5 Requirements for Leading Teams to Successful OKRs

Leaders need to change their ways of working if OKRs are going to succeed

There’s a lot of talk about how teams should write objectives and key results, measure them, manage them, keep track and communicate them to stakeholders. There’s less discussion about how leaders and managers need to adjust their ways of working to support a successful transition to OKRs. I’ve recently taken on this topic on my blog. Over the past 5 weeks I’ve looked at key changes to how to lead and manage product teams if you’re going to make the switch to managing to outcomes.

Let’s take a quick look at each one.


As leaders, one of our core responsibilities is to hire well. I’m going to assume you’ve done that. So why would we then make technical, discipline-specific decisions for the smart people we hired? OKRs help us get past that but not without an explicit recognition that detailed prescription is no longer part of your job. It’s the team’s job now to create hypotheses they believe will help them drive the behavior change in their key results. It’s their job to test those hypotheses and decide if further investment is warranted or if a pivot is in order. It’s your job to trust them to do that.

  Product discovery

Product discovery provides your teams with an active inbound stream of customer insight. It gives them a channel to cheaply test ideas. It can quickly surface themes that form the basis for behaviors your analytics tools are capturing. Most importantly, product discovery builds an evidence-based decision-making process into the way your teams work. Your job as a leader is to provide teams with unlimited access and support to product discovery. Running experiments, speaking with customers, building prototypes, launching a/b tests – all of these activities should follow the path of least resistance.

  A culture of learning

If teams fear getting reprimanded, yelled at, belittled or even fired for these types of conversations, the innovation and creativity we demand of them will be stifled. They’ll always choose the safe option, building the thing least likely to get them yelled at. Teams need to see that it’s ok to be wrong. They need to believe that what they learned is as valuable as what they build.

Moving away from top-down direction

Key results must be outcomes — meaningful measures of human behavior that tell us we’ve delivered value. As a leader your job is to approve your teams’ key results. However, if OKRs are to succeed then your job is no longer to prescribe solutions for your teams. That’s their job. The ideas they come up with need to match product and business strategies, fall within reasonable scope guidelines and remain on brand (all things you can advise on as the team’s leader) but they are still the purview of the team itself. You no longer tell the team what to do.

Avoiding task lists

If done correctly, a well-written objective and key result statement doesn’t mention solutions of any kind. Leaders new to this way of setting goals get anxious. “What’s the team working on? When will it be done? What kind of ROI should I expect? What should I tell my boss? The sales team? The market?” In a bid to get concrete answers to these questions leaders will push teams to commit to specific features and deadlines. With fixed scope and time in hand they can confidently provide answers to these questions. The answers will largely be false and not materialize in the expected way but at least they have an answer.

What else do you feel is critical for leaders to change in order to support a shift to working with OKRs? Hit reply and let me know.

What I've been up to

I've been mostly heads down delivering work to clients around the topics of OKRs, product management and Lean UX. I do have a couple of live events coming up in the next few weeks:

Service Design Book Club on May 12 -- This group is reading

Sense & Respond and I'm always thrilled to discuss our 2nd book.

Product Thinking podcast with Melissa Perri -- I had a great conversation with my friend Melissa Perri on her podcast discussing how changing the way we measure success changes the products we build. Take a listen.

Watch, Listen, Read

Watch: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds -- With the exception of the Scott Bakula reboot I've been into every Star Trek series produced in the last 30 years. I caught the premiere episode of the latest spinoff and, well, I love it. If you know me, this is likely not a huge surprise but I wanted to make sure you knew I gave it a thumbs up.

Listen: WE by Arcade Fire -- If you're a fan of Arcade Fire, their brand new record will make you happy. If you're not a fan or have never listened to them, start with earlier albums like Everything Now or Reflektor and then make your way back to this one.

Read: The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli -- I'm only a couple of chapters into it but this short book recapping theoretical physicist Rovelli's views on what we know about time and our perception of it is already fascinating.

If you're interested in working together please reach out. If you're not sure what I do, here's a description.

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