The North Star (Polaris) was used as a navigation guide by sailors. Organisations are out sailing on a journey too; a journey to solve a problem, provide for a need or right a wrong. The North Star in this context is usually a visionary founder, a strong mission, or clear but narrow goals (quarter sales, profit etc ..).
Visionary founders are resilient and persistent creatures who have fundamentally strong feelings about a particular industry or product and push huge swathes of people in a general direction to realise them. Their strengths are usually riveting passion, extreme confidence, charisma and an ability to get people to do what they want them to irrespective of their personal goals or desires. The organisations' mission is of lesser importance than industry, product or task prioritised by the founder.
Lack of a North Star results in scattergun approaches, hoping for one of the shots to strike gold or each of the shots to make enough gold to matter. These are hamster wheel organisations that have to constantly pedal to keep going and imho get nowhere better than where they are. I personally prefer organisations that canoe and have an idea about their course; push hard upstream and enjoy downstream results from time to time.
A good example of a company with no north star is Sony. Do you know what made up 63% of Sony’s operating profit in 2013? Insurance. That’s right – an electronics company with class leading products in almost all categories made more than half of its money selling insurance. If the company had a visible north star, insurance as a product offering would’ve likely been cancelled out even before it had a chance to prove itself or even come to mind. Did the lack of a North Star lead to the decline of its electronics business in the first place?
North Star for Teams
Teams are setup around business, product and operations areas and hopefully with clear mandates. Having vague mandates can be lethal; especially if a team has to diverge, identify new areas of growth/effectiveness and execute on them.
A North Star is not a pre-requisite for an organisation’s sustenance. After all, organisations exploit inefficiencies, needs and opportunities - and there are plenty of those going around. However, I believe a team looking to achieve high levels of efficacy cannot afford this. Teams *need* a North Star to be effective. In a true team with strong contributing members, this North Star should never be a single person, nor an opinionated leader. An effective team should be able to figure out a clear strategy around their mandate that will instil confidence in every member of the team – whilst serving as a litmus test for decision making, a guiding light for direction and what to execute.
Sony’s mobile product division is a neat case study: what is the strategy guiding them? Why should people buy their phones? bigger screens? waterproof hardware? the Walkman brand? high-end industrial design? what’s additionally worrying is that each of their products boast varying levels of emphasis on these and have different qualities touted as their USP. How much do each of these matter to the user anyway? There seems to be no consistency or strategy in their approach to establishing themselves as a viable player. Each product is looked at in isolation and evaluated in its own bubble. Looks like plenty of missed learnings from running the VIAO division.
If you work in a team, take a critical look at your team’s tasks and historic progress. If you find multiple approaches, an absent learning loop and goals with no common narrative – it’s code red. Press the panic button, take a step back and collectively figure out where the team needs to go. Or pray that you get lucky. After all, life is too short to be a hamster.