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Clarity of Purpose made easy with The North Star Framework


One thing we’ve talked about a lot is ‘Clarity of Purpose’. For many teams, trying to figure out why you’re building what you’re building is a good question to ask. I have found out in my career that most teams don’t really understand why they’re building what they are building. Sometimes somebody knows.  But it’s rarely the team.

You need Clarity of Purpose to succeed

It’s interesting to look at the models for creating great software, like The British Design Council and the Double Diamond. On the left is discovery, and on the right is delivery. So discovery and delivery. We always talk about delivery. And we obsess over it. But we very rarely do product well, or discovery well. And a good product is really about discovery.

One person who has nailed it is Melissa Perri. In her book, ‘Escaping the Build Trap‘, she talks about people blindly building. And building backlogs. Without naming any names, I’m sure you are familiar with that pattern. 

Mark McCann  

It happens everywhere. It’s comfortable for teams because they are in their groove. And they knock out another widget, ticket or feature without thinking about the impact and who it’s actually for. Or if it makes a difference. We’ve seen that throughout our careers. 

You can fall into the build trap, as Melissa articulates in her book. Get the JIRA tickets closed, get the storage complete, get the sprint done, and move on! In today’s world everyone’s looking for more purpose and meaning in their work. That takes us back to discovery.  And understanding the impactful things you can do.

Build the thing right, build the right thing, build it quickly

Dave Anderson  

There are a lot of frameworks to talk about. But generally people don’t know.  The move from project to product was supposed to fix this. But I don’t think it has.  Because product managers have people building things like ‘billyo’. But often they are building the wrong thing.

A great saying is: “Build the thing right, build the right thing, build it quickly”. We’re good at building quickly and good at building the thing right. But we’re not very good at building the right thing. And that’s what breaks companies.  Because building the wrong things can be expensive.

Mark McCann  

For a number of years, the work we’ve been doing is streamlining development processes and building high performance teams. But we can fall into that trap as well. Here’s all the patterns and automation that you can leverage. Just go hit that button. But you need to make sure you always take a step back and ask, what’s it for? And who is it for?

What does Clarity of Purpose mean?

Mike O’Reilly  

If you don’t understand the impact you’re trying to have, how can you do the right thing? Or build the right thing? How can you know what success looks like? What conversations are you having on potential approaches and ways to achieve that success?

It all ties back to data, metrics and understanding the problem you’re trying to solve. If you’re not doing that, it dilutes the good intent of good teams and engineers. How can they build the right thing if they don’t understand what success is? Or the problem they’re trying to solve? And what are our options?

It’s a challenging thing to do. The frameworks on mindset and helping you think in the right way, lead you to what you need to solve.

Mark McCann  

We lean heavily on team activity. It’s not something that is handed down to you: “here’s your purpose or northstar ”. You need to make it into a facilitated collaborative endeavour. So that everyone is a stakeholder and everyone’s opinion is heard.  And all have a shared understanding of what the purpose is.

Here’s why Clarity of Purpose is important

I think that’s powerful. We’re seeing that with remote working. It’s easy to get everyone on a Zoom call, fire up a Miro board  and work together to figure out our Northstar.  And what is our purpose, who our users are and what are their needs. That’s powerful because it gets everyone on the same page and helps them understand what they’re doing.

Mike O’Reilly  

It’s a leadership thing too. If you can represent your work in numbers and the impact that you’re having, you can’t help but make good decisions. You know your Northstar measure and how it ties to the medium or long term business goals. And the impact it’s having. You are able to track back to what you’re doing from a work perspective. It makes things way more easy and takes guessing out. 

When experimenting with rapid delivery and moving fast, you can only do that when you know the game you’re in. And the game you’re playing in . That’s part of the playbook. For me, it’s a leadership quality.  It helps you prioritise the right things. And that helps you make good decisions.

The Value Flywheel Effect and North Star Framework

Dave Anderson  

In ‘The Value Flywheel Effect’ book, the first phase of the value flywheel is ‘Clarity of Purpose’. We base that on a leader persona, like the CEO. In other words the person who needs to drive the purpose.

One thing we find helpful, which is not well understood, is the North Star Framework from Amplitude. We discovered it a few years ago. And it collectively blew our minds. We have used it ever since. It’s a neat framework.

One thing to note are the leading and lagging metrics. The four disciplines of execution was the first version of understanding lead and lag metrics. And how you can build the work into a Northstar metric and then a long term goal. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Mark McCann  

It’s a great framework. John Cutler and other folks have done a fantastic job making it consumable and usable. So we’ve been leveraging that heavily.

