How OKRs Make Managers Better

4 ways using OKRs actually improves managers’ roles and skills

In a typical organization, a manager’s job is to be a sort of middle man. They turn strategic direction from the top into a list of tasks, assign (or prescribe) all those tasks and responsibilities to their team, and then essentially run point. They make sure everyone is getting their work done well, on time, and on budget. And those are their measures of success.

When OKRs come into the picture, though, the measures of success for the organization and its teams change from the simple, binary “this got done or it didn’t” to “our actions have influenced our customers’ behavior in this specific way that’s positive for the company’s goals and bottom line.” As a result, managers’ traditional roles kind of go out the window.

But that’s actually something to celebrate. OKRs don’t get rid of the value of managers or their skills. Instead, OKRs change managers’ responsibilities in a way that actually improves their skills, helping them truly lead instead of just (micro-)manage.

OKRs help managers see—and consider—the bigger picture.

Without preset features and output as success criteria, managers now have to figure out what it is that their team should work on that will achieve meaningful changes in customer behavior. They can’t just focus on the details, because no one knows what the details are or even should be. They’ve got to zoom out and figure it out for themselves.

OKRs, by necessity, help managers look at the bigger picture and connect their teams’ work to the company’s overarching objectives, giving them perspective and a greater sense of the meaningful targets they need to hit.

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OKRs teach managers how to prioritize.

Once managers have connected the work their teams do to the company’s objectives, they have to work with their teams to think about what kind of initiatives might help accomplish the results that equal success in its new-and-improved form. After that, it’s their job to pick the direction and hit “go.” But it can’t be “go time” on every idea. They have to ask: Which ideas track to the most important objectives? Which ones do we believe have the greatest likelihood of moving the needle fastest? How can we test quickly and learn with limited risk?

Forcing managers to consider these questions teaches them how to prioritize work according to what they believe is most important for the company’s strategy, instead of just hitting deadlines. By extension, they help managers teach their team members how to prioritize individual work, too.

OKRs make managers more strategic decision-makers.

Traditionally, managers' decisions are almost solely focused on whether or not something is “right” according to the roadmap or product requirements document. These kinds of decisions keep managers in the weeds. They keep them looking at details that their team members could, in fact, make decisions about on their own (this is why we hired them after all, right?).

Because OKRs change how a team works—and how the things they work on are determined—a manager’s primary job is to keep their eye on the strategic ball. Every question decision gets filtered through the new lens: Does this track with our strategic objective? Does the data support further investment in the project or idea? Everything must point to the goals.

With OKRs, managers empower their teams to make the smaller decisions so they can focus on making the decisions that need the strategic objective top of mind.

OKRs help managers develop strong leadership skills.

Helping a team achieve OKR success ultimately calls for more than strategy and prioritization (though, those are crucial). It requires that managers…

  1. Communicate strategy and team activity well, with both their team members and senior leadership as well as other teams they may need to consult with

  2. Facilitate easy access to information and tools so that collaborations go smoothly and teams get the data they need to make informed decisions about their projects on their own, and

  3. Learn to cultivate trust and psychological safety so that their team members feel encouraged and comfortable sharing ideas with each other.

What all this adds up to is, in order to help their teams be successful with OKRs, managers actually need to (micro-)manage a lot less and lead more. OKRs provide the framework and necessary push to help them get there.

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Turning managers into leaders

The companies at the top of their game are not those with the most meticulous pencil-pushers, rule-sticklers, or control-grabbers. They’re the companies whose team members are empowered to think creatively, entrusted to make informed decisions within their area of expertise, and encouraged to lead in ways that best utilize their skills.

In the long term, OKRs by their nature spur companies in this direction faster, setting managers up to transition more easily and successfully into other leadership roles as their careers progress, while also allowing their teams to do what they were hired to do.

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