March 2022

The art of combining OKRs and SAFe - analysis and recommendations

Many organizations use the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) as part of their Agile transition to scale and manage complex projects involving various larger teams at different levels. The framework includes a set of fundamental principles, processes, and best practices designed to help organizations develop higher quality products and services while accelerating with lean and Agile methodologies.

A deeper analysis of SAFe quickly leads to the conclusion that the framework makes use of many established and successful methods. However, the OKR method is not yet a central paradigm within the framework. Since OKR is mentioned for the first time in version 5.0, the method continues to be only discussed briefly in version 5.1, which is current at the time of writing.

A significant component in SAFe is the Agile Release Train or ART. An ART consists of a team or teams and includes all people involved in a product or solution regardless of role. It ties all participants to an overarching business goal and technology mission together. The pacing of the collaborative work is dictated by the Program Increment timebox, which can range from 8 to 12 weeks. In a Program Increment planning event (PI planning), all stakeholders of an ART meet for two to three days to agree on the content of the following Program Increment timebox.

The OKR method is used in SAFe to describe the strategic themes at the portfolio level. In SAFe, the strategic themes represent the breakdown of business objectives. These link the business strategy to the SAFe portfolio. As such, strategic themes reflect the intended business outcomes, strategy, investment, and portfolio vision. To optimally link SAFe and the OKR framework to maximize value delivery, it is necessary to reflect the OKR process and its cycle.

The OKR process envisions starting the cycle with drafting sessions conducted at different horizontal and vertical levels in the organization. Separating organizational, department and team drafting from one another fosters the decentralized goal-setting potential. Afterward, the participants then go into a general alignment meeting. This so-called alignment meeting ensures holistic transparency of the OKRs among all participants and communication around synergies and needed initiatives regarding achieving the goals. The teams enter into a clarifying dialogue in which dependencies, synergy potentials, and duplication of work are identified. After a short refinement phase in which the findings of the alignment meetings are incorporated in the OKRs, the actual OKR cycle begins. The participants try to achieve the targeted goals within the cycle with distinctive initiatives. With the help of check-ins, progress is regularly reflected and concluded at the end of the cycle with a review and retrospective.

Integration of the two frameworks into the PI planning phase, which is central to the SAFe framework, is a viable path for us. We would differentiate between three phases: before, during, and after PI planning.

 

We see events from the OKR process that have a preparatory task before PI planning:

  • Organizational OKR drafting
  • Organizational OKR announcement
  • Team OKR drafting
  • OKR alignment & refinements

Executing the OKR alignment and subsequent OKR refinements are recommended at the latest one week before the PI planning with representatives (not entire teams) and a maximum of four hours to accomplish. The product managers/product owners then prepare their backlogs in the week before the PI planning based on the results of the refinements.

We see an excellent integration opportunity for the OKR kickoff during the PI planning and apply the same cadence of the PI and OKR cycle. The kickoff should occur at the beginning of PI planning in the business context. The PI objectives are valued with business value, which makes them essential. These PI objectives can now be replaced by OKRs, leading to time savings if both are defined in parallel and coexist in the Program Increment. Here, the OKR levels can vary depending on the organization’s Agile maturity and the OKR process. The organizational OKRs can be on the strategic themes level or OKRs at the ART level, which is to be compared with department OKRs, and if you go deeper in the organization, the team level. Another option is also to extend the Portfolio Kanban using OKRs by considering them when writing the Epic Hypothesis.

After PI Planning and thus in the execution phase, the check-ins would be performed as part of the Sprint Review or once a week as an extended daily standup. At the end of the Program Increment, the OKR retrospective and the OKR review would occur. The system demo at the end of the Program Increment is a separate event in our view.

A potential disadvantage of combining both frameworks is that a more unstable program backlog could result from course changes within the OKRs. This requires for the SAFe framework a continuous prioritization check. Still, it is an advantage for the method OKRs and can be mitigated by a steady learning effect resulting from the longer combination of both frameworks. Through the continuous formulation of an effective goal ecosystem, from our experience, the distributions of top-down vs. bottom-up goals shift in favor of the bottom-up goals and thus provide less volatility as the teams’ intentions are the primary input for the goals.

For the combination of SAFe and OKRs, we recommend working with experienced OKR and SAFe SPC coaches to guide you through the process and its pitfalls. BearingPoint offers full-service coaching solutions from OKR design workshops, leadership training, and OKR coach training to support the entire OKR cycle, starting with kickoffs and check-ins and ending with retrospectives and reviews. In addition, our partner Workpath provides an OKR platform where the whole organization can link and align on common goals and key results. We wish you a great start to your OKR adventure.

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  • Julia  von Spreckelsen
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  • Stefan  Pechardscheck
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