Should SAFe Strategic Themes include gradable Key Results?

Strategic Themes in SAFe represent strategic choices at the Enterprise/Portfolio level that should guide decisions throughout the portfolio.

A qualitative Objective accompanied by a quantitative, valuable, and measurable evidence-oriented Key Result connected to a portfolio KPI is a great way to make sure the strategic theme is pointing toward desired outcomes without going into too much granularity. So far, so good.

These OKRs are supposed to be gradable – including specific expectations of what success would look like. (E.g. Improve Net Promoter Score from 35 to 60). This raises an interesting question: How does the LPM team know that this specific target is achievable? when we set Strategic Themes – we might know how far we WANT to go, but we don’t know how realistic that is. To use the example below – we might want to get to a Net Promoter Score of 60 – but is that realistic? at all costs?

If we commit to Strategic Theme Key Results prematurely, we risk business predictability and losing people’s connection and motivation. It is similar to the dynamic in PI Planning – The ART teams determine what objectives are possible. They’re provided a direction, but they figure out how far they can go in that direction.

Back at the portfolio – Higher confidence in the target should similarly be based on some involvement/consideration of the draft targets with a reasonable representation of the development value streams that will be involved in working towards them. This should be light weight unless there’s something material about a specific KR.

With this in mind – If you want to create better alignment, respecting the people in the portfolio, here are some tweaks to try:

  • Consider drafting Strategic Themes with valuable, measurable, but not gradable Key Results. To use an example from the SAFe article – Instead of “Improve Net Promoter from 35 to 60,” use “Improve Net Promoter Score from 35 to X (60?).”
  • Draft Strategic Themes as described in the current guidance – but consider the Key Results in draft status – to be confirmed based on bottom-up cascading back from Teams to ARTs to the Portfolio.
  • My favorite approach is to build quicker confidence and alignment around Strategic themes through a Strategic planning workshop that uses draft Strategic Themes as input and then uses a structure similar to PI Planning to cascade/inform value streams / ARTs / Teams who will draft their own objectives and key results, integrate and validate the Strategic Themes. Participants could be the LPM + Solution ARTs + ARTs stakeholders across the portfolio.

Beyond specific fixes – more importantly, go back to first principles – in this case, SAFe principles – when thinking about the process of setting Strategic Themes and OKRs in general. (Assuming Variability and Preserving Options, Decentralizing Control, Unlocking the intrinsic motivation, Cadence and Synchronization come to mind here)

Are you seeing the dysfunction I’m talking about in your organization? Do my suggestions resonate?