, not commercialized, not going to be commercialized for decades, and unnecessary. The portion of the book dealing with nuclear generation should be rewritten to be much more cautious.
The section on drawing down carbon needs a serious rewrite. First, Doerr’s data on trees is simply wrong. He asserts that planting a trillion trees would required 50% of the land mass of the earth. This is a clear data miss, one of the few in the book. As the Swiss study on planting a trillion trees pointed out, there used to be 6 trillion trees on the planet, and now there are about 3 trillion trees. Trees didn’t cover the entirety of the land mass at any point in history given deserts, mountains, and glaciers, so there is no math that leads to reforesting or afforesting a trillion trees would require half of the entire land mass. Doerr received bad data on this point, and version 2.0 should address it.
As a result of this bad solution data, Doerr leans into direct air capture, and mentions David Keith and Carbon Engineering in a favorable light, along with ClimeWorks. Yet again, this has Gates’ fingerprints on it, as Gates, while brilliant on communicable disease via his Foundation, clearly has a strong relationship with David Keith (more on that in a moment). Gates was an early investor in Carbon Engineering’s failed model of burning natural gas to capture atmospheric CO2 in order to do enhanced oil recovery. BEV is supporting other direct air capture technologies, and Doerr gives them far too much credence as a solution. Version 2.0 of the book should get better informed and more skeptical eyes on direct air capture and downplay its role significantly.
Unsurprisingly, solar geoengineering is referenced in the book as well. It’s unsurprising because that’s another David Keith area of focus, and he’s referenced again in the book for it. More, Keith is the pre-eminent technical advocate for solar geoengineering, not merely a researcher. Doerr’s material on this is much better balanced than the book’s material on nuclear or direct air capture, but could be even more shaded against this bandaid. Doerr should engage with the 60 scientists who recently published an open letter calling for its outright banning to gain their perspective. For the record, I’m a supporter of the Oxford Principles on Geoengineering, and think Keith and his collaborators should be funded to do the basic research that was recently postponed for ethical hearings. But as I told Keith to his face, it’s being exploited by fossil fuel interests, it will only deal with a subset of symptoms and if we have to use it, we’ve failed.
But to return to the positives, this is an excellent first version of Speed & Scale. It definitely gets into the 70% range, based upon my assessment. The gaps necessary for a version 2.0 are relatively small. I strongly recommend that people focused on climate action read this book and think about applying the OKR approach to their own efforts.