How can we set an OKR if we don’t know the baseline?

The baseline problem

It came up again today, actually, once you delve into OKR setting:

“When writing OKRs, and specifically the key results, how can we set a target if we don’t know the baseline?

For example, suppose we want to increase the number of site visitors, if we have 1,000 visitors a day then the target would be 5,000 but if we only have 200 a day then the target would be 1,000. But if we don’t know how many we have to start with, how can we set a target?”

I call it the baseline problem. I know it troubles many teams but it shouldn’t. There are actually, two, or possibly three answers.

The easy answer, and one I don’t like, is to sidestep the problem: instead of saying “increase views from 1,000 to 5,000” say “increase views 500%”, or, to take another example, “reduce run time from six hours to one hour” say “reduce runtime to one sixth.”

Replacing initial and final numbers with a multiplier doesn’t solve the whole problem because you need to start by finding out where you are before you change anything. So task 1 becomes: measure status quo, whether that is eyeballs, run-time or whatever.

Another way around this problem is that you could change your OKR after setting. The initial OKR could say “increase views from to .” Again task #1 is to measure and at that point you simply revisit the OKR and fill in the blanks.

Granted some people might take exception to you tweaking an OKR after the start of the cycle but personally I don’t see that as a big issue.

Baselines solve the wrong problem

Now sidestepping the problem like this might keep you moving but it is not very satisfying. That is because: it is solving the wrong problem. The real problem is not that you don’t know the baseline but that you don’t know what the number should be. When you set the target by starting with the baseline you are putting technology first and you are limiting your ambitions.

The question is not “How many visitors do we have now?” and “What target might be achieve?” but “What visitor numbers do we need to have?” Or maybe “What visitor number do we need to make us number #1in our market?” or “What numbers do we need to break even? get investment? impress clients?”

Or take the run-time example, don’t ask “How fast are we?” and “How fast can we be?”. Instead ask “How fast do we need to be?” If you don’t know the answer then ask “Why do we want to be fast?”. Or ask, “What advantage will being twice as fast bring us?”

Rather than start with the target in mind start with the outcome in mind, then ask what you need to achieve that.

If you set the target by reference to the current baseline you are going to limit ambitions and let the current technology drive. Instead think about the outcome and what that outcome looks like, then work back to understand what needs to be done and options for doing it.

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