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Clarity of Purpose made easy with The North Star Framework


Getting Clarity of Purpose, by figuring out why you’re building what you’re building is essential. I find that most teams don’t really understand why they’re building what they are building. Sometimes somebody else knows. But it’s not 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 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. I’m sure you are also familiar with that problem.   

It happens everywhere. Because it feels comfortable for teams as they are in their groove. And they knock out another widget, ticket or feature without thinking about the impact. Or who it’s actually for and if it makes a difference.

You 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!

But in today’s world everyone’s looking for more purpose and meaning in their work. That means going back to discovery.  And understanding the impactful things you can do.

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

There are a lot of frameworks out there than people are unaware of. 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

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We’re good at building quickly and 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.

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

What does Clarity of Purpose mean?

If you don’t understand the impact you’re trying to have, how can you build the right thing? How do 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 the options are? The frameworks help you think in the right way, and lead you to what you need to solve.

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

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 our purpose, who our users are and their needs. That’s powerful because it gets everyone on the same page and helps them understand what they’re doing.

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 the guessing away. 

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

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

The next thing we find helpful, 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 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. We tailor it a little bit with pre Wardley mapping tools on ‘what’s your scope and what’s your purpose?’.

Your users and their needs set 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.

A strong sense of purpose fuels your motivation

One big thing we’ve noticed with the Northstar Framework and Wardley Mapping is that they invite challenge.  By using these frameworks, you are not challenging a person or team, you’re starting a conversation about North Star metrics, KPIs and the work aligned to that. It provides a safe space for the right challenge to happen. 

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.

Photo by Cournie Tosana on

The North Star Framework is based on collaboration

There are lots of ways to run 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. 

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

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.  It will be second nature for good product people. But for anyone else, it can be hard to quantify. It requires you to think deeply. 

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.I know some product people will have a Miro board with 300 stickies. And all of a sudden, people go super deep.

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

The Northstar Framework provide good thinking exercises and structure. We ruthlessly prioritise and look at what we can measure. But it takes work to narrow down. And you’ve got to have the right people in the room.  

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

Melissa Perri: Escaping the Build Trap 

Amplitude and Jon Cutler

Martin Cagan’s book: INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love

Simon Sinek: Start with Why 

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