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.

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