What Do OKRs Mean for Middle Managers?

Middle managers can strongly influence the success of OKRs. Here's how.

We spend a lot of time defining what Objectives and Key Results are, how to write them and why they are important. What we don’t address directly is the impact OKRs have on the job description of a middle manager. These folks are no longer individual contributors (but they were likely IC’s not too long ago) and they’re not “executives” quite yet either. They lead teams that can be cross-functional or discipline-specific helping them achieve very specific deliverables. At least, that’s how it used to be.

OKRs change how we assign work to teams

Traditionally middle managers translate strategic direction from their leadership teams into tactical deliverables for the teams they manage. The measure of success is output — preferably on time and on budget. Features are scoped, planned and lined up against specific milestones. The middle manager ensures the team is on plan and on target and communicates this back up the chain. OKRs don’t have features as their success criteria. They target meaningful changes in customer behavior. This means that middle managers no longer tell teams what to do. It’s up to the teams to determine which features they’re going to implement in service of the outcomes defined in their key results. Of course it’s up to the teams to communicate their plans clearly to their middle managers and ensure they’re aware of any scope or feature changes. However, a key part of what it meant to be a middle manager goes away with OKRs.

What's my job then if I don't tell people what to do?

Given that many middle managers worked for years to get where they are, it’s natural that they may feel some trepidation about this sudden change in their job description. Without explicitly giving the teams a set of requirements to work on, here’s what a middle manager does in an agile environment that has embraced OKRs:

  • Ensure team OKRs align with strategic OKRs — the leadership team has set a direction and it’s now your job to ensure that the teams you manage are setting goals that align with that direction.

  • Help teams make decisions when the data isn’t clear — as they build insight from the product discovery work done to determine which features to build, teams may struggle to make decisions. Your job is to help break that tie and keep the team moving forward.

  • Remove obstacles to team productivity — working towards OKR goals requires new tools, access to data and customers as well as short, agile cycles of work and reflection. These requirements often bump up against organizational obstacles keeping the teams less productive. Your job is to ensure they have everything they need to test their hypotheses, ship small increments and adjust course based on new-found evidence.

  • Shield the team from organizational noise and chaos — fundamental changes in strategy are important for the teams to know. Daily swirl and executive noise may serve only to distract the teams from the work. Another part of your role now is to prevent that chaos from derailing your teams’ efforts. We call this role the shit umbrella.

You're no longer a glorified project manager

Instead of fixating on dates and deadlines, a middle manager working with OKRs focuses on facilitation. What can you do to make your teams more successful? How can they better understand what they’re supposed to achieve and why it’s important? How can you ensure that learning and continuous improvement are the paths of least resistance? These are your new goals as a middle manager. It’s different from what you used to do but it’s a far more important job now.

What I've been up to

Reflecting back on 2022 briefly I can say it's been my best year ever on every growth front. We worked with more teams this year than ever before across the world's biggest brands. We added a couple of excellent practitioners to our certified trainer roster. Especially on LinkedIn, I've seen the highest levels of engagement ever on that platform (thanks Twitter meltdown?).

We had some big hits over on the blog as well. Here are the top 2 read articles on my blog in 2022:

5 Things Product Management Isn't -- worth taking a second look at the types of activities PM's are often asked to take on and why they're not product management

OKR Anti-pattern: Creating OKRs to "fit" your backlog -- an all-too-frequent pattern I see with teams who don't understand why they're starting to use OKRs

Perhaps this thing I'm most proud of in 2022 is my first TEDx talk about storytelling. If you haven't seen it yet, take 15 minutes and check it out here.

My first TEDx talk -- The Power of Storytelling

As always, you can learn all about the workshops and keynotes I offer here. I'm now booking into late Q2 and Q3 2023.

Finally, have a fantastic holiday season and a happy new year. I'm excited to see you in 2023!

Watch, Listen, Read

Watch: 1899 -- New Netflix show from the makers of Dark. This is a lot like Dark but on a ship. Dark was awesome. So is this.

Listen: New Metallica! -- The legends drop a brand new single and forgot to tell anyone. We found out anyway and in my opinion it's vintage Metallica.

Read: The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley -- You know that feeling you get when you read something that was revolutionary when it came out but the thing it talks about has been commonplace for decades now? That's how this classic made me feel. In 1954 psychedelics were brand new and opened the door to the 1960's creative explosion. In 2022 many of the ideas in the book are much more widespread and part of a lengthy, robust public dialogue.

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