OKR Leadership: Stop telling people what to do

Posted on May 2, 2022.

If I had to identify the hardest change a leader has to make when adoption objectives and key results it would have to be the redefinition of what it means to lead a team. For decades we’ve educated and trained leaders to tell people what to do. We’ve modeled behavior for them throughout their careers that exemplified prescriptive delivery of work tasks, deadlines and expectations. And our teams complied reinforcing our belief that “the boss tells people what to do.”

Managing to outcomes means letting go of prescriptive output

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. This is the first step in demonstrating the trust you have in them to do good work.

If I don’t tell people what to do, what’s my job then?

“Telling people what to do” has become synonymous with “lead teams.” It’s what most folks expect to be doing when they get promoted into a leadership role. For those who have been leading for a while, it’s a significant piece of the work they’ve been doing as leaders. For some leaders, it’s impossible to imagine their job if they weren’t doling out orders daily. So, if we remove that responsibility from leaders’ plates, what then is their job?

Set clear direction — Your teams need to know where their headed, why they’re going that way and how it aligns with the rest of the work the company is doing. Ensuring clarity of purpose is a big part of your job. It allows the teams to better assess if their work is on track.

Set guidelines and constraints — Managing scope with clear strategic direction is another key element of your team’s success. Your job is to make it clear what is within the scope of their work (e.g., we’re focusing on the mobile channel) and what is clearly outside of current scope (e.g., we’re not expanding into foreign markets this year)

Clear the team’s path — There are infinite organizational land mines that can slow a team as it pursues a customer-focused, outcome-based, agile way of working. Access to customers, rigid traditional disciplines (e.g., finance, legal, et al) and misaligned incentives can all threaten a team’s successful implementation of OKRs. Your job is minimize that risk. Make sure they have the tools they need, the access they require and the rewards that motivate them to do their best work.

Make key decisions — Funny thing about doing outcome-based work is that the data is rarely definitive. Teams will often find themselves struggling to make a decision because the data is inconclusive. This is where you step in and break the deadlock. If more than one decision is viable it’s your responsibility to make the strategic call for the team. Like any other decision it’s a hypothesis but it gets the team unstuck and moving forward again. They should know to look to you for that when they get stuck.

Your leadership continuously improves, just like the work

This change in your responsibilities is not a demotion. You are not being punished. It’s an iteration of leadership. We don’t build products like we did 50 years ago or even 15 years ago. There’s much to learn from leaders of the past but without a proper application of modern context you’ll end up with teams, processed and products that could only succeed in that past. Think of this is the continuous improvement of your skills. You don’t have to jump into it 100% overnight. You can ease yourself into less and less prescriptive control of your teams’ activities. Over time you and they will get comfortable with it eventually wondering how you managed to do it any other way in the past.