OKR in SAFe: How to Operationalize Strategies in the Scaled Agile Framework

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OKR and SAFe have had little contact with each other up to now, but there are various integration opportunities for the two frameworks. The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is the most widely used agile scaling framework worldwide with 54%. Successful concepts such as Agile Development Methods, Lean Systems Thinking, Product Development Flow, and fundamental principles for awakening human potential serve as the starting point for the action-oriented framework. The bouquet of integrated methods is equally colorful.

If you want to know more about the OKR framework, take a look at our article "Objectives and Key Results (OKR) - A Definition"

The Layers in SAFe

Agility requires autonomy in each organizational unit of a company. The leadership team has to enable, motivate, and steer these autonomous units for the purpose of the organization. Scaling frameworks transfer agile collaboration models that have already been established at work levels to the entire organization alongside their underlying values, principles, and methods. While original agile implementations focus on team-level collaboration, SAFe addresses the challenges that arise when scaling agile principles to an entire organization. To do this, SAFe employs four levels of scaling:

Team Level

Up to about 10 persons usually work together as agile teams in slightly modified Scrum or Kanban cycles.

Program Level

Approximately 50 to a maximum of 125 people form an Agile Release Train (ART), a team of agile teams. It creates value in the form of program increments (PIs) and serves to synchronize the individual teams.

Solution Level

Up to 1.000 people form a Solution that's made up of several ARTs.

Portfolio Level

On this level, up to 10.000 people realize major projects (Epics) through the value streams of the individual teams.

Depending on the environment and size of the value stream to be processed, it leverages the required levels offered in SAFe. The focus is always on the central PI planning event for which SAFe is well-known.

OKR in the context of SAFe

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While SAFe leverages many proven and established methods, OKR has not taken on a decisive role within the Framework. In version 5.0 of SAFe, which is the current version while writing this article, OKR is mentioned for the first time to describe Strategic Themes on Portfolio level.

xThe Strategic Themes represent differentiating business goals in SAFe. These serve as a link between business strategy and the SAFe portfolio. 

However, the OKR Framework as a strategic model for agile goal and performance management offers far more than a SMART Syntax for goal setting. The framework as holistic construct enables teams not only to organize themselves but also to collaborate with other teams across the organization to create measurable impact for customers. While Objectives define the goal (Where do we want to go?), Key Results describe the way, how the achievement will be measured (How do we measure progress?). Several Objectives are set over a predetermined time (usually 3 months). They are subdivided into 2-5 smaller Key Results each. While the overarching Objectives should be formulated qualitatively and ambitiously, the respective Key Results should, above all, be measurable. OKRs can be determined for every organizational level: The whole organization, a department, or an individual employee. 

How Strategies are operationalized in SAFe

The Strategic Themes are the starting point of the strategic alignment of a SAFe portfolio. They provide the business context for all portfolio decisions and therefore have great influence within the SAFe construct. Strategy is transported through the SAFe layers via aligned visions and backlogs. The Portfolio Vision is significantly influenced by the Strategic Themes. It is broken down into the visions of the Solution Trains, which in turn are broken down into those of the Agile Release Trains. The same logic links the backlogs. The concept ensures alignment across all levels.

Uses Cases for Connecting OKR and SAFe

OKR as a strategic framework can help structure operations in SAFe as a complement to project management tools. The strategic goals in the form of the visions for Portfolio, Solution Trains, and Agile Release Trains can be structured and vertically aligned with OKRs. Epics, capabilities, and features can thus be aligned in a structured way without handover issues between SAFe layers.

OKRs also provide an increased focus on the outcome of the value streams in SAFe. With activities at all levels placing a strong focus on feature outcomes and scaling, this creates a balance to give greater consideration to customer value. At the same time, employees are made more aware of the meaning of their work, which has a positive effect on intrinsic motivation and helps employees to focus better.

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Even though OKRs have so far played only a minor role in SAFe, various points of contact can be found, as with other models. One of the strongest arguments for considering OKRs in the SAFe context is the link between day-to-day operations and the basic strategic orientation, and the consistent focus on the outcome. These aspects have so far only been taken into account to a limited extent in SAFe, which creates the risk of a feature factory that loses too much sight of customer value. Alignment across different levels is also an advantage that should not be underestimated, especially in large companies.