It’s a simple framework that people can get in an hour long session. Your teams can share and collaborate. And online collaboration tools have helped make this a lot easier. You don’t need to be physically present. You do it online, which is great. We tailor it a little bit with pre Wardley mapping tools on ‘what’s your scope and what’s your purpose?’.

A strong sense of purpose fuels your motivation

Your users and their needs sets the context leading into the Northstar. It gets everybody back on the same page if they have forgotten about a user. Or if they have forgotten that they do something for a set of people and their needs. So it helps to get them on the same page for setting the context and situational awareness.

We’re aiming to be able to ping somebody to ask what they are working on. And how that’s related to our Northstar. They should have a coherent answer.

One big thing we’ve noticed with this and Wardley Mapping is that it invites challenges.  You are not challenging the person or the team, you’re starting to have a conversation about North Star metrics, KPIs and the work aligned to that. You’re not challenging a person. It provides a safe space for the right challenge to happen.

Mike O’Reilly  

The playbook is well written. If you’re experienced in software or working in product, you’ll pick it up quickly. I like the lag and lead measures concept.  And the exercise helps you come up with lead measures and how to influence the lag measure. 

Development teams keep themselves busy sometimes, chasing vanity metrics. And gamification of vanity metrics is fun. But in actual fact, what you need are lead measures. What are the things that impact business success? They are the lagging measure. It’s definitely worth a read. And it’s really quick to get through.

Clarity of Purpose
Photo by Cournie Tosana on

The North Star Framework is based on collaboration

There are lots of ways to run it. To your point Mark, we’ve got our own flavour of it. You can adapt it to almost anything.  I love the traceability of the Northstar. You can go from business metrics back to your work. Or you can go from your work to the business metrics. I think that’s the real power behind it.

Mark McCann  

You can cascade into teams as well. Each team can have their own Northstar aligned to the broader organisational Northstar. 

Dave Anderson  

What I like about the framework are the hints about what makes a good metric. And story points are not good metrics.  There is guidance on transactional, activation and user metrics. And what value means.  A lot will be second nature for good product people. But for anyone else, it can be hard to quantify. It requires you to think deeply.

Mark McCann  

You need to tailor it a little bit for engineering teams. They aren’t product facing like true product teams. So you need to tailor some of the conversations and steer them in that direction.

Dave Anderson  

What about level of detail? Do you keep it at a high level? I know some product people will have a Miro board with 300 stickies. And all of a sudden, people go super deep. Have you been successful at keeping a nice level? Where it ‘fits in your head’, as they say.

Mike O’Reilly  

That is a hard thing to do. The Northstar is a collaboration exercise. And it’s a mindset shift. It’s a good way to discuss your priorities and to get into what you’re trying to achieve and accomplish. That’s the Northstar first and foremost.

Align your thoughts and actions to your purpose

Then it’s a case of what you take from it. We’ve had good thinking exercises and like the structure. So you can apply that structure to what you do. We ruthlessly prioritise and look at what we can measure. It takes work to narrow down. And you’ve got to have the right people in the room. 

Mark McCann  

Go deep and get lots of input metrics. And then take a second pass to extract the essence and make it consumable and actionable.

Dave Anderson  

It’s about the conversation and not who can get the most stickies on the board competition. The conversation and group of people are important.

Clarity of Purpose Books and Resources

So that just before we close on our Clarity of Purpose, do you have names, books or things worth looking at. 

Mark McCann  

Melissa Perri and ‘Escaping the Build Trap‘.  Anything by Marty Cagan is great. And the Amplitude guys and Jon Cutler are prolific.  And they’re fantastic at sharing. 

Mike O’Reilly  

Marty Cagan does cracking blogs and his thinking is spot on. Melissa Perri does lots of good training as well as her book ‘Escaping the Build Trap’. And Martin Cagan’s book: ‘INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love’.  Jon Cutler on social media is active and very good to follow.

Dave Anderson  

And also our favourite Simon Sinek ‘Start with Why’.  It’s brilliant and so is his ‘Golden Circle’. He’s got some great stuff on finding your why. There’s a lot of good stuff out there. There is a small number of people who are very good at this. There isn’t a ton of material. But there is a small number of thought leaders in this space.

But that’s the craic for ‘Clarity of Purpose’. Please follow us @ServerlessEdge on Twitter. And visit for our blog.  And we are on YouTube. Thanks, everyone.

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