In the days before GPS, sailors would use the North Star to find their way across the seas. It is still used by hikers and outdoorsy types to help them find their way when lost – those with no access to an app or star atlas can find it by using constellations as a guide. But even then, because most constellations are in the northern sky, they’ll need to know which way is North.
A North Star Metric is the key, single measure used by an organisation to align other measurements and express what matters most. The measure is focussed on the value the organisation offers to its customers and should provide the focus that people in the organisation work toward. It facilitates growth and coordination – if we focus on achieving the thing being measured by the North Star Metric, sustainable growth will follow. And just as wherever you are in the world the North Star can be used as a navigation point, wherever you work in an organisation, your efforts should be aligned to supporting the achievement of the North Star Metric. It is a common goal that unites departments and functions in their organisations. For example the North Star Metric for Airbnb is nights booked, which captures value from host and guest perspectives and will influence growth for the organisation.
‘True North’ is a related concept that originated at Toyota to describe the ideals of an organisation. It represents an ‘ideal state’ to work towards, and thus helps with decision making – if we go this way (or take this action) will it take us closer to perfection? It can also challenge existing thinking – are we on the right path right now? True North is not a fixed destination, it is a concept used as a guidance point for the journey rather than a target or a terminal. The ideals that True North represent – the standards and principles – should provide a point for navigation for organisations in the same way. We probably won’t get to perfection, but we shouldn’t stop trying.
What we are working towards, and the direction we will take to get there should be defined, communicated, and understood by everyone in the organisation to support alignment – that way the actions taken by everyone contribute towards attaining what matters most. The alternative is conflicting goals, wasted effort, delays and the potential that we won’t actually achieve what we set out to do.
Knowing which way is North is therefore an essential question in orientation within organisations, with the knowledge of “which way we are heading” being crucial when it comes to aligning and motivating people on the journey from where they are to where they want to be.
‘Bright star! Would I were steadfast as thou art’ (John Keats).